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Jun 5, 2007

U.S. passes through group stage unblemished

Three games, three very unique lineups, three victories and three shutouts. With all the upsets and surprises the CONCACAF Gold Cup has provided, the U.S. national team avoided them all and passed through the tournament's group stage having accomplished almost everything it could have asked for.

Try out the stable of young defenders in matches that matter? Check. Put Clint Dempsey at forward and see how well his finishing translates there? Check. Introduce newcomers Benny Feilhaber and Michael Bradley to the regular rotation and see how they respond? Check. Give the stable of standout MLS forwards a chance to state cases for starting jobs? Check.

Bob Bradley can sit in his Boston hotel this morning confident in the knowledge that he heads into the quarterfinals having tried every player on his roster (except for third goalkeeper Brad Guzan, that is), a variety of formations and so many possible combinations in midfield and defense that there isn't much we didn't see.

Despite the tinkering and lineup changes, the U.S. team stayed focused and outworked and outplayed each of its three opponents. No, Group B wasn't exactly the Group of Death, but any group can have pitfalls if a team isn't focused.

So what did we learn about this group after three games? Here are some things:

Clint Dempsey is the U.S. team's best forward. Known for his versatility during his time in MLS, Dempsey reminded us all that moving up top and being a goal scorer can be in his repertoire. No, he isn't a classic center forward, but as we saw in the Guatemala and El Salvador matches, his ability to float and find weak spots in a defense becomes even more pronounced when given the space and freedom to operate from the forward position.

If you're saying, "Wait, what about Landon Donovan?" Donovan is the national team's best at playing a more withdrawn forward position, with the freedom to drop back into midfield and attack from a variety of positions, including the right flank. His mobility is one of the U.S. team's best weapons and he will only become more dangerous if Dempsey can draw attention away from him.

MLS success doesn't necessarily translate to national team success. This applies specifically to Taylor Twellman and Eddie Johnson. The twosome has torched MLS defenses all season, but each displayed just as many flaws as strengths during the group stage.

Twellman set up the U.S. team's lone goal against Guatemala and scored the third goal on Tuesday night against El Salvador, but far too often he has looked a step slow and his touch a bit uncertain. To his credit, Twellman is playing with confidence and will surely put in the effort if called on in the knockout rounds, but we're still waiting for evidence that he can score against top-quality competition.

Johnson scored in the U.S. team's win against Trinidad & Tobago but his overall play so far in the tournament has been mediocre. What he does have that Twellman doesn't have is the speed to beat defenders and get into position to take advantage of quality service from Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Dempsey. That speed is what will earn Johnson continued chances this tournament.

The most impressive of the traditional forwards, for my money, is Brian Ching. He is clearly not operating at 100 percent, but that hasn't stopped him from making some of the most impressive plays of the tournament. He reads the game and is a better passer than both Twellman and Johnson, and these characteristics make him a more ideal fit for the fluid attack Bob Bradley wants to feature. Don't be surprised to see more of Ching in the knockout rounds than you did in the group stage.

The defense is deeper than it has ever been. Bob Bradley has to be loving his options in the back right now. There isn't a defender in the bunch who hasn't established himself as being capable of starting and playing well if called on.

Yes, it can be argued that, aside from Guatemala's Carlos Ruiz, the three teams the United States has faced so far didn't have any truly dangerous attacking players, but American defenders still have shown good qualities that translate well regardless of opponent.

Michael Parkhurst provided a clear message to doubters who question whether he has the size to be a good international defender. His poise, positioning and ability to read the game have translated well in his two games this tournament. Yes, those matches came against two of the four teams that won't be playing in the quarterfinals, but his skill was still promising to see. His pairing with Oguchi Onyewu was a surprising one but one we could see more of, especially if Carlos Bocanegra is needed elsewhere on the field.

Fullback prospects Jonathan Bornstein, Jonathan Spector and Frank Simek have all shown that they are capable of quality play as flank defenders, giving the U.S. team the best group of young fullbacks in its history. Bornstein is still growing as a player but makes a stronger case each game for holding on to the left back spot on a permanent basis. Spector and Simek are also young but they are tough and quick and while their attacking qualities aren't going to remind anybody of Dani Alves, they are capable of getting forward and contributing.

Benny Feilhaber and Michael Bradley are young, but they are ready. Both players have had their good moments and bad moments this tournament but there is no denying that both have the qualities and abilities to merit their continued time on the field. If you have an issue with them playing a bit ugly in the El Salvador match, it should be noted that the central midfield's key task was smothering the opposing central midfield, which they did.

In the second half, when play opened up, you really saw the strengths of both young players. Their ability to identify the right pass is solid and while both committed their share of turnovers, many of those turnovers came from attempting to unlock a bunkered Salvadoran defense.

One of Bradley's toughest decisions for the group stage may be deciding which of these two players, if any, starts in the quarterfinals and beyond. Veteran Pablo Mastroeni provides a defensive bite that the team will surely need against the high-powered attacks of Honduras, Panama or Mexico, three teams the United States could face in the quarterfinals. Does the coach go with Feilhaber, who has shown more of a penchant for contributing to the attack, or does he choose his son, whose tireless work rate and ability to make the right pass to relieve pressure is something you normally find in a veteran?

So what about Ricardo Clark? There is no doubting that Clark is a good player, but he is a touch slower to process situations and deliver quick passes than both Feilhaber and Bradley, which can lead to him holding on to the ball a bit more than Bob Bradley probably feels comfortable with. It should also be noted that if Mastroeni is going to be a regular starter, combining him with Clark would leave the central midfield lacking in the attacking department. Then again, combining them to shut down a top midfield, like that of Mexico's, might be more ideal.

With the group stage in the rearview mirror, Bradley can now focus on the real hard part, getting his team ready for the knockout round. The success of the group stage will already give the Americans a leg up on the other members of the remaining field, all of which have had to deal with far more problems than the American team has. Now Bradley will have his own chance to impress, by making the right lineup selections and continuing to lead this young American squad on the road to the Gold Cup final in Chicago. The U.S. team is halfway there and everything points to it being able to defend its title.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.