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Heads hang after US soccer losses

Lackluster performance at Confederations Cup dashes high hopes for soccer future.

Goalkeeper Tim Howard of the U.S shouts at team mate Jay DeMerit after Italy's Giuseppe Rossi scored his team's third goal during their Confederations Cup soccer match at the Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria, June 15, 2009. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

It was just seven years ago that America appeared, finally, to have a soccer future.

The 2002 World Cup had been a revelation. Sparked by two fast, feisty and fearless kids, Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, the U.S. team had stunned Portugal, dominated Mexico and, in the quarterfinals, even outplayed Germany before losing 1-0. There was actually talk, at least in American soccer circles, about the U.S. team winning a World Cup someday, maybe by 2018 or even 2014.

Indeed since that tournament, the United States has supplanted Mexico as the dominant team in the region and has ascended to the upper reaches — 14th at last count — of the international soccer rankings.

The Confederations Cup in South Africa loomed as a test of the American team’s elevated status. But after just two games this week — there is no need to wait for the “consolation” game against Egypt Sunday to render a verdict — the U.S. team has been thoroughly exposed. It is not a contender, not even an emerging world power, but rather a workman-like, middle-rank team that can excel only in a region of soccer pygmies.

In two games with soccer superpowers, Monday against Italy and Thursday against Brazil, the U.S. team displayed no cohesion, grit, discipline, maturity or indeed much of anything that might enable it to compete with the game’s elite at next year’s World Cup back in South Africa. Stats may never deliver the full measure of the two defeats — 3-1 to Italy and 3-0 to Brazil — but suffice it to say that Italy had 10 corner kicks to the United States' one and the Brazilian goalkeeper was not required to make a single save.

And what about those two fearless and feisty kids from World Cup 2002? Donovan, who has gone on to become the team’s all-time leader in both goals and assists, seems to be flying solo, totally disconnected from his teammates on the front line. And Beasley appears to have lost at least a few steps off his greatest asset, speed, along with virtually all of his other skills. He didn’t make the starting lineup for the opener and, in the second contest, was replaced at halftime after an embarrassingly, inept performance.

Ironically, the only American player who has created any buzz in this tournament is New Jersey-born and -bred Giuseppe Rossi, who opted to cast his lot instead with Italy and scored two goals against his countrymen. One is tempted to conclude that the American team is left with little more than what it had back in 1990 when it went to its first World Cup in decades: superb goalkeepers.

It is too often the U.S. soccer fan’s lot to make excuses. The team was, in fact, missing several key players, including its captain Carlos Bocanegra, due to injuries. And it’s hard enough to play Italy and Brazil even, let alone down a man for much of the game, as the U.S. was forced to do in both contests after players were red-carded for late tackles. The apologists will grouse about the ejections and insist the fouls only warranted yellow cards. But both fouls were reckless and demonstrated poor judgment, a pattern that goes back to the team’s last World Cup match against Italy when it wound up with just nine players on the field.