The United States Soccer Federation said that their ultimate goal was to field a team that could contend for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Barely a week ago, pundits and fans alike found that thought laughable.
But after a stunning 2-0 win over top-ranked Spain and a gritty 3-2 loss to Brazil in Sunday's Confederations Cup Final, where the Yanks actually led 2-0 at half, perhaps this side isn't as far off as everyone thought.
Although it wasn't the result the U.S. was looking for, the Final put the U.S. on center stage and the squad didn't buckle under pressure. In fact, it thrived. For the first 45 minutes, anyways. Despite the defeat, there are many lessons the U.S. can take from this match.
When it counts, Tim Howard is amongst the top 'keepers in the world. He was too hesitant to come off his line on Kaka's phantom goal as well as Fabiano's equalizer, but he played as well of a game as you'll see in football otherwise. Everton is lucky they just gave him a new contract. Otherwise, manager David Moyes would have his hands full keeping Howard out of the hands of the largest clubs in the world.
Oguchi Onyewu and Jay DeMerit are the best combination the U.S. has in central defense and it appears Bob Bradley has subscribed to that idea.
DeMerit looked shaky at the end of the Italy and Final matches but was otherwise a hard-tackling and solid defender for the remainder of the tournament. Onyewu played incredibly well all tournament, winning everything in the air and staying compact for the majority. His stock is sure to rise because of his play in South Africa—if he hasn't already signed for Turkish side Fenerbahçe as rumored.
Jonathan Spector has been tremendous at right back. It hasn't been a night and day difference over Frankie Hejduk the way Carlos Bocanegra's inclusion over Jonathan Bornstein has been, but Spector is more agile and smarter in his own third. He is also very strong going forward and his crosses are top shelf. Gianfranco Zola should take notice.
Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan work quite well on either flank. They both lack a little in their own third (Dempsey noticeably, especially when tired), but the creativity and finishing of Dempsey and the speed and vision of Donovan make them the team's most dangerous players going forward.
The middle of the midfield is not quite as nailed down. Michael Bradley has been a lock as an attacking midfielder for the past 12 months, but his defensive counterpart is still an unknown, even with Maurice Edu returning to fitness in a few months. Benny Feilhaber has looked more than capable in his substitute appearances and his start against Brazil in the Final. Jose Francisco Torres has looked very comfortable with the ball at his feet when he gets time, and Freddy Adu looked like the player everyone thought he would be at the Under 21 World Cup in 2007 (yes I know, it was two years ago).
With Bradley's aggressive play and ability to close down passing lanes in the middle, he could potentially be a very good holding midfielder with the ability to go forward. This would open up the position where the U.S. has the most depth, attacking midfield. A combination of Bradley, Feilhaber, Torres, or Adu could prove too much for many to handle and still have plenty of defensive bite thanks to Bradley's aggression.
Jozy Altidore needs regular first team action. Altidore looked as though he was unaware of his capabilities for long stretches throughout this tournament. He's looked promising for a year now, but he's yet to come good on that potential and it appears to come down to a lack of time.
After being loaned out to second division Xerxes, where he never saw the pitch, one has to wonder if he may not be built for the Spanish game. A rumored loan move to Everton or Fulham could give him the time and mentoring Altidore needs.
Charlie Davies has a lot of raw talent, but it isn't being refined in Sweden. He's scored six goals in eleven appearances for Hammarby this season but did not appear to trouble too many defenders at the Confederations Cup. A proper manager and regular stiff competition could turn Davies into the speedy forward the Americans have been lacking for some time.
Although Bob Bradley seemed to finally get his squad to believe in him and in themselves, Sunday's final was further evidence that he cannot make in-game adjustments and his tactics may be questionable.
The U.S. was spent after 60 minutes and it would have been nice to see Danny Califf come on to shore up the central of defense that had been stretched by the combination play of Robinho, Luis Fabiano, Dani Alves, Kaka, Maicon, and Elano. Bornstein, despite not being a world class back, would have been an improvement over Dempsey in the Yanks' third.
So many people criticize the U.S. for sitting behind the ball, but you must be in position to take the ball away in order to start a counter-attack and the U.S. was in no position to do so with those players.
Which is why rather than bring on Conor Casey, who showed nothing in the tournament other than hitting the woodwork in the first Brazil match when the game was already out of reach, bring in someone with creativity, vision, and speed. Someone like Freddy Adu. It's players such as these that make counter-attacks work, not forwards with the ability to hold the ball.
The U.S. made a game of it and they can be proud of their effort. The puzzle pieces are neatly in the box, but it will take someone with a greater knowledge of the game to piece them together and create a U.S. side that can honestly compete for the World Cup in 2010.