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The Toe Poke

U.S. faces an Ecuador team on the rise

When it comes to soccer, the style versus substance debate is almost as old as the game itself. For some nations like Brazil, it's not enough just to win; you have to look good in the process. Ditto for countries like Mexico and Holland. Given the latter pair's World Cup disappointments, it's as if both sides subscribe to the Fernando Lamas School of Soccer. It is better to look good than to feel good.

The United States has never been burdened with such expectations. The score -- quite rightly in most instances -- has been the only thing that matters. Yet the time might be right for letting aesthetic concerns take on more importance, and Sunday's friendly against Ecuador at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., would be a good place to start.

That's not to say that the U.S. hasn't ever played attractive soccer. There have even been times when the Americans have found their inner Fernando, with the quarterfinal defeat to Germany at the 2002 World Cup immediately coming to mind. But throughout its existence, American soccer has mostly relied on stout defending and exploiting counterattacks and set pieces to score goals. This hardly makes the U.S unique, and there is no disgrace in this. But it will only carry a team so far.

Certainly the Americans' approach didn't appear to change all that much in the first two friendlies of this year. While there were individual moments of brilliance -- with Justin Mapp's scintillating run against Denmark the prime example -- maintaining possession proved difficult, especially against a Mexico side that dominated for long stretches.

Some will blame this on Bob Bradley's status as interim head coach, the implication being that so concerned is he about his future that he wouldn't dare take any risks. One only has to look at some of the inexperienced players in the U.S. lineup to realize this isn't the case.

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Ecuador,
March 25
Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
12 p.m. ET, ESPN2

U.S. vs. Guatemala,
March 28
Pizza Hut Park, Frisco, Texas
9 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Nor are the issues of keeping the ball and having a varied attack as simple as just waking up one morning and deciding to play like Brazil. You need players with the kind of technical ability and tactical savvy necessary to achieve those ends. And while the U.S. still has a way to go in this regard, the naming of 13 European-based players to the roster for Sunday's game gives the U.S. a chance to add some style to its considerable substance.

Not only are these players closer to peak form than their MLS counterparts, but the contingent is comprised of some of the more technical players in the U.S. pool. Having a full week of training, rather than hopping off a plane and playing 24 hours later should help as well. But according to defender Steve Cherundolo, even without these factors, taking an approach with more finesse is something for which he feels the U.S. is ready.

"I really do think it's time to start playing a really attractive style of soccer," Cherundolo told earlier this week. "We need to move the ball; we need to create chances. I think that's the direction the team needs to go in."

The extent to which these sentiments are shared by Bradley isn't completely clear. During Wednesday's conference call with reporters, he sounded a bit more cautious than Cherundolo, while still acknowledging that the U.S. needs to improve its attack.

"I think against Mexico we were pretty hard to play against," said Bradley. "But we also still feel that our movement, our spacing, our passing can continue to improve. So we're always looking for good balance."

The obstacles to achieving that balance are Sunday's opponent, as well as the composition of the U.S. midfield. In Ecuador, the Americans will be facing a team that is on the rise. The South Americans have qualified for the last two World Cups, and made it to the round of 16 before succumbing to England, 1-0.

Ecuador's roster for Sunday's match includes 11 players who participated in last summer's tournament, including goal-scoring hero Carlos Tenorio, as well as PSV Eindhoven midfielder Edison Mendez. It was Mendez's long-distance goal during his side's 1-0 Champions League triumph against Arsenal back on February 20 that helped propel PSV into the quarterfinals. It adds up to the kind of side that should provide ideal preparation for the Gold Cup and Copa America.

"I think [Ecuador] are very, very good technically," said Bradley. "They are very quick. So, [we need] to deal with those factors, defensively make sure that we're on the same page, yet still do a good job when we have the ball."

While the onus for an improved attack will be the responsibility of every player on the field, it will fall primarily on a midfield that could be lacking in international experience. Wide players such as DaMarcus Beasley and Clint Dempsey will be the primary attacking options out of midfield. But with knee injuries ruling out both Pablo Mastroeni and Ricardo Clark, Bradley has some decisions to make as to who will occupy the more central roles.

Word out of training camp is that Landon Donovan, Brian Carroll, Benny Feilhaber and Michael Bradley, the coach's son, have all gotten a look in the center of the park. If Donovan assumes that role, it means a relatively untested player will line up in the middle, a number that could grow to two if Donovan assumes his customary role up top.

It makes for an interesting dilemma. Certainly the international résumés of Carroll, Feilhaber and Bradley are thin. Between them they have a whopping seven international appearances. But these three players are no strangers to high-pressure games. Feilhaber suited up for Hamburg in this year's Champions League, while Bradley appeared for Dutch side Heerenveen in the UEFA Cup. Carroll's stint with D.C. United doesn't compare as favorably, but he's been one of the key cogs in a United side that has been among the best teams in MLS over the last three years.

While my head tells me that there is no way Bradley the coach would start Bradley the player alongside Feilhaber, my heart wouldn't mind seeing it. Such a lineup would lack the bite that the combination of Mastroeni and Clark provided in the Americans' earlier friendlies. But both players might offer a bit more in attack, and offer more of a two-way threat. At the least, utilizing this pair against Ecuador would give spectators a glimpse of what the national team's future might have in store. But whomever Bob Bradley plays on Sunday, let's hope they play with a panache that would make even Fernando proud.

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