JOHANNESBURG - Next year's World Cup just got a little more interesting.
Forget that the final score of the Confederations Cup final Sunday was Brazil 3, the United States 2. The Americans proved their upset of top-ranked Spain was no fluke, dominating the Brazilians in the first half and giving the five-time World Cup champions a test to the final whistle.
"This disappointment's going to be here for a while," captain Carlos Bocanegra said. "But it'll go away, and what we can take away from this is the confidence that we played so well against the big teams here. This is a difficult tournament, we did well here and got to the finals and we showed that we belong.
"We're not just going to be a pushover in the World Cup when we come down here."
Luis Fabiano scored twice for Brazil, and Lucio added the third in the 84th minute to give Brazil its second straight Confederations Cup title and third overall.
The United States has beaten Brazil once in 15 games, and it was just 10 days ago that the Brazilians hung a 3-0 rout on the Americans in group play of the tournament that had the critics piling on and some calling for coach Bob Bradley's job.
The U.S. men became a different team in the aftermath. They beat Spain to reach their first final at a FIFA tournament. And for the first 45 minutes Sunday, it was Brazil that looked like the beaten team.
Brazil's usually fluid offense created few opportunities and was constantly stymied by the U.S. defense and goalkeeper Tim Howard.
Meanwhile, the Americans were relentless in their attack on a nervous-looking Brazil defense, with Landon Donovan working hard to give his team several scoring chances.
Just 10 minutes into the game, Jonathan Spector sprinted down the right side and sent a low cross into the area. Clint Dempsey, who had plenty of room to maneuver, raised his right leg and put just enough of a touch on the ball to alter the direction and send it past a diving Julio Cesar.
Donovan then got possession at his own end shortly after Maicon had sent in a corner for Brazil from the right. The United States midfielder ran up the middle, passed to Charlie Davies and then reclaimed the ball from his teammate before beating Julio Cesar.
"Leading up to the game, we showed a lot of heart, a lot of character," Howard said. "We gave them everything they could handle, took a 2-0 lead and deserved every piece of that lead."
There is a reason Brazil has won so many titles over the years, though, and it wasn't about to let another slip away.
Luis Fabiano started the comeback in the 46th minute. The striker collected a pass from Ramires before turning and shooting past defender Jay DeMerit for his fourth goal of the tournament.
"We gave up the first goal so early in second half," Bradley said. "We really put ourselves in a tough spot."
Luis Fabiano added a tournament-leading fifth goal to equalize in the 74th, heading in a rebound after Kaka's cross was kicked against the crossbar by Robinho.
The Americans caught a break in the 60th when Kaka headed a cross from Andre Santos to the near post. Howard stepped back into his goal and knocked the shot off the underside of the crossbar and then grabbed it safely in his arms. Kaka appealed, arguing that the ball crossed the line before Howard was able to get to it, and television replays indicated he was correct.
"I don't know whether the ball crossed the goal line," Kaka said. "It would have been fantastic for me to score a legitimate headed goal."
It wouldn't matter, with Lucio delivering the decisive goal in the 84th when he headed a corner kick from Elano past Howard. Brazil has won eight matches in a row, and is unbeaten in 16.
The Americans were downcast after the game, with Dempsey sobbing openly as he walked to get his medal.
"This is a massive learning experience. You always hope to do the most learning when you win, but you probably learn more by losing," Donovan said. "If we're smart and we take what we should from this game, we can progress. And that's what we're trying to do."
They'll see soon enough.
The United States begins defense of the Gold Cup, the championship of North and Central America and the Caribbean, on Saturday in Seattle, though only four players from the Confederations Cup are on that roster. Then comes an Aug. 12 World Cup qualifier against Mexico at Azteca Stadium, where the United States has never won.
The United States is only two points behind group leader Costa Rica in qualifying, with the top three teams earning trips to South Africa.
"We're at the point where we don't want respect," Donovan said. "We want to win."
In the third-place match, Spain fought back to beat host South Africa 3-2 after extra time in Rustenburg.
United States: Tim Howard, Jay DeMerit, Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu, Jonathan Spector, Ricardo Clark (Conor Casey, 88), Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Charlie Davies, Jozy Altidore (Jonathan Bornstein, 75), Benny Feilhaber (Sacha Klejstan, 75).
Brazil: Julio Cesar, Maicon, Luisao, Lucio, Andre Santos (Daniel Alves, 66), Felipe Melo, Gilberto Silva, Ramires (Elano, 67), Kaka, Robinho, Luis Fabiano.
AP National Writer Nancy Armour contributed to this report.