Another loss on a major stage: Brazil 3, United States 2.
This is the epitaph in the wake of a heartbreaking loss in Sunday’s Confederations Cup championship game.
Too harsh? Perhaps, considering the United States was facing a great Brazilian team. On the other hand, there must come a point in the discussion of soccer in the United States when the training wheels must be removed. Either this is youth soccer, in which the goal is to let everyone play, or this is the big time, in which second or third place is no longer acceptable.
There was so much momentum heading into Sunday’s game, so much enthusiasm after the United States’ stunning victory over Spain on Wednesday.
That victory became the talk from Johannesburg to Harlem.
Over coffee one morning, Irv Smalls, the executive director of Harlem Youth Soccer, spoke about the implications of a strong showing by the United States on the continuing initiative to bring soccer to the underserved.
“It definitely will get kids excited,” said Smalls, a former Penn State football player.
Speaking from Johannesburg before Sunday’s match, Sunil Gulati, the president of the United States Soccer Federation, cautioned against placing too much weight on one result.
At the same time, Gulati conceded that back-to-back, high-profile victories over Spain and Brazil in the Confederations Cup would give a much-needed jolt to a sport that continues to make inroads in the minds and hearts of the American audience.
“Anytime you’re playing for the championship against a team generally considered the best team in the world for the last 75 years, it’s a great chance to get a lot of people who are part of the soccer community in the United States interested in the national team and excited to be part of an international game,” Gulati said.
The United States carried a 2-0 lead over Brazil into halftime Sunday, and suddenly, a universe of possibilities emerged. This was the great American sports story. Finally, a breakthrough on the international championship stage. Finally, long-sought respect for United States soccer.
Don Garber, the commissioner of Major League Soccer, spoke of the United States’ victory over Spain and reaching the championship game.
“We’ve always believed we deserved more respect than we receive,” he said. “In sports, you’ve got to earn respect, you can’t just ask for it, and we’ve earned some respect this past week.”
Then the roof caved in: Brazil scored three unanswered goals in the second half. And just like that, the United States was back to being the little engine that could someday win on the world stage.
“Of course it’s disappointing, especially when we were up, 2-0,” Gulati said after the match Sunday. “On the positive side, we made progress at this tournament and are proud of reaching the final.”
Nice try, good effort. For the rest of us, it’s back to baseball until next summer’s run to the World Cup.
Garber was far from discouraged.
“Today, we proved that we can compete at the highest level,” he said. “For 45 minutes, we had one of the best teams in the world shocked and on their heels. Our guys weren’t happy to just play in the final, they wanted to win. And for a time, I thought we would.
“Over all, this was a great day for U.S. soccer that will go down in history as one of the truly great moments for our sport.”
Still, instead of talking about a great triumph, we’re back to talking about what United States soccer needs to break through at home.
Regardless of Sunday’s outcome, the sport faces two major challenges in the United States. The first is how to continue to attract great athletes.
Gulati said that a high-profile championship by the United States national team would, and still could, inspire young athletes to cast their lot with soccer.
“There are so many cases along the way in all sports when professional athletes say, ‘I was turned on because I saw this moment,’ whether it was Hank Aaron’s home run or Pelé’s bicycle kick,” Gulati said.
American soccer’s struggle to attract great talent is baffling because there are so many young people looking for something to do. The United States is one of the most powerful nations, one with phenomenal human resources.
The sprawling soccer federations reflect the nation: some have a lot, some have very little. The leadership must find the will — and a way — to redistribute resources. This is crucial for the long-term goal of having a great national team, year in and year out.
The more difficult challenge is to cultivate a broader consumer appetite for soccer in the United States. Debates continue about changing the nature of the sport to fit the American mind-set.
Soccer does not need to be dumbed down to accommodate our Twittered attention span. The sport does not need more scoring or more commercial timeouts.
“People don’t need the sport to be different,” Garber said. “They just need a reason to believe, and every now and again, something happens where they have that reason.”
That’s the greatest misfortune of Sunday’s loss to Brazil. A victory would have been that reason.