There was a moment midway through the first half of the Confederations Cup final, when the United States could legitimately claim it was giving the most storied team in the history of world soccer a spanking.
The US’ second goal of a sparkling half was sketched with an artists’ paintbrush – a 10 second sweep of skill, precision, and speed that Americans had only ever seen from players and teams in other shirts hailing from other places.
That moment, when the US led Brazil, 2-0, and not only deserved it but looked eager to score more, is the stake they planted in this World Cup warmup, proving to the world – and perhaps even themselves – that they could consistently play with the world’s best.
But the final score was not 2-0. It was 3-2 in favor of Brazil, and that means that, for now, US men’s soccer still lives in the world of moral victories.
In this case, those moral victories are considerable: breaking No. 1 Spain’s world-record 15-game winning streak, for the first time advancing to the final of a tournament that included teams from outside North America, running Brazil ragged for most of a half.
For Brazil, a team that has won five World Cups and a host of other tournaments more illustrious than the Confederations Cup, this championship is hardly something to stir the soul. And yet, when Lucio headed past Tim Howard in the 83rd minute, teammates collapsed onto their knees, mouths wide in whoops of unfeigned elation.
The US had done that to them.
The architect of America’s stunning second goal, Landon Donovan, had hoped for better: “We’re at the point now where we don’t want respect, we want a win.”
The US is not there yet. But it has never been closer.
Perhaps we can at least begin to dispense with the insipid “is this the greatest win ever?” question, which serves only to underscore how few of them there have been. This loss, even with its lead-legged second half collapse, was worth more than some wins, because it will bring more respect than many of them combined.
To look at the US’ most famous soccer triumphs plainly is to come to one indelible conclusion: In each, its opponents took America lightly. The thread can be traced over decades, from the English in 1950 to the Colombians in 1994, the Portuguese in 2002, and Spain Wednesday.
In truth, the greatest achievement in US soccer has been to establish itself as the dominant soccer nation in North America – now clearly trumping archrival Mexico.
Sunday’s final suggests that the Americans are beginning to build on that foundation.
Brazil knew what was coming. It must have been confident of its ability to win – perhaps overconfident – but it could not have dismissed the US after the US had ousted top-ranked Spain, 2-0, the game before.
Yet for periods of the first half, it simply could not cope with the pace and movement of America’s fast breaks. At 2-0, America looked as likely to score a third as Brazil did to pulling to within a goal.
Of course, the soccer world righted itself. But with only seven minutes to spare.
Once again, America’s progress in the world’s sport will be measured in a loss. But Sunday suggested that that will change – and perhaps sooner than we thought.