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Jan 22, 2007

Mapp represents the next wave of U.S. talent

An echo seemed to hang in air that was still charged with electricity after Justin Mapp's audacious dribble run created the winning goal for the U.S. versus Denmark in the first match of the Bob Bradley era.

Jack Edwards' call of "That's why he's here!" after Clint Mathis nailed an improbable World Cup goal in 2002 could have applied equally well to Mapp, in the sense that, like Mathis then, Mapp's combination of creativity and drive that sparked the chance would not have been looked for from any other player on the field.

After all, Mapp was out there breaking every rule.

"It was an amazing run," said Jonathan Bornstein, who finished off Mapp's feed for the go-ahead strike. "He won that ball in the middle of the field, then he took it down the right side of the field, though we were both playing on the left side."

Mapp had decided to throw caution -- and the rather jittery, tentative game the U.S. team had been producing to that point -- to the wind. He made it down the field into the right side of the penalty area before two Danish defenders closed in. Instead of playing it safe, passing back to incoming teammates, Mapp charged ahead.

"I saw a couple of guys -- I didn't really have too many options so I said, 'What the heck' and went at both of them and found a little seam and got to the end line," said Mapp, who successfully beat both players and crossed the ball in front of the goal for the shot.

"Most coaches would say 'What are you guys doing?'" said Bornstein. "In the end, it's a good result. That's part of soccer."

Coach Bob Bradley acknowledged that Mapp's talent was unique.

"Justin is still a player who can do special things," said Bradley. "We've seen it in MLS and it was nice to see him produce a really neat piece of skill that led to the second goal. In the whole camp, he's still someone who day in and day out has some special ability and now we're just trying to push him to do more to go with that."

What isn't evident is if the U.S. has yet been able to figure out a way to integrate players with such an unorthodox approach to the game -- those who don't always follow the expected norm of hardworking and blue-collar play that has often characterized U.S. soccer.

There are always those few who simply don't plug away industrially, who don't take the standardized route, who become more dangerous on the field precisely because they are so unpredictable.

Mathis was one. Mapp is another.

As such, despite the often-impressive plays that Bradley alluded to Mapp producing in MLS, the former youth national team star found himself waiting for calls to join the full national team for some time.

Not surprisingly, the complaints bandied about concerning Mapp didn't refer to his ability. Instead, his work rate, defensive dedication and consistency were questioned.

"You're patient, and when you get your chance, you try to make the most of it," said Mapp of his few opportunities with the senior squad. "[I've got] no hard feelings or anything."

Until Mapp stepped on the field against Denmark, the U.S. had produced little in the way of threatening play. The only U.S. goal had been the result of a rather fortunate penalty call after a Danish defender hung on to Ricardo Clark's shirt just a bit too long.

Perhaps nervous about producing for their new coach, even experienced players like Landon Donovan and Eddie Johnson were sending passes awry or misreading where teammates were heading on runs. All were working hard, but the Danes were able to counter that effort fairly easily.

They seemed less sure of how to handle Mapp. He had space at the beginning of his run because the Danes looked like they expected him to pass the ball. That was the standard approach by the U.S. players.

Mapp had been given more free rein.

"They said, going forward, just be creative and kind of do your thing," said Mapp.

It's easier said than done, of course, because lip service is often paid to the idea of inspired play, but U.S. soccer has produced few innovators. Peter Nowak, the U.S. team's current assistant coach, spent considerable effort while at DC United instilling a defensive side to Freddy Adu -- not encouraging his ingenious attacking play.

Bradley has often taken a "live and let live" approach to the unpredictable players he has guided, refusing to be baited by a petulant Juan Pablo Garcia and similarly avoiding confrontations with a fickle Amado Guevara. Yet neither of those players really blossomed to the full potential his talent seemed to promise, even while under Bradley.

It could be that the American system is simply too locked into a norm that prefers dependability over anything unusual. Honest, athletic effort has been a hallmark of the national team for some time. There is little concept of "magic" in U.S. soccer, and coaches often seem suspicious of not knowing what they can expect from any given performer.

It was telling, perhaps, that Mapp was not trusted to start the game against the Danes. It remains to be seen what role he will be allowed in the upcoming clash against Mexico in February.

Mapp himself almost seemed to be trying to establish a new identity with the team.

"I've grown over the years," Mapp said. "I'm just trying to be consistent in all aspects, whether it be going forward or defensively."

Whether he was trying to reassure coaches or campaign for increased opportunity -- it was evident from that statement that Mapp had felt the pressure to conform.

"Everybody's trying to impress the coach," said Mapp. "We are the future, so it's exciting."

It will be exciting -- if players like Mapp are allowed to have an impact.

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com, soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com.