CHICAGO – The United States national team may have discovered a rare sporting phenomenon: the breakthrough defeat.
Bob Bradley's players weren't celebrating Sunday after Brazil's 4-2 victory at Soldier Field, but the confidence the Americans will take from their most impressive recent performance was already apparent.
There can be no better measuring stick than the greatest and most skillful team on the planet, and the U.S. youngsters can hold their heads high after giving the Brazilians a stern test. Bradley's men can also measure themselves favorably against how other international teams generally fare in friendlies against Brazil.
Most of Brazil's opponents are unable to find a way to effectively restrict space in the midfield, allowing the South American side to dominate possession at will and providing freedom for Kaka to wreak havoc with his surging runs and Ronaldinho and Robinho to tease and torment defenders. Some of the Brazilians' victories have not been crushing in terms of the final score, but the way they dominated possession was tantamount to a thrashing.
That wasn't the case Sunday. The difference between the teams mainly boiled down to a couple of flashes of genius by Brazil and a penalty kick that should have been awarded for a foul on Josh Woolf.
Thanks to the organized play of the U.S. and, in particular, the tireless efforts of Michael Bradley and Benny Feilhaber in central midfield, the home team remained competitive throughout. Bradley and Feilhaber – on paper at least – looked to be outgunned against Kaka and Gilberto Silva, but the American duo showed no fear and have probably done enough to earn themselves future starting spots.
Looking ahead to the start of 2010 World Cup qualifying next year, the signs appear to be bright for the Americans despite their recent results. The U.S. now has suffered five straight defeats since winning the Gold Cup in June. However, three of the losses came with an under-strength squad in the Copa America. Sunday's effort points to hope for the future.
"We are in a cycle that will hopefully see further improvement and I feel we are seeing some good signs," Bob Bradley said. "Of course, you want to win every game, but everyone will have learned something about themselves and how they played the game."
The coach's challenge is how to make the best use out of the skills he has at his disposal. In the international game, there can be no trades, transfers or free-agent signings – you get what you are given.
What Bradley has been handed is a group of players in excellent physical condition, a strong work rate and some flashes of real quality. There is also plenty of spirit, as evidenced by the way goalkeeper Tim Howard played on after dislocating the ring finger on his left hand and having it yanked back into place.
"The end result is that we are never going to play a team better than Brazil," Howard said. "The intensity and the preparation that we brought to this game, we can take that into games against weaker teams and play with confidence. I think hopefully we take those good things from the game."
Other positives for the Americans included the emergence of Clint Dempsey, whose stint with Fulham of the English Premier League has helped him develop as an all-round striker and has given him an extra sense of belief to bring to national team duty.
DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan will have more opportunities to exert greater influence against weaker opposition, and their lives will be made easier if Bradley and Feilhaber continue to be effective in the center.
Feilhaber, of Premiership strugglers Derby County, was born in Brazil – making this match extra special for him and his family.
"It was great for me and great for the team," Feilhaber said. "We didn't get the result we wanted, but we played good stuff. And if a couple of calls had gone our way, it could have been different.
"Our team is still young and growing and getting used to each other. We will keep developing and will become a better team over the next year or two."