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Jun 28, 2007

U.S. plans to be aggressive against Argentina

MARACAIBO, Venezuela -- Take one look at Argentina's lineup for its Copa America opener against the United States on Thursday, and you'll see a "Murderers' Row" of attacking talent. Juan Roman Riquelme, Hernan Crespo, and Lionel Messi all ooze class, and they're not alone. In fact, the team is so deep, that not even the considerable talent of Carlos Tevez is enough to crack the starting 11. And who will the Americans trot out against the juggernaut that is the Albiceleste? A side that is so inexperienced that the training wheels are welded into place.

At minimum, the Americans' lineup will contain at least five players with 10 or fewer international appearances. For that reason, one might anticipate -- or even hope -- that U.S. coach Bob Bradley will keep a tighter leash on his side than he did in the Gold Cup, when the U.S. always looked to seize the initiative. But at Wednesday's press conference, Bradley firmly stated that the last thing he wanted was for his team's mentality to change, even when facing an opponent like Argentina.

"I think that we will try to -- in a smart way -- still be aggressive," said Bradley. "We have respect for [Argentina], but we want to draw the line and make sure it's not too much respect. Our abilities as a team are to still be aggressive, and to challenge them with our ability to go forward. We think this is very important, so that's the starting point. Obviously, at the end, the game determines the tactics really. You can have a great game plan, but it's up to the players to respond to the situations in the game."

The biggest impediment to Bradley's approach lies in the considerable mismatch that exists in midfield. While the presumed American foursome of Sacha Kljestan, Ricardo Clark, Benny Feilhaber, and Justin Mapp has plenty of raw technical ability, their lack of refinement could be exposed against Argentina's experienced quartet of Esteban Cambiasso, Juan Sebastian Veron, Javier Mascherano, and Riquelme, who are not only adept at keeping the ball, but also clever in their use of pressure to win it back.

Even if Bradley opts for the more experienced Ben Olsen in midfield, matters aren't likely to change. That means that it will be a lonely night up top for American forwards Taylor Twellman and Eddie Johnson, whose comparative bushel of caps will likely be of little benefit, given that they won't see much of the ball.

It also has the makings of a long day for the American defense, although this game does represent a huge opportunity for center backs Jimmy Conrad and Jay DeMerit. The Gold Cup partnership of Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu that finished strong against Mexico was also plagued by inconsistency throughout the tournament, leaving the door open for others to stake their claim. Conrad will be trying to recapture the fine form he showed earlier in the year before injury ruled out his participation in the Gold Cup. Meanwhile, DeMerit will be eager to show that the season he spent in the English Premiership with Watford has improved his game to the point that he should be higher on Bradley's depth chart.

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Argentina,
June 28
Estadio Jose Panchencho Romero, Maracaibo, Venezuela
9 p.m. ET

U.S. vs. Paraguay,
July 2
Estadio Agustin Tovar, Barinas, Venezuela
6.30 p.m. ET

U.S. vs. Colombia,
July 5
Estadio Metropolitano FdL, Barquisimeto, Venezuela
6.30 p.m. ET

As for presumptive right back Marvell Wynne, international baptisms don't come any tougher. In addition to the Albiceleste's wealth of attackers, he'll have to deal with the marauding runs of Argentina defender Gabriel Heinze.

That said, most of the attention will still fall on Messi and Riquelme. Argentina head coach Alfio Basile hailed the duo at the team's press conference, saying they "can change the game in a second." But Basile also mentioned the dirty work that Crespo will need to do for his side to be successful.

"I want Crespo to not only go for goal, but to make an effort to come back," said Basile through an interpreter. "He needs to hold the ball up, and help the other guys,"

One small intangible the U.S. has in its favor is that there are a handful of American players who have not only beaten Argentina in international competition, but have done so against the mesmerizing talents of Messi. Copa America debutantes Wynne, Benny Feilhaber, Kljestan, Eddie Gaven, and Lee Nguyen were all members of the U.S. U-20 national team that defeated Argentina 1-0 at the 2005 FIFA U-20 World Cup. Messi came on at halftime of that match, and while Kljestan remembers him well, the Americans' collective effort made a bigger impression.

"It's important that you make it hard on [Argentina]," Kljestan said. "That's what we tried to do in '05 and I'm sure that's what we'll try to do against them [Thursday]. You can't give them any easy plays, because they'll break you down. I think it's just important that every one of their players has a hard game when they play against us."

The U.S. will also be hoping that Argentina makes life difficult for itself by once again underestimating its American opponents. That's what happened back in the 1995 version of the Copa, when Argentina's choice to sit nearly all of its regulars came back to bite them in a 3-0 defeat. Certainly Basile's decision to reveal his lineup before Thursday's match would hint at a certain amount of overconfidence, not that you can blame him. But publicly, he was quick to state that he was aware of such a trap, using Peru's surprising 3-0 defeat of favored Uruguay on Tuesday as an example.

Said Basile: "If you don't play humble, things can go badly, like for Uruguay."

If Argentina heeds that warning, chances are it'll be the one doing the humbling.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.