The United States is nearing the early stages of their quest to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. In a friendly match against the hosts of the tournament, the Americans were given a true tune-up – a match which saw Brazil conclude as the 4-1 victors, but also showed an American side that is making progress.
Scheduling an opponent like Brazil at this stage serves a dual purpose. First off, teams like Brazil or Spain attract a lot of spectators, thus earning a great financial reward for the Federation. Second, and hopefully more importantly, it gives the Americans a chance to experience what a truly dominant side can do – from intense defensive pressure when you are on the attack, to all the technique and skill that they bring to their own offense. The match is much faster, you have to make quicker decisions, and in theory it should make the game “slow down” when you face the lesser sides down the road.
As far as the match went, it always seemed likely that Brazil would win this match with ease, and that became evident in the 10th minute when Costa Rican referee Jeffrey Calderon pointed to the spot. Brazil’s striker, Leandro Damiao, struck a shot from outside the area, and the ball contacted defender Oguchi Onyewu’s left arm. The call was controversial, and while it was an unfortunate call against Onyewu, by the letter of the law it was accurate. Neymar crossed up Tim Howard on the penalty take, and Brazil took the early lead.
As you would expect from a powerhouse, Brazil was able to expose the Americans defensively on numerous occasions. The most obvious came on a corner in the 26th minute, when Jermaine Jones left Thiago Silva unmarked in the area. Neymar’s cross found Silva who headed it home easily for the 2-0 cushion.
The lone American goal resulted from the scrappy play of Maurice Edu, one of three central midfielders deployed by Jurgen Klinsmann. Edu won the ball from a Brazilian player, and Bradley collected the loose change. He delivered a through ball which sprang left back Fabian Johnson towards the end line. The Hoffenheim product found Herculez Gomez with a soft cross, and Gomez headed it into the gaping net to make the score 2-1 just before the half.
The 2-1 scoreline at halftime left one thinking the United States could possibly get back into the game. Yet a goal from Marcelo 7 minutes after the intermission left a mountain to climb. Marcelo was left unmarked for a low cross from Neymar, and he neatly finished it for the 3-1 lead.
The only question at that point was how the Americans would respond. Their effort to narrow the deficit was admirable, and came just after Clint Dempsey was subbed on for Jose Torres.
The first real sign of life came just before Brazil’s third goal, when Steve Cherundolo cynically brought down Marcelo after the left back snuffed out another American attack. Cherundolo grabbed Marcelo, and maybe even gave him a kick at the back of his leg. Marcelo responded by flashing his studs at the right back’s face, and that moment brought the Americans back to life. No cards were shown in this exchange, but the decision to become more physical changed the match in the long run. A few minutes later, Jermaine Jones was given a yellow for a meaty tackle of Neymar along the touchline, and then Marcelo received his own caution a few minutes later by blasting a dead ball at Cherundolo.
This gritty period seemed to wake the Americans up offensively. Another brilliant move by Fabian Johnson in the 63rd minute gave him space down the left to cross to Gomez, who headed it back across goal. Dempsey and Brazilian defender Romulu both met the ball near the goalmouth at the same time, but Romulu was able to clear it before Dempsey could direct it in.
The U.S. continued to mount pressure, spurred on by the substitution of Terrence Boyd to change the shape to 4-1-3-2. Brazilian keeper Rafael, making his first appearance for the national team, was forced to make two reflex saves to keep the Americans from closing the gap to 3-2. Dempsey played a glorious longball out of midfield for Gomez who broke past the defensive line. The Santos Laguna striker put his foot through the ball, but Rafael got a quick hand to it. The rebound came right to Boyd, who had his own shot kicked away by the keeper. Then in the 85th minute, a corner kick from Landon Donovan was perfectly placed for Onyewu to head home, but his redirection hit the crossbar. Out of all the chances they generated in the final thirty minutes, none would get past Rafael into the back of the net.
And then the final dagger was placed by a Brazilian substitute, Alexandre Pato. With the Americans pushing numbers forward, Marcelo lifted a stylish cross to Pato on the right, who had been played onside by Onyewu. The A.C. Milan forward was clinical in his finish of the chance, blasting his shot past Howard with less than 5 minutes to play.
So what do we take from this match? I would say mostly positive impressions for sure. For the United States, these friendlies are about blending, learning the system, and working together as a team. With the chances generated in this match, it is clear that things are coming together for Klinsmann’s group – and they have yet to get Jozy Altidore on the pitch. While the defensive lapses were troubling, not every country will be able to exploit weaknesses at the back like the brilliant Brazilians.
And so the final tune-up will be Canada in Toronto on Sunday, June 3 at 7 PM (NBC Sports Network). It is a match that the United States should look to dominate in preparation for the first two matches of this qualifying cycle.