For the First Time, U.S. and Brazil Play for a Soccer Title

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 28, 2009; 12:00 AM

They've met in the World Cup, Gold Cup, Copa America and just 10 days ago in the first round of the Confederations Cup. The settings have ranged from the creaky Yale Bowl to a pretty seaside town in Uruguay, from the Rose Bowl to the banks of the Rhone River in France. The outcomes have usually been close, but except for one extraordinary upset, they have always been the same: Brazil defeats the United States in men's soccer.

The teams will meet again today at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg with, as usual, the five-time world champion Brazilians immensely favored to vanquish the Americans. This encounter, however, is unique -- for the first time in 15 matches between the national teams, a championship is at stake.

Brazil figured to be in this position, one triumph from winning the Confederations Cup, an eight-team tournament that is serving as a primer for next year's World Cup in South Africa. The United States certainly did not expect to get this far, not after being drawn into an opening-round group with Brazil and reigning world champion Italy and not after losing to those teams by a combined 6-1 score.

"This is what players, coaches, fans dream of -- a world final against Brazil," U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said in a telephone interview Friday.

Today's match means much more to the Americans because, while Brazil has dazzled the soccer world for decades with its sizzle and success, the U.S. program has remained on the second tier. Before it ended Spain's 35-game unbeaten streak with a 2-0 upset in Wednesday's semifinal, the United States had never advanced to the championship game of a major men's tournament run by FIFA, the sport's international governing body. (In 1992, the Americans played for the FIFA title in futsal, five-a-side indoor soccer with no walls and a smaller ball. They lost to -- who else? -- Brazil.)

The Confederations Cup has shown the United States at its best and worst, drawing both optimism and pessimism ahead of the World Cup, for which the Americans are still in the process of qualifying. While there was no shame in losing to Italy and Brazil in the group stage, the U.S. team was hardly inspiring.

Despite being short-handed after Ricardo Clark's red card, it took the lead against the Italians before fading in the second half and losing, 3-1. Three days later in Pretoria, the Americans conceded two goals in the first 19 minutes and were outclassed by Brazil, 3-0.

After eight straight low-scoring, one-goal margins in the series, the Selecao have scored seven times in the past two meetings with the United States.

"Just because we've already beaten them this tournament doesn't mean we'll do it again," Brazil forward Robinho said at a news conference. "It will be a different game and we know we'll have to work very hard."

The lone U.S. victory over Brazil came in February 1998 in Los Angeles, a 1-0 decision in the Gold Cup semifinals. Afterward, Brazilian superstar Romario said Kasey Keller's performance was the greatest he had ever seen by a goalkeeper.

Today the Americans will turn to veteran goalie Tim Howard to thwart an attack that scored 10 goals in three group matches but sputtered against South Africa in the semifinals and was rescued by Dani Alves's free kick in the 87th minute to break what was to that point a scoreless tie. U.S. Coach Bob Bradley will also need another determined effort by the rest of the lineup, which disrupted Spain's midfield and repeatedly blocked threatening shots inside the penalty area.

Bradley probably won't make many personnel changes other than replacing his son, midfielder Michael Bradley, who was red-carded against Spain and must serve a one-game suspension. Benny Feilhaber is the likely replacement.

"For U.S. soccer, this is a very special day," Bob Bradley said. "To play against Brazil is extra special because of the history that we all know of Brazilian soccer."

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