U.S. men’s national team gears up for a showdown with Brazil at FedEx Field
By Steven Goff,
The natural instinct when bracing to play Brazil’s wonderful national soccer team is to absorb unbearable pressure, evade Selecao’s mesmerizing spell and seek to exploit the few defects.
U.S. national team Coach Juergen Klinsmann appreciates Brazil’s blinding skill and capacity for destruction. But a sixth sense tugs at him, a voice telling him to take a proactive approach during Wednesday night’s friendly at FedEx Field.
On the eve of the massive test, the German-born boss suggested he would continue to stress bold tactics and, when opportunities present themselves, take the game to the five-time world champions.
Since accepting the job last summer, Klinsmann has instilled a pragmatic philosophy emphasizing ball movement, energy, and the speed of both thought and play. Last weekend, those applications resulted in the most entertaining performance of his 11-game tenure, a 5-1 demolition of Scotland that extended the squad’s winning streak to five.
Although the caliber of opponent has risen this week, the ideas remain the same: Klinsmann’s commitment to molding not only a team that succeeds, but develops a personality.
“They love to dictate their own game; they are used to setting the tone,” he said of the Brazilians. “They have wonderful players, but for us, the situation is how much we can take to them. How can we go eye-to-eye and cause them some trouble? It’s an exciting benchmark we face. It will tell us a lot about where we are in the process.”
A crowd of more than 60,000 — the largest for a U.S. men’s or women’s match in area history — is expected for Brazil’s first area visit since defeating Ecuador in a 1998 friendly at RFK Stadium.
It also marks the 17th meeting in the one-sided series — the only U.S. victory came in 1998 — and an opportunity for Klinsmann to field his most potent roster to date.
“It’s Brazil. We’ve all played Brazil,” midfielder Michael Bradley said. “We all know what playing games against them means. Their ability with the ball to take little plays and make the most of them is at the highest level. We know we are going to need a strong effort.”
Although the Brazil match will provide a global stage and chance to further boost the sport’s popularity here, it lacks consequence. Conversely, the June 8 meeting with the wee Caribbean nation of Antigua & Barbuda in Tampa will serve as the first qualifier in the 18-month quest to reach the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
“There are three points on the line when we play a qualifier, but these games [against the likes of Brazil and Italy in February] are vitally important to us,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. Dignity also plays a part, and no one wants to lose. “We’re a bunch of prideful guys,” Howard added.
Klinsmann understands playing Brazil is not like playing Scotland or Canada — the final tuneup Sunday before qualifiers against Antigua & Barbuda and then in Guatemala on June 12.
The U.S. players “have to go to the extreme, they have to go to the edge the whole game through,” he said. “They can’t ease up one second and then [the Brazilians] just kill you off. This is a high-energy, high-focus game. This is what we need to see where we really are.”
The Americans were emboldened by their near-upset of Brazil in the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup final in Johannesburg. They scored twice before succumbing to overwhelming firepower and their own mistakes, 3-2.
“It makes you think back to that game and how close you were,” Howard said. “It still hurts to be so close to winning it in a major final. It just shows how potent they can be.”
While the Americans are preparing for World Cup qualifiers, Brazil is gearing for the Olympics, which is largely limited to players age 23 and under. As such, Coach Mano Menezes brought 17 Olympic-eligible players. One of them, though, is perhaps the most coveted player on the international club market, Neymar, 20. The attacking corps also includes Hulk, 25, who scored twice against Denmark on Saturday; and AC Milan’s Alexandre Pato, 22.
Klinsmann’s roster is complete after the arrival of striker Jozy Altidore on Monday and the return of midfielder-forward Clint Dempsey, who missed the Scotland game while recovering from a groin injury. Because of their absences, neither likely will start.
“It’s down to the players,” Klinsmann said. “It’s down to their dedication and hunger and their willingness to suffer in more than 90 degrees to chase these yellow shirts that are pretty good. It’s exciting times.”