When training camp for the U.S. men's national team opened one month ago, it was as if interim head coach Bob Bradley had posted a sign that read "No experience necessary," such was the dearth of international appearances among the invitees. As the Americans head into Wednesday's "friendly" against Mexico, Bradley will probably choose a more tested crew, but there will still be opportunities for some young players to shine.
"I've been in this situation a few times," Bradley said. "But I don't think any were as big as this game. We understand that in many ways, we will not be the home team. I think that makes the challenge greater, but we are excited to play in that kind of atmosphere knowing that we'll all need to be at our best."
The quality and motivation of the opponent will demand that kind of performance as well. The match will be the first in charge for Mexican head coach Hugo Sanchez, and the former Mexican international seems intent on making an impression of Mike Tyson-like proportions. Sanchez has recalled nearly all of his European-based players, including midfielders Pavel Pardo of Stuttgart and Nery Castillo of Olympiakos. Sanchez has also brought Club America attacker Cuauhtemoc Blanco back from international exile.
In response, Bradley has called in four overseas players of his own in goalkeeper Tim Howard, defender Carlos Bocanegra, and midfielders Bobby Convey and Clint Dempsey. Add in the likes of attacker Landon Donovan, midfielder Pablo Mastroeni, and defender Jimmy Conrad, and you have the makings of side that has at least some level of comfort with the demands of the international game.
To those hoping to see more young players in the lineup, the shift to veteran players will be a disappointment. But according to Conrad, the intensity that accompanies such a match mandates this kind of adjustment.
"I think you have to find the right blend," said Conrad of the mix between youth and experience. "There are certain positions on the field where you need guys you can rely on to keep everything in check. When Mexico has the ball and they've strung 10 passes together and everyone is screaming 'Ole', you don't need six guys who have never been in that position before running around with their heads cut off. There is an element of experience that comes into play here."
Conrad adds that there will be adjustments for some of the veteran players as well in that they will be expected to play more prominent roles. For a player like Dempsey, playing a bit part is no longer enough, as he is now expected to be one of the focal points of the attack. Mastroeni no longer has Claudio Reyna by his side to shoulder some leadership responsibilities. And a player like Bocanegra is expected to be one of the defensive cornerstones as the U.S. heads into World Cup qualifying. Excelling in these roles, and in Mastroeni's case staying away from unnecessary cautions, will be just as critical as the performances of the younger players.
As for which youngsters will fill out the starting XI, Ricardo Clark seems set to partner Mastroeni in the center of midfield in the twin destroyer alignment that was used against Denmark. There is a chance that Bradley might opt to put Donovan as an outright attacking midfielder with Mastroeni covering his back, but that seems unlikely. While the defense of Convey and Dempsey has improved over the last year, their strengths are in going forward. And given Bradley's desire to "make it difficult for Mexico to find a good rhythm," it would seem that the pairing of Clark and Mastroeni gives the U.S. the best chance of doing that.
With Bocanegra probably lining up beside Conrad in the center of defense, Jonathan Bornstein seems set to get another chance at left back. While Bornstein flashed his ability to get into the attack against Denmark, popping up for the game-winning goal, his defense looked a tad suspect. Yet Wednesday's game might prove to be a better matchup for the Chivas USA defender. Unlike the Denmark game, in which Bornstein's slight frame saw him lose out on some 50-50 challenges, he'll be able to rely more on his speed to counter the influence of players like winger Alberto Medina.
How Bornstein performs could be vital in determining the result, because the flanks are where Mexico would appear to have the greatest advantage. Right back Chris Albright is another player who struggled in the Denmark game, although that was in part due to illness. He'll certainly have his hands full as he tries to blunt the attacks of Ramon Morales. And if the likes of Convey and Dempsey have to spend too much time helping out on defense, the U.S. could find itself pegged back in its own half for long periods.
Another key matchup concerns how the U.S. defense copes with Mexican target man Jared Borgetti. American defender Oguchi Onyewu famously marked (some would say wrestled) Borgetti out of the game during the Americans' 2-0 win that clinched qualification for the 2006 World Cup. But with Onyewu's recent loan move to Newcastle United rendering him unavailable, the task will fall to Bocanegra and Conrad. Since neither player has Onyewu's strength, Conrad anticipates it will be a tag-team effort.
"It comes down to whether Mexico come with two [forwards] or one," said Conrad. "If it's one, we have to do a good job of stacking [Borgetti] up and not let him get easy service so he can hold it up and get their midfielders into the play."
In attack, the U.S. will likely see Donovan move into a more central role, but whether he plays underneath a forward like Taylor Twellman or plays higher up the field remains to be seen. There also remains a chance that Eddie Johnson could be in the frame to start, but given his rather tepid performances of late, one wonders just how many more chances the Kansas City forward will get before Bradley turns his gaze elsewhere.
Given the difference in experience between the two squads, as well as the anticipated hostile crowd, the U.S. enters the game as an underdog. But the Americans have excelled in this kind of environment before. In 2005, the U.S. beat Mexico 1-0 with a lineup comprised almost entirely of domestic-based players. If the Americans can come up with a similar performance, then it's an experience that could provide the foundation for future success.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.