When does a 4-1 loss not quite feel like a 4-1 loss? When it’s the U.S. men’s national team playing Brazil in its second friendly of a five-game stretch, part of the buildup toward a pair of World Cup qualifiers that are far more important than one exhibition match.
It’s still Brazil, and losing by three goals hurts, and U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said he won’t sleep well tonight. But there’s no doubt that the U.S. learned something about itself, some positives and negatives, and can use that information to advance the cause before the first match of qualifying, where the margin for error is much less.
“The bottom line was we were far from winning the game, let’s make that clear,” Howard said. “But the keeper made some great saves. He played really well. We hit the post. We dominated them on set pieces, I thought. Yeah, we got caught. I’ve been in games, 4-0, 4-1, 4-2, where you just think, ‘We’ve not even seen any of this game. We got it handed to us.’ Tonight it didn’t feel like that.”
The start of both halves proved crucial. Ask U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, and his team’s respect for the Brazilians may have been a little too healthy, particularly in the first 20-25 minutes, where the U.S. didn’t impose its will on the game. After getting a goal back to cut the Brazil lead to 2-1, the U.S. was also behind the eight ball early in the second half, allowing the two-goal advantage to be restored.
Klinsmann said he was “pissed off” about the penalty call on Oguchi Onyewu and the lack of an offside call against Alexandre Pato on the game’s final goal.
“We need to get an edge, more nastier,” Klinsmann said. “Maybe we are a little bit still too naïve. We don’t want to hurt people, but that’s what you gotta do. You gotta do that at the end of the day. We’ve got to step on their toes more and get them more frustrated, make a case with the referee maybe as well for us.”
That’s not exactly the U.S. team’s normal style, but it’s worth thinking about, especially in the unfriendly road conditions that CONCACAF often present.
“I think sometimes you see Brazil on the calendar, and you go in with a lot of respect for these type of players,” forward Herculez Gomez said. “But they’re just like us. They bleed, they hurt, so we gotta get after it. I think you saw in the second half, when we pressed and imposed our game, they were the ones on their heels, they were the ones trying to hit us, sweating and battle and trying to track back.”
Neymar is all that and an iPod full of samba.
"He’s got a lot of qualities," Howard said. "He’s got personality, charisma, everything you want from a top Brazilian player, he’s got it... He’s clearly a top player, and another player who puts you in some really tough positions one-on-one, and he’s exciting to watch. He sucks to play against. But he’s exciting to watch."
The silver lining of going down early was the response. In particular, it opened some eyes to developments at left back, where Fabian Johnson was dynamic and dangerous in his fifth U.S. game and up front, where Gomez backed up his stellar play in Mexico in his first start since the Algeria game at the 2010 World Cup.
“I just looked across, saw Thiago, and it’s just one of those things,” Gomez said. “What do I have to lose? I just went out and played.”
Said Klinsmann: “I think we found a striker that is very mobile, that is a fighter, that keeps defenders very busy, that is also nasty to do certain things. That’s important.”
Johnson helped create Gomez’s goal and nearly helped the U.S. get a second when he shed his defender spectacularly in the left corner.
“He’s very unassuming, but very consistent in his work, and he takes a lot of information on board,” Howard said of Johnson. “He’s been a steady influence there for us. He’s quiet and he just kind of crept in and tried to make that position his own. He’s exciting when he gets forward. He’s disciplined when he’s back there defending one-on-one and tucking in – when the ball’s on the right side, he’s tucking in on the left side like a good left back should. He’s smart.”
After his cross found Gomez’s head, Clint Dempsey wasn’t able to finish – the kind of moment many of the U.S. players rued and know must be cleaned up. With one more tune-up (Sunday against Canada), the U.S. will have that chance.
In case the score isn’t enough, the U.S. is far from a finished product and positional concerns remain. Onyewu sticks out the most, but he was defended pretty staunchly by Klinsmann, who thought he improved as the game wore on.
Playing against Brazil is a measuring stick, but it’s also a somewhat unrealistic standard. It’s still a standard the U.S. aspires to measure itself against on a regular basis. But the fact that they’re not on the CONCACAF qualifying schedule makes it far easier for the U.S. to focus on the details, not the result itself.
“The thing is, anytime you get to play these guys, it’s great,” defender Carlos Bocanegra said. “You gotta test yourself. Unfortunately, we came out on the wrong end tonight, but there were still some positives we can take out of the game. Defensively, we weren’t that great, and they put you in bad positions so they make you look even worse, and then we didn’t make the right decisions on some of the plays and didn’t make the plays individually. Those things we can correct, we’ll watch it on video, but we’ll take a lot of positives from this and going into CONCACAF, if we play well and play like this, we’ll finish our chances and we’ll be alright.”