Earlier this summer, much was made of the visits by European clubs like AC Milan and Chelsea. The conventional wisdom was that friendlies between these teams against MLS teams would be a gauge of the American league's progress. The same was said for the MLS Select Team that went to the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium to play Real Madrid. "This will show we belong," seemed to be the prevailing sentiment among some of the soccer cultists in this country.
The reality is that those games meant about as much as a match in the Antarctic Third Division. There was nothing at stake. If you're a team like Chelsea, you're more concerned about whether your titanium shin guards will hold up under a challenge from Dema Kovalenko than actually winning the match. And if you're an MLS coach, you know that you have much bigger objectives ahead of you than claiming a European scalp.
The real tests come in games like Wednesday's match between the United States and Guatemala. While the U.S. had already qualified for the World Cup, the game still mattered plenty to a Guatemala side desperate for points. And with Bruce Arena's lineup comprised almost entirely of home-based players, the game provided the perfect environment in which to judge how far MLS has come.
On the face of Wednesday's 0-0 tie in Guatemala City, you'd have to give the league above-average marks. Road points in CONCACAF are nothing to sniff at. And let's face it, at the beginning of qualifying, a point on the road against Guatemala is a result that most fans of the national team would take, no questions asked.
This is especially true given Arena's complete overhaul of his lineup following last weekend's priceless 2-0 victory over Mexico. The radical nature of the changes all but guaranteed a disjointed first half, which is exactly what viewers were treated to. And given the lack of familiarity among those playing, the match became as much about what players might shoe-horn their way into next summer's final roster as it was about the result.
Tops on the list of those who helped their cause was goalkeeper and MLS graduate Marcus Hahnemann. With his stellar deflection of Juan Carlos Plata's first-half effort, not to mention his diving save of Julio Giron's second-half blast, Hahnemann was the Americans' sharpest player on the field. When you add in his flawless handling and command of his box, the Seattle native went a long way toward staking his claim as Kasey Keller's deputy next summer.
There are those who will claim that Manchester United's Tim Howard is still in the mix, but until the former MetroStar gets some competitive games in, that is the stuff of fantasy. Arena has long valued consistent first-team action, and that doesn't look to be happening for Howard. That is unless Edwin Van der Sar starts channeling Spinal Tap drummers and is laid low by a bizarre gardening accident. Then again, given the revolving door that has been the United goal over the last few years, you never know.
Other players who helped their cause were center backs Chad Marshall and Jimmy Conrad. While the duo weren't quite as dominant as last Saturday's pairing of Gregg Berhalter and Oguchi Onyewu, they delivered solid performances that should see them earn return engagements as qualifying winds down.
One player whose stock appears to be falling is left back Greg Vanney. Guatemala seemed intent on attacking the Dallas defender's side early on, and got behind Vanney on numerous occasions. Vanney appeared to redeem himself somewhat with an improved second half. However, his late foul on Edwin Villatoro set the stage for the Guatemalans' late flurry that saw them force a smart save from Hahnemann on a free kick, and then hit the post a minute later.
Falling into the mixed-bag category was the starting strike force of Taylor Twellman and Jeff Cunningham. Both players showed flashes, but also disappeared for long stretches. In fairness, neither player received much service in the first half, especially Twellman, and it's no surprise that Landon Donovan's insertion into the match saw the Revs' hit-man become a lot more involved.
But if the first half proved anything, it's that Twellman will need to improve his play with his back to the goal if he is to make the final roster. His cause certainly wasn't helped by his failure to take the chances with which he was presented. In particular, his failure to do better with Chris Albright's 64th-minute cross marks one opportunity that Twellman will want back.
As for Cunningham, he started the match looking sharper than Twellman, and had the misfortune of seeing his goal-bound shot in the 34th minute blocked by none other than his strike partner. But he faded from the match at times, and seemed put off by his 15th-minute yellow card for diving.
Still, both players showed enough to be given second looks. That will come Oct. 8 on the road against Costa Rica. It should prove to be a tougher test than that provided by Guatemala, and it will provide yet another metric by which to gauge the progress of MLS players.
Marcus Hahnemann, 7 - Didn't put a foot wrong. The question for Bruce Arena is: Do you give Hahnemann another go, or do you give MLS keepers like Matt Reis or Joe Cannon a shot?
Greg Vanney, 4 - Not his best performance, as Guatemala repeatedly got behind him. It makes you wonder how much playing center back for his club is hurting his chances of making next summer's squad.
Jimmy Conrad, 6 - Got a bit of a wakeup call at the end, when he was beaten by Villatoro, only to see the Guatemalan's shot hit the post. Should get another chance later in qualifying.
Chad Marshall, 6 - A solid night's work. Like Conrad, his performance should earn him another look. A future pairing of Marshall and Onyewu looks imposing.
Chris Albright, 6 - Got stronger as the game went on, despite some physical play from the opposition. Seemed to get the better of Galaxy teammate Pando Ramirez in the first half.
Bobby Convey, 5 - Was productive in the first half, but faded a bit in the second. Still was on hand to rattle the bar with a fiercely struck free kick in the second half.
Pablo Mastroeni, 5 - Started the match slowly, as did many of his teammates, but provided his usual steel and eventually found his feet. Is definitely in the mix for next summer.
Clint Dempsey, 4 - Had some dangerous moments in the first half, but seemed to struggle in the attacking midfield role.
Santino Quaranta, 4 - Never quite got it going. Had one dangerous cross in the first half, but didn't make much of an impact overall.
Jeff Cunningham, 5 - Did enough to warrant another look, but will need to raise his game another notch to make the final roster.
Taylor Twellman, 5 - Did little over the first hour, but was much more active over the last 30 minutes. Still seems snake-bit at international level.
Eddie Johnson, 5 - Should have done better with late header that he snapped wide. He's still working his way back from injury, and should be sharper for the Costa Rica game, provided he stays injury free.
Landon Donovan, 6 - Provided a valuable offensive spark when he entered the game. Set the table for Johnson with a beautiful cross.
Steve Ralston, NR - Brief cameo for one of Saturday's heroes.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org