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Mar 27, 2007

Guatemala game allows more experimentation

FRISCO, Texas -- The United States is powering through its early-season checklist. Manager Bob Bradley has seen 31 players in two diverse camps, one weighted with MLS talent and one laden with European reinforcements.

Along the way the Americans dispatched a middleweight opponent in Denmark, turned the wrench a little more on their vise-like hold over Mexico and then beat down a pretty decent World Cup finalist in Ecuador last Sunday.

So Bradley has vastly improved his knowledge of the talent pool heading into a busy summer. All that's left is to punctuate a telling three months of observation and tinkering with a midweek friendly against a Guatemalan team that, in truth, should pose little threat if the manager can keep his assembled talent on message.

"This camp has been excellent," Bradley said of the 10-day period built around two international fixture dates. "We've had a chance to continue the process of getting to know each other, establishing ideas on how to work together. We've had a good chance to see different players on the field, different combinations. ... Now we have a second game to look at some other players."

So, what kind of lineup will Bradley deploy on what may be a soggy Pizza Hut Park pitch? (The team canceled its Monday evening light workout due to heavy rain and more precipitation is in the forecast.)

Even for a friendly against a relative lightweight, the U.S. boss doesn't want to give away too much. Bradley -- who surely must be closer to shedding the "interim" from his job title; he is now the first U.S. manager to win his opening three matches -- did allow that Kasey Keller would probably be in goal.

And scratch at least four potential starting candidates: Carlos Bocanegra, Tim Howard, Oguchi Onyewu and Brian Carroll have been released back to their clubs. Bocanegra, Howard and Onyewu are back with their Premiership sides; Carroll is joining D.C. United in preparation for next week's CONCACAF Champions Cup second leg semifinal against Chivas.

Bradley hinted strongly that Watford's Jay DeMerit and Sheffield Wednesday's Frank Simek might earn their first caps Wednesday. In the middle, Bradley got a long look Sunday at Jimmy Conrad and Onyewu, who sorted out some early struggles against Ecuador with the help of a more organized midfield after intermission.

The task for DeMerit in the middle and Simek on the outside won't be as substantial; Guatemala doesn't possess Ecuador's level of overall speed or ability up front, although combative striker Carlos Ruiz is certainly capable of punishing any lapses in concentration.

The opportunity is massive for DeMerit because of the center back logjam.

The dominant forces of the moment are Conrad and Onyewu. On Sunday, Bocanegra proved once again that outside back simply isn't his spot, and he too is a center back. So DeMerit now gets his time as still others -- has Cory Gibbs moved into the witness protection program or what? -- await their day in court before Judge Bradley.

"In this camp, we got to know a guy like Jay DeMerit a little bit," Bradley said. "We got to see a guy like Bobby Boswell against Denmark. I think that is a position where both in MLS and in Europe we have some pretty solid players. And that's good to see."

In the attack, Donovan seems likely to play once again. Going forward, Bradley needs the Los Angeles Galaxy star to be more than just a productive attacker. He needs Donovan, 25, to become a presence and a leader. Hence the captain's armband Donovan wore while manufacturing a splendid hat trick in Sunday's 3-1 triumph.

And Donovan wants that from himself, too. Donovan understands now that he inspires confidence in others when he exudes it.

"But I do take an active role in trying to help the other guys as much as I can," he said. "It's hard, because athletes are so fragile, and it's such an up-and-down roller coaster. You've got to try to find stabilizing ground."

All that being the case, it's not easy leading from the bench. So another start seems likely for the man now bearing down hard on Eric Wynalda for the all-time U.S. goals leadership. Donovan has 30 in 87 appearances, tied with Brian McBride for second in goals. Wynalda scored 34 times in 106 appearances.

Structurally, Bradley wants to see a little more attention to compact defensive alignment, more like the second half Sunday as Michael Bradley joined Benny Feilhaber (say it "FAIL-hay-ber") in central midfield. In the first half, the midfield got stretched a bit, allowing Ecuadorean forwards to receive balls in comfortable places.

When the cracks did appear, Bradley saw messy one-on-one defending as Conrad and Onyewu sometimes dealt inadequately with Ecuador's troublesome strikers in the individual battles. That improved, Bradley said, as the team structure settled in the second half.

That is all part of the learning curve for players and coaches as they continue to get acquainted. Keller, 37, jokes about having been around long enough to witness three of these managerial transitions. So what has he learned about Bradley during the pair's first extensive time together?

"Bob's not going to be let people rest on their laurels," the veteran goalkeeper said. "If he doesn't see something right in training, somebody not doing what he wants them to do, he's going to let them know, and that he expects them to correct it if they want to stay on the national team and in our system."

Keller thinks that's great, for the young and the old. He's seen coaches through the years who provide a little too much wiggle room for established players. The manager gives a pass on a bad training session. That turns into a stinker on match day. Then the training sessions spiral even more and suddenly the player isn't in form and, wham! The player is shocked when he's benched.

"And then the player says, 'Well, wait a minute why didn't you tell me after a week, and maybe I could have changed and it wouldn't get to this situation?' That's something I like about Bob."

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.