Flags and streamers and hymns of praise won't greet the U.S. men's national team when it returns home from the Confederations Cup. That kind of welcoming reception will be reserved for champion Brazil, a nation whose citizens know how to throw a soccer-themed party better than anyone.
Yet for head coach Bob Bradley and his group of players, it will be more than a shiny silver medal, the tag of "gallant loser" and some pats on the back that they take from this tournament, staged in South Africa a year out from soccer's Big One.
Given the muted expectations for Bradley's group preceding the tournament, and the even-gloomier prognosis of its welfare a week into it, the eventual outcome of losing 3-2 to Brazil in Sunday's final must be considered a relative triumph.
It may not have felt like it when the third and winning Brazilian goal flew into the net, sealing a storming comeback by the five-time world champion from a two-goal deficit, but this time in defeat there was hope, not merely another hard-luck story.
By riding on the back of a small collection of favorable coincidences and one stunning upset, the USA gained respect, belief and some well-deserved kudos. Most importantly, it answered a series of nagging questions that brewed over the past year and cast severe doubt on the team's ability to make any sort of impact at the World Cup.
That tournament, soccer's ultimate showcase, is where USA will have to prove itself all over again next summer. But there is certainly greater cause for optimism now, compared to the downbeat atmosphere of recent months.
Many of the questions surrounded head coach Bradley, whose position was under very real threat as he boarded the plane for South Africa.
The first, and most obvious concern, was whether he was the right man to lead them to the finals. Defeat in Costa Rica at the start of June set a somber tone and a somewhat negative mentality surrounded public perceptions of the team. Talk of possible replacements for Bradley was already under way, with former Germany head coach Jurgen Klinsmann's name popping up with monotonous regularity.
Indeed, as Bradley walked up the steps of Ellis Park to collect his runners-up medal on Sunday, it seemed scarcely possible that this was the same man whose job had been under such pressure. Jurgen who?
A popular doubt expressed about Bradley was whether he could inspire his troops to fight for him. Two games into the Confederations Cup, with all hope seemingly extinguished, the answer figured to be no. A second-half capitulation against Italy and an embarrassingly timid effort against Brazil in group play left little room for solace.
Yet the 3-0 thumping of Egypt that secured an unlikely semifinal spot was a step in the right direction, and paved the way for a mighty display of tenacity and fortitude in the 2-0 defeat of European champion Spain. The final, too, against the most consistently dominant nation in the world, showed more backbone still.
Brazil was simply too good, but it did have to fight its heart out for the first time in the tournament. The South Americans swept aside the reigning world champion Italy and had cruised through the competition. But down 2-0, it had to finally move into top gear to pull out a win against USA.
A look at the Brazilian players' reactions at the final whistle quashed once and for all suggestions that this was a tournament with no relevance. The tears streaming down the face of Lucio and the jubilant screaming of Kaka indicated a deeper level of caring than that.
Bradley's tactical nous, or lack of it, was expected to be brutally exposed by Spain, and again by Brazil. Knocking off CONCACAF opponents at home was one thing, but did Bradley have any ideas on how to battle proper, established teams?
Past experience indicated that his Plan A, B and C against a high-profile side was to shut up shop and keep down the score. Yet the last two games indicated some imagination, courage and flexibility in his preparation. Perhaps the coach is drawing confidence from an upturn in fortunes in the same manner as his team.
It is not just about Bradley, though. The entire squad had come under fire, too, with the common perception that, individually and collectively, they were simply lacking in quality. Indications that the U.S. boasted performers who could lift their level when called upon were sporadic at best.
Yet the players stood tall here, too many to list all of them. Some of the standouts were familiar faces – Landon Donovan, Oguchi Onyewu and Tim Howard. Others, like Jay DeMerit, Jonathan Spector and Charlie Davies, had rarely featured in the past but surely have a future at the heart of this lineup.
Few players have had more barbs thrown their way than Donovan, the best U.S. player of his generation but so often a target for vitriol. Yet it was nigh impossible to find fault with his Confederations Cup showing, and he produced again in the final. The man with the bristling personality kept his cool to finish a wonderful counterattack to put the USA ahead 2-0.
The way the team went down the field from a Brazil mistake, just like the Brazilians had done against them in the group game, said everything about the confidence now coursing through this unit. Brazil's comeback, in which Dunga's side looked every inch a likely World Cup champion next year, will not change that.
No longer, for the USA, the constant inferiority complex. No more shaking and quaking when faced with top teams.
The Confederations Cup hasn't taught us that the U.S. men's national team will have a successful World Cup. But it has shown us that it can.
- Bob Bradley