Bradley needs to restore U.S. team's confidence
As U.S. manager Bob Bradley selected his young, patchwork bunch for the Copa America excursion, he was surely thinking about the potential perks of his gambit.
By taking young players and eschewing more of the battle-hardened types, Bradley stood to gain a terrific read on some intriguing players in some potentially telling situations. Who was built to pass muster against the powerful Argentines? Who would rise up, undaunted and unflappable in hostile environments around Venezuela? Who might sink beneath the weight of it all?
And with a little luck, Bradley may have permitted himself to think, perhaps the United States could parlay that important research into some results, possibly sneaking into the second round or beyond.
All of which would be rather nice. Except that it didn't happen that way.
All along, there was a darker possibility lurking, one that surely wasn't as pleasant to think about.
There was a worst-case scenario that could unfold: a young team would get seriously exposed, and right away. Then, without experienced reinforcements, Bradley would risk damaging the confidence of impressionable players by sending them right back into the breach.
Well, here it is. And it has left Bradley in something of a box.
It seems as though the new U.S. manager's first major challenge is upon us.
The United States faces Paraguay on Monday at Estadio Agustin Tovar in the world's longest-running international soccer competition (held since 1916). Bradley's men suddenly find themselves in something of a South American pickle.
Paraguay ambushed Colombia last week in a 5-0 shocker. Bayern Munich striker Roque Santa Cruz inflicted the most damage with three goals. Now Santa Cruz & Co., alight with the audacity that a five-goal margin provides, will want to keep the fiesta going against a wounded and potentially vulnerable United States.
How reassuring it would be if Bradley, suddenly presiding over a delicate bunch, had a couple more old hands to summon at this point. But he's pretty shy on tested veterans, the "been there, done that" dudes who have earned their scars against the global A-list. Those with more experience swimming in international waters know they can bounce back from a bad match because they've done it before.
But does Marvell Wynne, who earned his first cap last week, know that? Or Ricardo Clark? Or Jonathan Bornstein, Benny Feilhaber, Justin Mapp, Herculez Gomez et al?
And we won't even talk about poor Eddie Gaven, who looked hopelessly overmatched out there.
Obviously, guys like Clark and Feilhaber aren't bad players all of the sudden. They'll have better days in the U.S. shirt.
It's just that, as they glance around the locker room, it would be nice for them to see a few more reassuring faces. The likes of Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Pablo Mastroeni helped stare down Portugal and Mexico in the 2002 World Cup. Or how about the brash Clint Dempsey, who attacked so boldly last summer in Germany?
Bradley based his choices on team needs and individual circumstances. Some players needed rest more than others. Fair enough, especially since it provided such a wonderful opportunity to see how the young charges might hold up in roiling cauldrons, against the backdrop of hostile crowds. Those dicey CONCACAF qualifying matches in places like Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and San Salvador, El Salvador, are just over the hill.
The problem is that, individually, all the little flaws were exposed against the powerful Argentines. And now those same individuals have had almost four full days to sit around and mull those flaws.
Wynne's first touch wasn't much worse than usual. It's just that against Argentina, the game is quicker and the players are on top of him faster, which means punishment for poor stabs at the ball is more swift and severe.
Eddie Johnson can't just lazily lay off balls to midfielders. He has to make the pass and then move swiftly and decisively, opening space and forcing defenders to make choices. He often made things easy on Argentine defenders.
The usually reliable Clark had a flaw exposed. The rangy holding midfielder dropped his intensity for a split second and got punished like a naughty schoolboy for it. Pablo Aimar blew past Clark for Argentina's third goal.
Even Jimmy Conrad and Jay DeMerit, steadfast for about an hour last Thursday, began getting exposed as Argentina elevated its speed of play.
And what can you say about Gaven? He's simply got to try a little harder. Lionel Messi gets by a lot of people, of course. But you certainly would like to see Gaven fight just a little harder, engage in the battle just a little more.
So Bradley must tread carefully here. Take Wynne for example. He earned his first cap the other day, and it wasn't pretty. So his confidence in the national colors is now an open wound, vulnerable to longer range and more debilitating infection.
But what are Bradley's options? Drew Moor, who is uncapped internationally? Moor's confidence could take a similar beating unless the other defenders around him are at their best.
Bradley's tough assignment is to prop up the individual confidence and repair the collective pluck -- using the few tools available to him.
Listen to what Kasey Keller, one of the few crusty old hands brought to Argentina, said about the young roster on U.S. Soccer's Web site: "It's tough because they don't have to play teams with the caliber of players like Argentina week in and week out. If you haven't had that experience on several occasions, then you have to learn it at some stage.
"You have to be extremely tenacious, be very aggressive, and work harder than they do the whole game. You can't give them those chances. If you haven't been in those circumstances, then that is the learning curve. Unfortunately -- or fortunately, depending how you look at it -- we're here with a team that is learning as it goes."
The lessons continue tonight -- one way or the other.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.