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Jan 19, 2007

Game against Denmark far from meaningless

The nearest World Cup qualifier is more than a year away and the closest match that really counts toward a competition is more than five months away, but that doesn't make Saturday's match between the U.S. national team and Denmark any less important.

How can a friendly in January against a European "B" team really mean anything? It means something when you are a coach with only a handful of matches to impress, a precious few opportunities to show that you can indeed shape a national team into a cohesive and effective bunch. For Bob Bradley, the match is Step 1 in an audition that won't allow for many missteps.

It isn't as if losing on Saturday makes Bradley any less of a coach, but what it does is give fuel to the critics who just don't think he is different enough from Bruce Arena to be a worthwhile replacement for a coach whose biggest crime was not advancing out of the toughest group in last summer's World Cup.

It won't matter that the MLS players who make up Bradley's squad are currently out of season, or that the U.S. team he fields will be a shell of the truly full-strength squad that faces archrival Mexico on Feb. 7 in Glendale, Ariz. What matters for an American fan base is a victory, a convincing win to serve as the first cup of mouthwash to help remove the bad taste of last year's World Cup, a flavor that has lingered far longer than it ever should have.

Give the fans a victory and some promising performances from some national team newcomers and suddenly people will have something else to talk about besides who is or isn't standing on the sidelines for the U.S. national team. Put out a disjointed lineup that falters against a Danish League All-Star team and you just might hear some "Where is Juergen" chants sprouting up at Home Depot Center.

One person who will definitely be rooting for Bradley to succeed is Sunil Gulati, who I still believe wants Bradley to do well enough to make his permanent appointment as head coach more palatable to the American soccer fans and media. That is what Saturday should be, the sacrificing of an undermanned opponent to help boost the new coach's stock.

You can rest assured that Bradley isn't losing any sleep over the implications of Saturday's match. He will field the best 11 he can come up with (which should be a solid one led by Landon Donovan, Pablo Mastroeni and Jimmy Conrad) and the team should benefit from the long training camp it has just completed. Young standouts such as Kenny Cooper, Justin Mapp and Jonathan Bornstein will have their chance to stake claims to the voids left by the retirements of Brian McBride and Eddie Pope. You can rest assured that Bradley will have his team ready to play.

Things won't get any easier for Bradley even if the Americans post the victory they are expected to earn Saturday. The team's next match actually has some meaning, because it will be on home soil against Mexico. Both teams are expected to field full-strength squads replete with European-based players, giving us the first true measure of how these rivals stack up some 17 months since the last time they met in a competitive match. Throw in the fact that the match will be the first for new Mexico head coach Hugo Sanchez and it would be easy for some to look past Saturday and bask in the significance of the CONCACAF clasico.

The thing is, Saturday's game is made even more important for Bradley and the U.S. team because of the looming Mexico match. Defeat Denmark, and look good doing so, and the feeling heading into that Mexico match is a confident and upbeat one. Lose to Denmark, and look bad doing so, and suddenly the Mexico game is a must-win for Bradley and the national team. Losing both games would be the surest way to spin American soccer into the same kind of panic that engulfed it after last summer's World Cup elimination.

Can a "meaningless" friendly really have so much meaning? Given the tumultuous past six months for U.S. Soccer, and considering Bradley's tenuous hold on the national team coaching job, and it is easy to see why Saturday's match carries far more significance than it should.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.