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Mighty Brazil stands in way of U.S.’ golden bid

After stunning Spain in semis, Americans are big underdogs in Confederation Cup final.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Landon Donovan remembers the first time he played the Brazilians, when his under-23 team trudged off the field, victims of a 7-0 thrashing.

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

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 Americans have never won a FIFA tournament — this is the first time they’ve even made it to a final — and a win over the five-time World Cup champs would signal they are closer than ever to the likes of Spain, England, Argentina, Italy and Germany.

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

“For U.S. Soccer, this is a 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 special.”

The United States has beaten Brazil only once in 14 tries, and that 1-0 victory came in Los Angeles in the semifinals of the 1998 CONCACAF Gold Cup, the championship of North and Central America and the Caribbean.

Just last week, Brazil routed the Americans 3-0 in group play at the Confederations Cup. The loss left them on the verge of elimination, and had some critics calling for Bradley’s job.

But the U.S. men turned their fortunes around immediately after that game, and are 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 (today) would certainly help people appreciate that.”

The Americans beat Egypt 3-0 to squeak through from the group stage. They then upset top-ranked Spain with a 2-0 win, ending the European champ’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’s 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 in the final minutes of the victory over Spain and likely will be replaced by Benny Feilhaber.

Brazil coach Dunga probably will stay with the same lineup from the semifinals. Although Daniel Alves gave Brazil the late winner coming off the bench, Maicon is expected to stay at right back.

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

“(The first match) was different,” Dunga said. “Now they’re more consistent. They have more confidence because of their results. We have to impose our rhythm, staying more with the ball and taking advantage of our characteristics.”

The Americans also are hoping to get another boost from the South African fans. Though Spain was the heavy favorite Wednesday, the U.S. noticed as the game wore on that fans were firmly on the side of the underdog.

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