Play It Again In 2010


The U.S. men’s national team made its presence known at the Confederations Cup in South Africa, capping a surprising run to the final with strong Nielsens for ESPN.

After dropping group play matches to defending 2006 World Cup champion Italy and No. 5-ranked Brazil by 3-1 and 3-0 counts, it appeared as if Uncle Sam’s Army would have to make the trek home from Johannesburg without having bridged the gap to the game’s elite.

Then a 3-0 victory over Egypt, combined with a like win by Brazil over the Azzuri and somehow the U.S. was through to the tourney semifinals.

Their reward: a match with FIFA No. 1 Spain, the winners of Euro 2008 and the holders of a record 15 consecutive international wins and a 35-match unbeaten string, matching Brazil’s skein from 1993-96. Somehow, despite being outshot 29-9, the U.S. ended La Roja’s run, with a 2-0 triumph.

In the final, the Yanks led Brazil — which barely got by host South Africa in the other semifinal — 2-0 at halftime on the strength of scores by Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan and solid goaltending by Tim Howard, Project 2010 seemed as if it was in reach, a year early.

Rarely mentioned in recent years, Project 2010 was an initiative, blueprinted by the U.S. Soccer Federation after the Americans finished dead last at the FIFA 1998 World Cup in France, to make a run at winning the world’s biggest sporting event next year.

But the talent gap remained way too wide. A goal by Luis Fabiano within the first minute after intermission, and it was no longer jogo bonita for the Americans, who were forced on the heels of their boots, rarely reenacting their first-half spark and counter-attacks. Brazil’s relentless pressure depleted the U.S. psyche and physical reserves, with players admitting to being tired after the match. When you’re No. 14 in the world and have to bridge a vast skill divide, fatigue can’t be a factor.

Still, a 3-2 loss has to give the U.S. team confidence and ESPN some Nielsen momentum (mea culpa, the game will be on mun2) going into Azteca Stadium in Mexico City on Aug. 12, when the Americans’ CONCACAF qualifying quest resumes against their rivals from south of the border.

The June 28 match versus Brazil was the U.S. men’s team’s third most-watched game on ESPN behind World Cup battles against Germany on June 21, 2002 and Colombia on June 22, 1994. But before we get too excited, the worldwide leader’s June 28 tally was 3.95 million for this first-in-a-lifetime chance to win a global FIFA title, against every soccer fan’s second-favorite side.

The U.S. will have to lift its game even higher if it wants to make a strong showing in a return trip to Johannesburg next summer and help ESPN surpass the viewership for the aforementioned World Cup contests, which averaged 5.34 million and 4.81 million watchers, respectively.