In the six months Bob Bradley has been in charge of the U.S. national team, nearly everything has gone right. There have been confidence-building victories against the likes of Mexico and Ecuador, all while introducing a new generation of American talent. Yet the one stumble the team encountered came March 28 in a 0-0 tie against Guatemala, and as the soccer gods would have it, the U.S. opens the defense of its Gold Cup title against that same opponent Thursday.
Opinions vary as to how much emphasis should be placed on that result. On the one hand, it was a friendly, and the U.S. admittedly was fielding what amounted to a "B" team. But closer inspection reveals that most of the second-tier players lined up in defense. The midfield contained the likes of Clint Dempsey, Benny Feilhaber and Michael Bradley, and the American strike force consisted of Eddie Johnson and Landon Donovan. And though Bob Bradley has yet to settle on his lineup, it wouldn't be a surprise if all five players started Thursday's game.
Given that the offensive attack was well-staffed, the biggest disappointment coming out of that match was the Americans' inability to penetrate a Guatemalan side determined to have 10 men behind the ball as often as possible. The usual theatrics from forward Carlos Ruiz only added to the home side's irritation.
"We got frustrated, and just kept trying to push the issue of trying to put one in the back of the net," Dempsey recalled. "[Guatemala] was just trying to catch us on the counterattack, looking for fouls near the box, so they could get a shot on goal."
That frustration brought back memories of last summer's World Cup, in which the only U.S. scores came from an Italian own goal and a Ghanaian turnover Dempsey buried. When set against packed defenses, the Americans struggled, and with Guatemala coach Hernan Dario Gomez certain to use the same bunkering approach Thursday, that challenge remains the U.S. team's biggest hurdle. To Bradley's credit, this is a problem he has been attempting to address throughout his tenure.
"We've worked hard so that now when we get the ball, we're not just passing the ball and not going anywhere but we're passing with the kind of movement that creates openings in the defense," Bradley said after Saturday's 4-1 win over China.
Bradley's aim has been helped in no small part by the increased technical ability his young midfield possesses, especially the central duo of Feilhaber and Michael Bradley, who -- given Pablo Mastroeni's suspension from a red card in Germany -- likely will line up in the middle Thursday.
The match should prove to be the biggest test yet for the former youth internationals. Not only is it the first senior match for either player in a tournament setting but it also will indicate just how far they have come since that March night in Frisco, Texas, when neither performer distinguished himself. It will be especially interesting if the Americans fail to get the early goal that will force the Guatemalans to come out of their shell. If the match progresses into the second half still tied, just how will Feilhaber and Bradley -- as well as the rest of the U.S. offense -- react? Dempsey states that maintaining a varied attack, even in the face of the visitors' negative tactics, will be the key to the Americans' success."
"There's going to be experimentation [in attack]," Dempsey said. "You're going to see if you can get behind them this way or that way. You've always got to be thinking, and you've always got to be creative."
Confidence will be paramount, as well, and that might be the ingredient that proves to be the biggest difference not only for the team but also for several players. Back in March, Johnson was in a slump of Marianas Trench-like proportions. Now, he's coming off consecutive hat tricks that have vaulted him to the top of the MLS scoring charts, and the body language he's showing on the field looks miles different from that of last year. Taylor Twellman also has found himself on something of a roll this season, tallying seven times in 10 league outings. The addition of DaMarcus Beasley to the lineup also could have a telling effect, giving the Americans additional pace in the attacking half that could stretch the Guatemala defense.
Granted, there's a difference between performing well in one's domestic league as opposed to in competitive internationals, but the improved form enjoyed by a fair number of U.S. attackers stands in stark contrast to last summer, when any optimism about the American offense was based more on wishful thinking than on scintillating on-field play. True, Landon Donovan has had his ups and downs in MLS this season, but at least this time it looks as though he'll have some help. And if that is indeed the case, things will continue to go right for Bob Bradley & Co.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at email@example.com.