Brazil is not just any opponent. Those five stars tend to distract the opposition from time to time. They offer small, modest symbols of the magnitude of the game. And it is never just another match against the Selecao. It always means just a little bit more.
It is a reality the United States embraces ahead of this marquee friendly on Tuesday at Gillette Stadium. There is no use talking about how this is business as usual, not with the opposition on the other side and not with the Confederations Cup playoff ahead against Mexico next month.
There is an inherent responsibility at hand for the Americans to grasp this opportunity with both hands. It is not just about playing Brazil. It is how they can use this occasion to prepare for that vital match at the Rose Bowl next month.
"It's another game for guys to get used to each other, the mentality, the physicality we need, that killer instinct that we need," U.S. defender Geoff Cameron said. "We know how big the game is coming up against Mexico. You want to take full advantage of that opportunity because we all want to go to the Confederations Cup. It's one game. You have to bring it or you go home. We obviously want to bring it, and this is an opportunity to get more practice and basically show that we belong here."
Consider this high-profile test as a last audition of sorts. It is not an opportunity lost on this squad as it grapples with the unique nature of this assignment and the utility of its placement.
Focus on the responsibilities at the outset …
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann spoke expansively on Monday about the importance of mentality ahead of this encounter. There is a need to consider the opposition, but the Americans must do so without sacrificing their own convictions and their own qualities.
Even in this tattered state, Brazil carries a certain amount of cachet. There are questions about the talent coming through the ranks and the performances submitted in the wake of the World Cup. This group lacks the fluidity of its predecessors and relies far, far too much on Neymar for inspiration. But Brazil is still Brazil.
Conviction is a necessary requirement ahead of this sort of encounter. There is always a need for pragmatism, but it must be infused with belief and stripped of any deference. It is a point Klinsmann highlighted to his team this week and it is a theme U.S. midfielder Jermaine Jones underscored on the eve of the encounter.
"You go into these games and you have the respect before the games, but I think it's important that you put the respect away when the game starts," Jones said. "You see them man-to-man. They have the big names in there, but I like to go in there and say, 'I know them before, OK, maybe they don't know me, but after the game, I want them to know me, too.' I think it's the best way to see it. Maybe Neymar doesn't know [Gyasi] Zardes right now. But maybe he makes a good game and people say, 'This kid, he's a really good kid.' If you get this in your head and you lose your respect in the game, I think this is the best thing."
… and remember the lessons learned in Washington
Zardes and the Americans benefited considerably when they cast aside the desire to drop deeply and pushed out earnestly in the 2-1 victory over Peru on Friday. The decision to entrench in the early stages allowed Peru to grasp the initiative in the game, while the shift further up the field shortly before halftime closed the gaps between the lines and increased the tempo of the match accordingly.
The marked shift in effectiveness from that fallow period to the bright second half illustrated the importance of relying on the strengths of the side. Those tenets -- the desire to close space quickly, the pursuit of the game on the counter, the willingness to play directly when the time is right -- remain critical here against a Brazil side expected to rely on movement off the ball and possession in a bid to break the Americans down.
"These type of countries, you have to be confident to go out there, give them a game, get in their face, be aggressive, be ready for going to the limit physically," Klinsmann said. "They are smart, they let the ball do the work. They might let you chase the ball, like we did for 20 minutes against Peru. And then we got into their faces, stepped up high and then, ooh, suddenly, we have a game. We got them into defending more than attacking. It is always the same philosophy that we have: respect, but never too much respect."
Bradley's return ensures the proper focus …
Those efforts received a boost when Michael Bradley joined his teammates in Boston on Sunday. Bradley serves as the hub of activity in midfield, a one-man wrecking crew willing to pursue the game earnestly and spur his teammates to do the same. His performances against Netherlands and Germany earlier this year reflect his ability to make an impression against highly touted opposition.
Bradley steps right back into the heart of midfield after missing his first game for his country this year. His likely partnership with Jermaine Jones presents some spacing issues given their shared penchant for drifting in search of the play, but it also ensures a base of operations capable of claiming possession in the tackle and then starting the transition quickly.
"Michael's a key player for us," U.S. midfielder Alejandro Bedoya said. "He's in the core of our team. His leadership -- not only on the field, but off the field -- is good for the younger guys and for all of us. He's a guy [where] you know what you're going to get out of him. That position is his. He's the guy that sets the tone, whether it's with his aggressive play, stepping to [the ball] or whatever it is, keeping possession, distributing balls. He's a guy that helps the team tremendously."
… and adds another character to help navigate through the thicket
Bradley and Jones establish the tone for the entire team, particularly with Clint Dempsey ruled out. Their presence dictates how the match unfolds and sets a baseline for their teammates to meet. Those standards remain critically important for a side that cannot afford to drop its intensity or shirk from the responsibility at hand.
"It's not an easy task, but it's why we need those games," Klinsmann said. "Players, at the end of the day, will make those decisions in a split second: press or not press, backing off a little bit or going higher up. Especially in a game like that, the leadership of Jermaine, of Michael Bradley, of Brad Guzan -- who pushes up the back line -- is crucial. They need to keep everybody on the same page. They need to tell people to go out or stay, tuck in and make it compact. They also have to give them the courage to give Gyasi or other younger players to go and give it a shot, push them back, go at them, surprise them a little bit. That's the kind of test you want to have."
Remember the primary objective at all times
It is exactly the sort of examination required to prepare this group for the one-off encounter against Mexico next month. This affair looms as an opportunity to assess the quandaries at hand -- central defense remains a talking point with several players in contention to partner John Brooks, while forward is also worth monitoring to see if someone can supply potent support to Dempsey and Jozy Altidore -- and steel this group for the challenge at hand.
"The end game here is to work toward Mexico," Bedoya said.
This exercise looms as a potential fillip in this process if used accordingly. The result always matters, but the performance -- and the methods used to produce it -- holds more sway at this stage. Brazil is still Brazil, but there are bigger objectives ahead in the next few weeks.