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Feb 15, 2007

U.S. likely to send "B" team to Copa America

For those wishing to see the U.S. men's national team in more high-pressure games, they got what they hoped for on Wednesday as the draw for this summer's Copa America was announced in Venezuela. The Americans were drawn into Group C, which contains Argentina, Paraguay and Colombia, three teams that should provide the U.S. with a stern test. Unfortunately, a crowded summer calendar will likely prevent America's best players from reaping the benefits of this competition.

To be fair, the U.S. Soccer Federation and U.S. interim head coach Bob Bradley are facing a logistical nightmare. The Gold Cup will run from June 6-24, while the Americans' first match in Copa America against Argentina will take place on June 28 in Maracaibo, Venezuela. Given that club coaches in both MLS and in Europe will be reluctant to have their players participate in both tournaments, it seems likely that a different squad -- with a few exceptions -- will be used in each competition. Faced with that reality, Bradley made it clear on Wednesday where he would place his priorities.

"The Gold Cup is still the most important event for us," Bradley said. "Obviously, it's our confederation championship, but the main reason that I think it's extra important is because winning the Gold Cup will earn us three very good games in South Africa in 2009 [at the Confederations Cup]. Moving forward, the opportunity to try to play in order to get those kinds of games is very important."

Bradley added that the timing of the respective tournaments also makes it more likely his European-based performers will play in the Gold Cup rather than Copa America. Those players will have just completed their club seasons, and their participation in the Gold Cup should still allow them some time off before reporting for preseason training with their teams some time in July.

Certainly the logic in which Bradley arrived at his decision makes sense. The opportunity to play in South Africa at the Confederations Cup will not only provide the U.S. with three more competitive games, but it will give the USSF a chance to work out any logistical kinks one year ahead of the World Cup.

Yet I can't shake the feeling that in some ways, the logic is all backwards. The primary reason for entering Copa America is that it provides better competition in a much more hostile environment than the Gold Cup does. But instead of sending its strongest team to Venezuela, the U.S. will be sending its B team. Both Brazil and Argentina have taken a similar approach in the past, but if last summer's World Cup proved anything, it's that even the most experienced American players would benefit from playing in Copa America, and the fact that they won't is a shame.

At the least, dealing with both competitions should give Bradley ample opportunity to call up European-based players like Watford's Jay DeMerit and Sheffield Wednesday's Frank Simek, who have been on the outside looking in as far as national team call-ups are concerned.

And given the draw the U.S. was handed, having at least some players with European experience will be needed. Following its opener against Argentina, the U.S. will face Paraguay on July 2 before finishing with Colombia on July 5. While a third-place finish might be enough to qualify the U.S. for the quarterfinals, Bradley is under no illusions as to the difficulty of the Americans' task, especially as it pertains to their first opponent.

"[Argentina has] some tremendous players, real stars," Bradley said. "Whenever you play against a team like that, the bar gets raised to incredible heights in terms of what every player on the field must do; how they must step up, how they must concentrate. It puts our ability to handle the ball under pressure under a microscope, because Argentina is not only a team that is very good with the ball, but a team that understands how to put pressure on the opponent."

Bradley's point about possession is telling, if for no other reason than that is where the U.S. has struggled the most during his tenure. Fortunately, the players that Bradley will have at his disposal this summer will be closer to peak form than the group he had at the beginning of the year. And while results are always important, the Americans' ability to keep the ball and carry more of the game to their opponents will be perhaps a clearer indicator of the team's progress under Bradley.

Of course, that assumes that Bradley will still be the coach when both the Gold Cup and Copa America commence. When the topic was broached with USSF President Sunil Gulati last week during an informal roundtable with reporters, Gulati was his usual, close-to-the-vest self. When asked if a decision would be made before the summer, Gulati said, "Maybe," adding that the decision could stretch into late summer. He also stated a decision would not be made while either the Gold Cup or Copa America was going on.

Given that the European club season still has three months to go, Gulati evidently feels that time is his ally, and it may be for the moment. But I would be very surprised if the decision is made after the Copa America, especially if it involves opting for a coach other than Bradley. That would risk wasting much of the work that has been done since January.

A more logical approach would be to make a decision in April or May. If a coach other than Bradley is named, there would be sufficient time before the Gold Cup to get up to speed. If Bradley wins the job, then he would carry on as before.

Based on Wednesday's conference call, Bradley sounded like a man expecting to be in charge come summer. U.S. fans should hope this attitude will extend to the players as well.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.