The record looms ominously. Seventeen head-to-head matchups between the five-time World Cup winners Brazil and the no-time winner United States. Sixteen American losses – 10 of them shutouts. One win, 17 years ago. A full 35 goals conceded; just 11 scored.
A lone victory in 1998, when goalkeeper Kasey Keller practically stood on his head and his peers eked out the 1-0 score. That was the first goal against Brazil in seven games. More losses since then. Only losses. Most recently in the Confederations Cup final of 2009 in South Africa. Then 2-0 in New Jersey in 2010, when one Neymar made his debut and scored after 28 minutes. And then 4-1 in Maryland two years later, with another Neymar goal and two assists.
On Tuesday, they meet again at Gillette Stadium in Patriots Place, a kind of cathedral of scandal, which is only expected to be half-full. It's yet another friendly in a litany of friendlies. Maybe interest in the United States men's national team is waning. Maybe not. But last week, the game against Peru at RFK Memorial Stadium in Washington D.C. also only filled half the available seats.
Either way, this is a game that's significant for the U.S., if not so much for the outcome as for the performance. Whatever credibility this team has gained in the four years since Jurgen Klinsmann has been head coach was won almost entirely in friendlies. The Americans defeated Mexico, Italy and some others on their home soil, and the Netherlands and Germany more recently. This has offset forgettable and sometimes embarrassingly one-sided games at the World Cup – where they got pushed around a lot, even as they somehow survived the group of death – and the most recent Gold Cup.
But this friendly isn't a matter of prestige. It's a final preparation for an Oct. 10 playoff with Mexico for a spot at the 2017 Confederations Cup – and, quietly, the start of 2018 World Cup qualifiers slated for November. While the Confed Cup doesn't register very highly on the list of priorities of most big soccer nations, it's important to smaller ones like the U.S.
Its purpose is to act as a dry run for the host nation of the next year's World Cup, basically acting as a dress rehearsal. If utilized properly, it can perform the same function for participating nations. At the 2010 World Cup, the Americans benefited from having been to South Africa the summer prior. They'd played in the stadiums and knew the hotels and practice fields. That gave them an edge. Succeeding at a World Cup is an exercise in managing the endless variables.
Anyway, the Yanks have looked sort of lost this summer. Since those Netherlands and Germany games, anyway. Their Gold Cup was a debacle and their game against Peru confounding. They did, however, manage to beat the Peruvians, who placed third for a second straight time in this summer's Copa America, thereby outperforming Brazil. It was a strange sort of victory, though, with an energetic second half undoing the damage done in a fetid first act.
Still, the U.S. will probably lose to Brazil for a 17th time in 18 games. Even if the Brazilians are trying to figure some things out themselves, after flameouts at the 2014 World Cup and the 2015 Copa America. The trick, then, will be to somehow take heart and continue to build the beginnings of momentum, to gain something positive from a game that might yield a negative result. A moral victory, perhaps, or a showing that suggests that Klinsmann and his charges are on the right path as they ready for the ultimate goal of facing Mexico – the new Gold Cup champions, albeit now working under a new coach and coming off an underwhelming 3-3 tie with Trinidad and Tobago – at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena in October. A strange sort of assignment.
Attacker and second all-time leading scorer Clint Dempsey is still nursing an injury, but the Americans will have captain and playmaker Michael Bradley back, after he was left out of the Peru game to attend to his duties with Toronto FC. He'll make a difference in a midfield that lacks cohesion in his absence. And, as usual, he'll be their emotional leader in a daunting challenge.
"When you play teams like Brazil, the mental side is enormous," Klinsmann told reporters on Monday. "If you have too much respect for them, you get crushed. The thought we have in these games is to have respect for our opponent, but not too much respect."
Midfield bruiser Jermaine Jones, recently returned to the national team after a summer of injury trouble, takes a similarly brash approach. "I go into games saying, ‘They don't know me before?' I want them to know me after the game," he said.
It's that swagger, which comes naturally to Jones but is in short supply to his teammates, that might be the prize on Tuesday. The knowledge that the Americans can play with the world's most famous national team is what could prove most useful against Mexico.
Because this isn't the big game, exactly. It's the game before the big game, against, funnily enough, a bigger opponent. And even if a win does indeed prove out of reach, the Americans hope to take something from it. So that they can take the big one a month later.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.