SMELLING LIKE A ROSE
With a few days to put South Africa in the rear view and ruminate on the takeaways from the Confederations Cup, I find that it's not the disappointing loss in the final that most sticks in my mind.
Over the long run, it will be the level of success that the Americans achieved in Africa that may push the program over that stubborn hill to the next level of international soccer.
Perhaps the most amazing part of the whole run is that it was all so close to never happening.
The US flirted with disaster in South Africa, and came out smelling like a rose. A final win and a Confederations Cup crown would have been even better, but the US gained much more from its exciting attacking play in the final three games than it ever would have from simply lifting the Confederations Cup trophy, as bitter a loss as the 3-2 reverse to Brazil might have seemed last Monday morning.
After all, Mexico has won this thing before, and it didn't get them very far.
The three game streak of good play, including the final, may well have finally and permanently lifted the US into the next echelon of soccer, just short of the world's best teams. But this renaissance of American soccer happened only because of a series of peculiar circumstances that left the Americans with a small but still viable chance to advance going into the last match of the group stage.
That remote possibility of advancement going into the Egypt matched forced Coach Bob Bradley's hand. If the US had somehow managed a point against Italy or Brazil, and come into the final match needing, basically, just a victory to go through, does anyone think the coach would have risked sticking Charlie Davies up top alongside Jozy Altidore, especially given Conor Casey's decent ten minute performance in the first match against Brazil?
If the US had been eliminated by the third game does anyone believe that tired starters like Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley would have still been on the field in the second half to score the second and third American goals?
So much of this outcome can be attribute to good fortune.
Luck, though, is a huge part of soccer, and Bradley deserves credit for then taking advantage of the fortuitous shift in circumstances. Against Spain, when it would have been easy and even excusable to bunker down, there was little hesitation to field the same relatively aggressive lineup, with a nicely balanced approach between defense and offense.
The new found American penchant for timely attacks and well rounded play was on exhibit for a half against Brazil as well, but then disappeared suddenly, among a rush of other factors, in the second half. It was then that Coach Bradley reverted to form, and at the same time made his largest error in judgment of the tournament - sending DaMarcus Beasley out against Brazil notwithstanding - when he hesitated to pull the trigger on two subs after Brazil brought on Dani Alves and Elano in the 66th minute.
The rest is history. In the end though, it seems a bit petty to nitpick after a week that changed the panorama of US soccer - hopefully for good.
Perhaps the most telling indicator of that change is the newfound demand for US players abroad. Americans have always been undervalued on the transfer market relative to just about every nationality, but there are signs that the Confederations Cup performance has changed that. We'll have to wait to see how the rumors pan out, but it appears at least half a dozen Yanks, with Clint Dempsey leading the way, could be in line for big money moves this summer, in a realm seldom thrown about for American players in the past.
Those finances reflect positively on both the present and the future of the American game. It has always been clear that the US needs a large enough player pool at the top levels of international soccer to be able to choose in form players, and banish the compromise of settling for the likes of DaMarcus Beasley and Heath Pearce when those players are woefully out of form.
Another fact - which I have pointed out to little avail in the past - that has suddenly become clear to all is that the American talent pool is already deeper and more quality than ever before. In reality, only after nearly two years of tinkering has Coach Bradley begun to extract the results merited by the quality of his players. If Bradley improves as much over the next year as he has over the last one, things could come out even better the next time around in South Africa.
How much better?
Think about this for a moment: the growth and improvement of US soccer has been so derided of late that the now infamous project 2010, specifically the goal of producing a US team that could compete to win the World Cup by 2010, has been considered by many a bad joke.
Of course it depends on your perspective, but after resounding, consecutive wins over the African and European champions, followed by a near miss against Brazil, all within the space of a week, for the first time ever a valid argument could be made that the US is at the point where, if everything fell their way, they would indeed have a shot.
One or two pivotal subs - perhaps a more mature Francisco Torres to hold and distribute the ball late, and a year-older Freddy Adu to add some pep to the late counterattack - and the US could add a win to that impressive two game streak against Egypt and Spain.
The odds are still long, but with a couple more key players, and a hand full of more timely coaching decisions, as soon as next year something extraordinary could happen for US soccer. Of course Coach Bradley and the Americans would need a little more good fortune - but they have had plenty of that of late.