USA's mixed fortunes
USA, reigning champions of the CONCACAF zone, arrive at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa with hopes of improving on their best-ever finish of third, achieved on two occasions in 1992 and 1999.
At the first instalment of the competition in 1992, still in its developmental stages and known as the King Fahd Cup, the Americans managed to finish on the lowest rung of the winner's podium. It was a slightly flattering result, however, as the tournament in Saudi Arabia featured just four teams. The squad, led by iconic goalkeeper Tony Meola and trickster Tab Ramos, lost to eventual champions Argentina, who were without Diego Maradona but did have Gabriel Batistuta and Claudio Caniggia in the squad, before hammering Côte d'Ivoire 5-2.
It was a decent performance for USA, who went on to reach the Round of 16 two years later as hosts of the 1994 FIFA World Cup™ finals.
The Stars and Stripes missed out on the next two editions of the Confederations Cup, in 1995 and 1997 in Saudi Arabia, but they bounced back for an appearance closer to home in Mexico in 1999. USA were knocked out bytheir southern neighbours and intense regional rivals Mexico that year in a classic semi-final at the Estadio Azteca that went to extra time.
USA, led on the field by Kasey Keller, Brian McBride and John Harkes, a holdover from the inaugural 1992 team, scooped the third-place prize again, pipping Saudi Arabia after wins against New Zealand and Germany.
Missing out in 2001 in Korea/Japan and 2005 in Germany, the only one of the last three Confederations Cup finals USA have appeared in was the 2003 instalment, where they finished bottom of their group suffering losses to Brazil and Turkey (both by one-goal margins). It was a disappointing result for then coach Bruce Arena's team, one boasting DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan and fresh off an historic quarter-final run at the 2002 FIFA World Cup™ finals in the Far East.
The next generation
Even as some of the USA Confederations Cup teams were quality sides, boasting classic players of the American pantheon, Bob Bradley's current outfit looks the most complete. The manager has lost team leader Frankie Hejduk, [a veteran of the 1999 side that took bronze in Mexico] to injury, but he still has plenty of options. Everton's outstanding goalkeeper Tim Howard carries on the tradition started by Meola and refined by Keller between the posts, Michael Bradley is an exciting and powerful new engine in midfield and the mercurial Landon Donovan will be out to prove his worth with a real shot at a global title in South Africa.
"You have to go one step at a time," Bradley told FIFA.com in a recent interview. "We go in focussing on steps. First we look at the first game and the first round and try and figure on what we need to do to get past that first step, and then the next one and then hopefully with a little luck we'll still be there competing at the end."
Though certainly not among the favourites, with the likes of Brazil, Spain and Italy in their way, the Americans are certainly no wilting flowers at these finals. Experience, quality and a burning desire to achieve something of substance beyond their regional zone make them possible dark horses and a dangerous proposition among the eight-team field.
"We know the other teams are tough," added team captain and centre-back Carlos Bocanegra ahead of the Americans opener, a re-play of the 1-1 grudge match that produced six cards, three of them red, in Kaiserlsautern at the 2006 FIFA World Cup. "But if we start strong and find a way to sort out a few problems there's no reason we can't do something here in South Africa."