It was supposed to be a learning experience, a chance for some young U.S. national team prospects to test themselves against a world-class opponent, but a three-goal barrage at the hands of Argentina turned the lesson into a painful one.
While Benny Feilhaber followed up his Gold Cup-winning strike against Mexico with a solid effort on Thursday night, and Jonathan Bornstein showed why Bob Bradley has so much faith in him, Eddie Gaven and Marvell Wynne walked off the field in Maracaibo with failing grades in the first exam of Bradley's version of summer school.
There were few positives among the U.S. team's young players but there is no doubting that Feilhaber and Bornstein impressed. Feilhaber's performance was a better complete effort, as he clashed throughout the night with some of the world's best midfielders and held his own repeatedly. Sure, Juan Roman Riquelme made magical plays and Juan Sebastian Veron made some subtle plays that wound up leading to goals, but Feilhaber was right there to challenge, to make some of his own plays and to serve notice that the U.S. national team program does have a budding midfield central star in their midst.
Consider the best play of the day for the Americans, Feilhaber's defense-splitting long pass to Eddie Johnson that Johnson turned into a penalty. The vision and touch on the ball left Johnson at the doorstep and the penalty he drew on the play led to the U.S. team's only goal. It was one of the very few moments of attacking success, but it was a promising play for Feilhaber, who has staked a strong claim to a permanent starting job with the national team.
Bornstein's second half against Argentina wasn't as good as the first half, but that first 45 minutes was the type of performance you put on a DVD and send to European clubs. Bornstein's speed, ability to read the game and stay in front of Argentina's attackers was impressive, as was the handful of times he was able to shut down Lionel Messi with well-timed tackles and fearless determination. He was so effective against Messi in fact, that Argentina slid Messi over to the left side, a move that helped precipitate the eventual collapse of the U.S. defense.
Bornstein's effort was made even more impressive by the fact that he just played in the Gold Cup semifinals and final a week ago, making it three high-level matches in eight days for the young fullback. Yes, Bornstein struggled in the second half, but Bornstein's overall effort was still promising and only served to solidify his status as the first-choice left back in the U.S. national team pool.
Another player who could come away from the Argentina match feeling confident about his performance is Jay DeMerit, who may not qualify as young at 27, but who has been very impressive as a national team newcomer. On Thursday night, DeMerit stood up to every challenge through most of the contest and his only noticeable mistake was late in the match when he kept Carlos Tevez onside for Argentina's fourth goal.
That error aside, DeMerit has thrown down a legitimate challenge to the U.S. team's normal first-choice center back candidates, Oguchi Onyewu, Carlos Bocanegra and Jimmy Conrad. If DeMerit keeps playing well throughout Copa America and, as expected, makes a move to a club in the English Premier League (his current club, Watford, has been relegated), DeMerit will head into 2008's World Cup qualifying campaign as a front-runner to start at center back for Bradley.
While Feilhaber, DeMerit and Bornstein impressed on Thursday, Wynne and Gaven struggled mightily.
Arguably the most surprising inclusion to Bradley's 22-man roster, Gaven spent 28 minutes on the field running around aimlessly. He provided none of the attacking quality Bradley was hoping for when he replaced a tiring Ben Olsen for Gaven in the 62nd minute with the score tied 1-1. Olsen had been a tireless worker throughout the match, pestering Argentina's midfielders and breaking up plays constantly. Not only did Gaven not replace Olsen's energy and defensive bite, Gaven had no impact at all and simply floated around like a kite with no string to guide it.
To be fair, the situation Gaven came into wasn't an ideal one for him. With no other Americans really creating anything in the offensive half of the field, Gaven was left to do something on his own, something he was never going to do because he just doesn't have the speed to. In short, he never should have been used in the match.
Some would argue that the same could be said for Wynne, who went from never having appeared for the senior national team to having to contend with the likes of Hernan Crespo, Messi and Riquelme. Wynne showed some glimpses of the unreal athleticism and speed that have made him such a popular prospect, but far too often he was in bad position and read plays poorly, leaving him vulnerable to Argentina's intricate passing attack.
Unlike Gaven, Wynne did show some promise on Thursday night and should still be regarded as a long-term national team prospect, but he did little to suggest that he is anywhere near ready to challenge Jonathan Spector or Frank Simek in the national team pecking order at right back, much less first-choice U.S. right back Steve Cherundolo. There is no crime in that. Wynne is just 21 after all.
That is what is easy to forget about the U.S. team Bradley put on the field on Thursday, mainly because of the team's courageous effort in the first half. Several players were young and very few had ever faced an opponent with the quality of Argentina, so they can't be completely faulted for running out of gas or being lulled into a false sense of security. Argentina three-goal barrage in the second half provided a valuable lesson for Bradley's youngsters and the best thing about the loss is the fact that the tournament is not over yet.
Players such as Wynne, Gaven, Herculez Gomez, Sacha Kljestan, Kyle Beckerman and Lee Nguyen still have two more games in Copa America to show that they are capable national team players and, more importantly, they will get two more chances to get a taste of what high-level international soccer is all about. Hopefully for their sakes, the lessons that await won't be as harsh as the lessons some of them learned on Thursday night.
MLS game previews
In case you hadn't noticed, I took two weeks off from the MLS picks thanks to the Gold Cup taking top priority. There is no truth to the rumor that I decided to retire from picking games after posting a perfect 5-0 record. In case you were wondering, I would have gone 12-0 during the weeks I took off (OK, not really.)
Houston Dynamo at FC Dallas
So much for the Gold Cup absences of Dwayne De Rosario and Brian Ching devastating the Dynamo's quest to repeat. Houston has rattled off five straight wins to move within three points of FC Dallas atop the West standings. With Ching and DeRosario back, look for the Dynamo attack to be too much for a Hoops back line that could be missing up to three starters. Dynamo 3, FC Dallas 1.
Red Bulls at Columbus Crew
The Red Bulls spent the bye week getting healthy and disposing of some ineffective defenders. They must now travel to Columbus where the red-hot Crew (yes, you read that right) is riding a two-match winning streak. The Crew attack, led by Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Alejandro Moreno, has suddenly transformed into a dangerous unit. Is the defense good enough to stop MLS scoring leader Juan Pablo Angel? Don't bet on it. Red Bulls 2, Crew 1.
New England Revolution at Chivas USA
Chivas is still trying to figure out how it went from posting three shutouts to being destroyed by Houston (4-0). The Goats are unbeaten at home this year, but that won't be enough to stop a Revs squad that will welcome back ace defender Michael Parkhurst and winger Steve Ralston from U.S. national team duty. Revolution 3, Chivas USA 1.
Colorado at Chicago Fire
Here we have a matchup between a team that is looking for a new coach and a team that could be looking for a new coach very soon. The Rapids are riding a five-match losing streak, the club's worst since 1999. The Rapids freefall continues as Chicago hands interim coach Denis Hamlett a victory. Fire 2, Rapids 0.
Toronto FC at Kansas City Wizards
Trader Mo is nearly finished building his dream team. Mo Johnston added Colin Samuel and Todd Dunivant last week and is hoping for Toronto's first road win of the season. The Wizards will be looking to halt a three-match winless skid that has coincided with the absence of Eddie Johnson to national team duty. Look for Toronto FC to finally find some road success. Toronto FC 2, Kansas City 1.
Overall record: 28-22-13
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.