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Jul 1, 2007

Santa Cruz holds the key to Paraguay attack

BARINAS, Venezuela -- In its first Copa America match in 12 years, a weakened U.S. side battled star-studded Argentina to a standstill for over an hour before a flurry of goals buried the Americans. Now, with their sights still set on reaching the quarterfinals, the Americans must get a result against a Paraguay team that is less dynamic than Argentina, but showed in its 5-0 rout of Colombia how clinical it can be in front of goal.

In some ways, Paraguay's match saw it adopt a similar approach to that of the U.S., only the Paraguayans were more effective. Paraguay wasn't bothered by Colombia holding the ball, and stayed compact defensively. The difference was that when Paraguay won possession, it was able to rely on the considerable talents of Bayern Munich striker Roque Santa Cruz, as well as Oscar Cardozo to threaten Colombia's defense. Not only did that duo's ability to hold the ball give Paraguay's defense a chance to rest, but their incisiveness in front of goal made them constant threats to score.

Granted, Paraguay's cause was aided considerably when goalkeeper Justo Villar saved a first-half penalty, but there was no denying the quality of Santa Cruz, who tormented Colombia's defense on his way to notching a hat trick. His most common victim seemed to be Inter Milan defender Ivan Cordoba.

"Traditionally, [Paraguay is] an organized team, tough to play against, and solid defensively," said U.S. head coach Bob Bradley. "Santa Cruz is a great presence up front, which we all know from watching him play in big, big games for Bayern Munich. For a big guy who is able to hold the ball, he still has speed to get behind the defense."

As for the Americans, their inability to keep possession caused them to hit the wall in the second half against Argentina, as the immense effort they exerted in chasing the ball finally took its toll. Some will point to the absence of players like Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey as the reason for this. And, although the duo would have helped some, the fact remains that the Americans' inability to keep possession went deeper than the absence of a few players. Performers such as Benny Feilhaber and Ricardo Clark will be counted on heavily in World Cup qualifying, and they'll need to cope better with the kind of pressure that Argentina applied last Thursday to become effective international players.

In the meantime, with no cavalry set to arrive prior to Monday's match, Bradley is intent on addressing the possession problem with the group he has.

"[Keeping the ball] involves a lot of things," Bradley said. "It involves moving off the ball, it involves the ability to hold the ball under pressure, and in other moments it's the ability to see the right pass faster, so it's not one answer."

U.S. men's schedule
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

Bradley added that forward Taylor Twellman was so preoccupied with helping his team defend that he often left strike partner Eddie Johnson on his own to fend off the Argentine defense. The same could be said of the rest of the U.S. lineup as well.

"We just didn't do a good enough job of transitioning from defense to attack, without a doubt," Bradley said. "A game like [Argentina] just requires that much more effort defensively, so the ability to switch gears is more difficult. It challenges you in terms of fitness, and it challenges you mentally, because so much of your effort and concentration is to deal with the other team."

Whether a similar amount of energy will be required against Paraguay remains to be seen. For a team like Argentina, the onus will always be on it to attack. That's not necessarily the case for a team like Paraguay, which appears to be more selective in when and how it goes on the offensive. And given the strike force the Paraguayans have at their disposal, they can afford to be. Not only can they rely on the likes of Santa Cruz and Cardozo, but the Club America duo of Salvador Cabanas and Nelson Cuevas are available off the bench, with Cabanas coming on to score the final two goals against Colombia.

Paraguay's midfield has its share of talented players as well, with Wolfsburg's Jonathan Santana among the more notable talents. But if the U.S. is to get the result that it needs on Monday, the Americans will have to find a way to cut off the supply line to Paraguay's frontrunners, and for Bradley, that means having the same defensive mentality his team had against Argentina.

"In a game like this, we have to, as a group, work hard in the middle part of the field," Bradley said. "Whenever you play against a team with a strong forward like that, it's a collective effort to prevent them from playing the kind of balls that Santa Cruz wants."

It's unclear to what extent Bradley will rely on fresh legs to achieve this goal. Both Kyle Beckerman and Sacha Kljestan appear primed to play a greater role than they did against Argentina. Although that will depend in part on how well players like Clark and Ben Olsen recover.

Bradley will also need a strong game out of his back line. Fortunately he has two center backs -- Jimmy Conrad and Jay DeMerit – who, although they made a few mistakes, acquitted themselves well against Argentina. Not only did they look cohesive in the back, but for the most part, they played with composure against Argentina's potent attack. Looking at the matchup with Paraguay, that duo also appears to have enough of a physical presence to do battle with the likes of Santa

Cruz and Cardozo, who are both taller than 6-foot-1.

"We're going to have to be on our toes again," DeMerit said. "We're looking forward to the game because it's a game where we can put things right. When you play against a team like [Paraguay] you're going up against world-class players every time. Santa Cruz happens to be their big gun and to beat teams like that you have to shut down their big gun. Hopefully we'll be able to do that."

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