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Jun 27, 2007

Copa America purely a learning experience

On the final day of group games in the 1995 Copa America, Argentina coach Daniel Passarella decided to rest several starters against the U.S. After the U.S. took a three-goal lead, Passarella sent in Gabriel Batistuta and others, but it was too late; the U.S. avoided a quarterfinal date with Brazil, which instead eliminated Argentina.

Alfio "Coco" Basile has returned as Argentina's coach -- he was replaced by Passarella after the '94 World Cup -- and he is not likely to underestimate the U.S. However, this U.S. team should not be overestimated since it is a "B" team, a hodgepodge group scraped together a few days before the start of the tournament.

And the U.S. is getting thrown right into the deep end of the Copa America pool against a likely Argentina starting 11 of Roberto Abbondanzieri, Javier Zanetti, Roberto Ayala, Gabriel Milito, Gabriel Heinze, Juan Sebastian Veron, Javier Mascherano, Esteban Cambiasso, Juan Roman Riquelme, Lionel Messi and Hernan Crespo. Basile's only doubt is whether to stay conservative, with two holding midfielders, or to go offensive by replacing Cambiasso with Pablo Aimar.

The days of the U.S. taking teams by surprise should be ending. But the U.S. is still developing an identity. U.S. players will be persistent and well-conditioned, with individual skill. Copa America should show how these qualities translate into a team game in international competition.

Several years ago, top-level national teams seldom compiled an accurate scouting report on the U.S., believing the team was a homogenous group. So Brazil, for instance, did not pay attention to Preki and paid the price in the 1998 Gold Cup. Argentina, Paraguay and Colombia probably viewed Benny Feilhaber's long-distance ability in the Gold Cup final against Mexico, and now Feilhaber will likely be marked even more closely than he deserves.

How Feilhaber responds could be an indication of which direction the U.S. goes. First, Feilhaber's survival instincts will be tested by Mascherano and Veron. Will Feilhaber then retreat into the U.S. half, as Claudio Reyna tended to do? If so, will Feilhaber still be able to influence the game, as Reyna was able to do?

And, should the U.S. be without a Feilhaber or Kyle Beckerman, it will need to produce threats through individual enterprise. The team was able to do so in the Gold Cup, but that was because of the abilities of DaMarcus Beasley, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan; without those players, it is difficult to imagine the U.S. presenting much of an offensive threat. So that means the team will have to be in a defensive alignment, though that plays directly into the hands of an Argentina. Yes, Ricardo Clark should play a big role in midfield, as he did against Mexico in Chicago Sunday. But against Argentina, Clark will also not be able to get away with weak clearances, as he did against the Mexicans.

It is always fascinating to observe how U.S. players measure up on the international stage. Jonathan Bornstein has passed every test so far, but he will have to be more cautious in his upfield forays in Copa America. Beckerman's guile works in the MLS, but he might have to be even more clever now. Justin Mapp easily glides past MLSers, but can he do so against ruthless South American internationals? How will the speed of Charlie Davies and Herculez Gomez measure up?

U.S. players such as Eddie Johnson and Taylor Twellman have flaws but, placed in a favorable environment, surrounded by top-level players, they would thrive. Unfortunately, that will not be the case at the Copa. Some unfair judgments could be made of U.S. players, should the team struggle in this event. But the experience should be worthwhile. Tournaments such as the Copa America are the only way for the U.S. national team to make progress before the 2010 World Cup. The U.S. likely will not return to the '09 Copa America, since it will be playing in the Gold Cup and Confederations Cup that year.

The U.S. needs to approach Copa America with low expectations, take some lumps, and learn some lessons.

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.