There was something meaningful about the tears in Client Dempsey's eyes following the United States' 3-2 loss to Brazil in today's FIFA Confederations Cup Final. The US came to this tournament eyeing experience; both with the host venue for next year's World Cup and against some of the top opponents on the planet. But when the final was over, Dempsey's emotion reflected a team that wasn't satisfied with valuable lessons and moral victories. This was a squad that came agonizingly close to capturing a first-ever FIFA tournament and the fact that there were no smiles over second speaks to how far this US squad came over the past two weeks.
While the second half of the match was a cruel stomach punch to US players and fans, there is much to be proud of and excited about heading into 2010. Most encouraging was the play of Dempsey and Landon Donovan. The criticism both players have faced is the by-product of their great potential. In South Africa, that potential was fully realized; their goals today were the types of world-caliber strikes that have too often been missing from the US team. Tim Howard's play in the tournament, paired with the experience he gains playing in the Premier League, shows the States will have a top notch goaltender to call on next summer.
The expectations will be raised for next year's World Cup. So much depends on the draw and the opponents the USA will face, but as of today, a repeat of the 2002 run to the quarterfinals appears very doable. Perhaps there will be even more. The win over Spain and the near-miss against Brazil proves the US can beat anyone in the knockout stages of a tournament.
As the second-place US team took the podium, I was reminded of a Bill Murray line from Caddyshack: "Silver medals...on their chests. These men are...America's best." We should celebrate their achievements, but Dempsey's tears should remind us that greater prizes lay unclaimed.