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Jul 4, 2007

U.S. looks to finish on a high note

BARQUISIMETO, Venezuela -- When the United States began its Copa America journey, there was much talk about how invaluable the experience would be in molding the next generation of American talent. Not only would young players such as Benny Feilhaber and Ricardo Clark be exposed to the harshest of conditions, but the tournament would also test their ability to bounce back from the inevitable potholes they would encounter.

On that basis, the American team has made significant progress since the opening game against Argentina. While the Paraguay match resulted in another defeat, the overall improvement of the U.S. was evident as it carved out a series of excellent opportunities.

"Anytime in these kinds of tournaments where you've lost the first game, you have to show that you've learned from it," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. "You have to come out with a strong effort. So on that side of things, I think we did that."

For the U.S., the next step is to apply that same approach to its final group game against Colombia, while at the same time washing away the bitter taste of the Paraguay match, a game that Bradley admits "was there for the taking."

Of course, there stands a real chance that the match will be nothing more than a glorified exhibition. The four points that Uruguay garnered in Group A clinched its spot as one of the best third-place teams, and if Wednesday night's results in Group B go the wrong way, it's possible that not even an emphatic victory by the Americans will see them through to the quarterfinals. If that happens, Bradley may opt to give the younger members of his squad some playing time they wouldn't normally get if there was something at stake.

Yet even if this game is just for pride, I sense -- or at least hope -- that Bradley will not make wholesale changes. This tournament has illustrated once again that a steady diet of home internationals and CONCACAF foes can only take a player's international career so far. All the more reason performers such as Feilhaber, Clark, and Jay DeMerit (if he's recovered from illness) should keep their spots against Colombia . Their international experience is limited, but it seems clear that these are the players who will form the backbone of the team that will be used in World Cup qualifying, and the more knowledge they can accumulate along the way, the better off the U.S. will be.

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

What seems likely to happen is that Bradley will make a change in each area of the field. Given the struggles that Jonathan Bornstein is experiencing at the moment, now would seem an opportune time to give Heath Pearce a chance at left back. Ben Olsen, having done yeoman's work on the right flank, is a known commodity, meaning he could make way for Justin Mapp on the left side while Sacha Kljestan takes over on the right. And in goal, Brad Guzan deserves a chance to get more out of his trip to South America than just splinters.

But at the risk of committing heresy, I'd leave intact the front line partnership of Taylor Twellman and Eddie Johnson, if for no other reason than a goal by either one of them would help banish the demons that the Paraguay match, not to mention the Gold Cup, has burned into their psyches. Yes, Johnson's play has been maddening this tournament. His lack of aggression has provided enough material to fill an episode of "Unsolved Mysteries," while Twellman's finishing touch continues to elude him. But I believe that Twellman and Johnson, not Herculez Gomez and Charlie Davies, are the ones who will play the bigger roles in World Cup qualifying, and I suspect Bradley will keep showing faith in both players.

That's not to say that Gomez and Davies should stay rooted to the bench for the entire match. An extended substitute's role of around 30 minutes, rather than a start, seems the next logical step for both players, and if either Twellman or Johnson can get on the scoresheet, that bump in confidence is an investment that may pay off down the road.

Certainly playing against Colombia should provide the pair with plenty of scoring opportunities. The Colombian defense, despite having the services of Inter Milan defender Ivan Cordoba as well as Paris St. Germain's Mario Yepes, has been sieve-like, conceding a whopping nine goals in two games.

Exploiting that weakness will not only require the Americans to find their killer instinct in front of goal, but they'll also need another solid outing from the central duo of Feilhaber and Clark, and given Colombia's midfield pairing of David Ferreira and Jhon Viafara, that will be no easy task.

Ferreira is a crafty player, whose speed and excellent close control make for a lethal combination. These attributes were on display in Colombia's game against Paraguay, when Ferreira won an early penalty that resulted in Alvaro Dominguez's effort being saved by Paraguay's Justo Villar. And while Ferreira provides the style, it is Viafara who provides the muscle, not only with his fearsome tackling, but with his late, surging runs into the box.

Such a combination should prove to be an interesting challenge for Clark and Feilhaber, who will be striving for more consistency in their respective games. Clark will be looking to prove he can deliver solid performances back-to-back, while Feilhaber's challenge will be smoothing out his peaks and valleys within a match, especially on the defensive end. If the young duo can succeed in this endeavor, the U.S. may find itself finishing the Copa America on a high.

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