There is no shame in the U.S. men finishing second at the Confederations Cup.
Will they win the World Cup title next year? Probably not. But they are much closer to that goal than they were even a week ago. The impact of their upset of top-ranked Spain and Sunday's 3-2 loss to Brazil in their first FIFA final may very well be felt for decades to come.
“We continue to try and move ourselves forward, and playing these kind of games only helps,” U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. “But it still feels pretty lousy to let this one get away.”
On the verge of elimination after being outclassed in the first two games of group play, the Americans were roundly criticized back home. It wasn't the losses so much as the way they played. They were tentative, sloppy and didn't show any of the passion that's been a trademark of U.S. teams since they started climbing their way back into international relevance in the 1990s.
But after squeezing into the semifinals, the Americans found themselves up against Spain and Brazil.
Landon Donovan, the most talented offensive player the United States has produced, worked tirelessly from kickoff to the final whistle, creating chances for himself and his teammates.
Clint Dempsey showed the quickness and deft scoring touch that has earned him a starting job in the English Premier League. Jozy Altidore gave the Americans a dose of good, old-fashioned attitude, letting the world know the Americans wouldn't back down to anyone as he outmuscled defenders for balls and space.
When Carlos Bocanegra returned from a hamstring injury against Spain, Bradley shifted him from his usual spot in central defense to the left side, where he often plays at Rennes, his French club team. The move worked, and he, Oguchi Onyewu and Jay DeMerit continuously frustrated the likes of Robinho, Kaka, Fernando Torres and Xabi Alonso. Sure, Brazil scored three goals in the second half Sunday, but the team that created the “Beautiful Game” looked downright ugly at times because of American pressure.
Tim Howard was brilliant throughout the Confederations Cup, and was rewarded with the Golden Glove as the tournament's best goalkeeper. Time and again he made impressive saves, launching his big, long frame to punch a ball away or sticking his foot out to deflect a would-be goal.
But it wasn't just the skill the Americans displayed that will serve them well next year, it was their attitude. They took the field for the last two games with an air of confidence they've rarely showed since their run to the quarterfinals at the 2002 World Cup.
It's one thing to say you can play with the best in the world. It's another to believe it.
“Everything gets put under the magnifying glass a little bit more when you're playing the best teams,” Bradley said. “It's easy to talk about those things, but it's important that the players see it for themselves, and I think that's what's been happening. It's not that we learned it today, but I think we get confidence that we are able to go up against big teams and create chances and make it harder for them.”
To continue improving, the Americans need better competition, both at the national team and club levels, and their performance at the Confederations Cup should help. Onyewu, Altidore, Benny Feilhaber and Charlie Davies might get looks from bigger-name European teams, or at least more playing time. Teams like England, Italy, the Netherlands and France might find it worth their while to play the Americans more often, rather than once every decade or so.
Despite the considerable progress of the U.S. team, Brazil, Spain and all the other powerhouses are decades ahead. The Americans, remember, didn't even qualify for the World Cup from 1950 to 1990. But with every impressive game, every good result, the U.S. team is winning people over back home.
The New York Daily News and the New York Post put the Confederations Cup on their back page – prime real estate for Sports. People magazine gushed about the “U.S. team's victorious hunks.” The game against Spain was replayed on ESPN2 that night, an honor reserved for “instant classics.”
That kind of enthusiasm will elevate soccer's place in the crowded U.S. sports spectrum. It might help sway FIFA's executive committee to award the United States the 2022 World Cup. It might even convince some of the millions of kids playing soccer to stick with it. Maybe, someday, the United States will have its own Kaka or David Villa.
“I think people around the world see that we have a good team, we have good players,” Bradley said. “Hopefully, we can continue to step forward.”
AP Sports Writer Chris Lehourites contributed to this report from Johannesburg.