"You always want to play Brazil," US captain Freddy Adu told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview two months before Canada 2007 kicked off. "It's in games like that where you measure yourself as a player."
In the interview Adu also claimed, with the bravado and naiveté demanded of a young footballing phenom, "we can really do something big in Canada." Who knew then that the prediction was more than just locker-room bluster?
After beginning slowly with a clumsy 1-1 draw against Korea Republic, the Americans hit back with stunning firepower in their second game to beat a previously dangerous-looking Poland side 6-1. Ghanaian-born Adu scored a hat trick on the day and looked as stunning and impressive as he had anonymous three days earlier against the Asians. Given a roaming role to create and express himself in the middle of the park by Dutch-born head coach and footballing free thinker Thomas Rongen (who also coached Adu in his first U-20 finals in UAE in 2003), Freddy has looked one of the top players at these finals.
Adu on fire
And though he didn't make the scorers' sheet in the epic win over Brazil on Friday 6 July, his tackling and passing led to Josmer Altidore's first goal and his deflected shot fortuitously created Altidore's second. The 2-1 win put the Americans atop Group D and left Brazil to suffer the ignominious and highly unusual indignity of hoping for other results to go their way in the final two group matchdays.
For Brazil, it was one of the most shocking days in their footballing history. But for the Americans, who only once before (nearly 20 years ago) beat Brazil in a FIFA event, it's a signal of a bright future and an accomplishment to be celebrated long and hard.
"If we can keep up like this," the camera-ready Freddy nearly shouted after the match, " we can take on anyone." Altidore's two goals on the night put him among an unlikely American trio at the top of the scoring charts. Danny Szetela, Altidore and Adu are all on three goals from three matches - only Argentina's starlet Sergio Aguero can claim as many at Canada 2007.
Altidore - who burst on to the US professional scene at the start of this season with some stunning performances for New York Red Bulls - was as high on the result as his captain. "It's an incredible feeling," he said with a smile, flash bulbs lighting up the night outside the Frank Clair Stadium in Ottawa. "Of course, it was Freddy (Adu) who created the chances - he has a special gift. It's not every day you get to beat Brazil...and I'm taking the game ball home with me...you can count on that...I'm going to have all my team-mates sign it!"
Believe the hype
With Adu gunning for top player honours at these, his third U-20 finals, and hoping to banish detractors' claims that the hype that surrounds him is merely that, he is drawing compliments from the highest standing.
"Adu is a very special footballer with the kind of ability you see usually only in South American players. He showed the efficiency that we were lacking," said Brazil coach and renowned talent spotter Nelson Rodrigues.
Surely the Americans are not looking too far ahead and there is still much work to be done. Now, with their celebrations over, it's time to get their minds back on the job at hand. Romance and miracle wins have their place, but as Adu told FIFA.com before the tournament, there is no substitute for hard work. "If we work hard and play well, we can win it all in Canada."
We'll just have to wait and see if that prediction holds water too.