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Brazil stands as ultimate hurdle for Team USA

JOHANNESBURG – Landon Donovan remembers the first time he played the Brazilians, when his under-23 men’s team trudged off the field, victims of a 7-0 thrashing.

“I haven’t beaten Brazil on any level,” the U.S. forward said Saturday. “It would be amazing to do it tomorrow.”

Amazing, unbelievable, spectacular — any adjective would apply.

When the Americans play Brazil in the Confederation Cup final today, they have a chance to create a watershed moment in U.S. soccer. The U.S. men have never won a FIFA tournament — this is the first time they’ve even made it to a final — and a victory over the five-time World Cup champions would signal that they are closer than ever to the likes of Spain, Brazil, England, Argentina, Italy and Germany.

It also would be a big hit back home, where fans who couldn’t tell a corner kick from a handball just a few days ago suddenly have become soccer aficionados.

“For U.S. soccer, this is a very special day,” coach Bob Bradley said Saturday. “It’s the first time we’re playing in a final of a world competition like this, and to play against Brazil — everybody knows their history — is extra special.”

The U.S has beaten Brazil once in 14 tries, a 1-0 victory in Los Angeles in the semifinals of the 1998 CONCACAF Gold Cup, the championship of North and Central America and the Caribbean.

Last week, Brazil routed the Americans 3-0 in group play at the Confederations Cup. The left the U.S. on the verge of elimination and had some calling for Bradley’s job.

But the U.S. men turned their fortunes around immediately after that game, and they appear to be a different team now.

“Winning a major FIFA championship against Brazil on the heels of beating Spain, the No. 1 team in the world, would be an extraordinary achievement,” U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said. “American soccer is on a long-term ascendancy — a win tomorrow would certainly help people appreciate that.”

The Americans beat Egypt 3-0 to squeak through from the group stage. They then stunned top-ranked Spain with a 2-0 victory, ending the European champion’s record 15-game winning streak.

And now, Brazil.

“This is a big opportunity for us, and one we don’t get very often,” Donovan said. “There’s no promise that we’ll ever get back to a final like this, so we’ve got to try to take advantage of it. If we lose, we lose, but we’re going to give everything we have.”

For Brazil, playing in a final is nothing new. This is its fourth at the Confederations Cup, and it is seeking a record third title.

As if that’s not daunting enough for the Americans, they’ll also have to try to corral Kaka, Robinho and Luis Fabiano without key midfielder Michael Bradley. Bradley, the coach’s son, picked up a red card during the final minutes of the victory over Spain and likely will be replaced today by Benny Feilhaber.

Brazil coach Dunga likely will stay with the same lineup he used in the semifinals. Although Daniel Alves gave Brazil the winning goal coming off the bench, Maicon is expected to stay at right back.

Fabiano said he has the flu and had trouble sleeping after the match against South Africa, but he should be ready to play.

“(The first match) was different,” Dunga said of facing the Americans. “Now they’re more consistent. They have more confidence because of their results.”