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Jul 8, 2007

Copa America a missed opportunity for U.S.

MARACAIBO, Venezuela -- When it was announced last October that the United States would enter Copa America, the decision by United States Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati seemed like a no-brainer. One of the proposed cures for the disappointing World Cup in Germany was to get the U.S. national team more games in tougher environments, and against better competition. Copa America was primed to deliver on all fronts. But after the Americans' three-and-out performance, which was accomplished with a decidedly under-strength squad, their participation in the world's oldest international tournament is being called into question.

CONMEBOL general secretary Eduardo Deluca, in an interview with The Associated Press, expressed his disappointment at the makeup of the U.S. roster (while failing to acknowledge that Brazil took a similar build-for-the-future approach). Former U.S. head coach Bruce Arena, in a PA SportsTicker article, questioned the wisdom of participating at all. So in the aftermath of the Americans' bagel job in the Copa, was it a good idea to go? The answer is an unequivocal yes, but Copa America also represents a missed opportunity for both the national team, and its top players.

That's particularly true for those domestic internationals that play in pressure-cooker games less frequently than their Euro-based counterparts. Would players such as Landon Donovan and Brian Ching have made a difference on the scoreboard? They would have helped some, but in all likelihood, not enough to matter. However, given that these players will receive significant playing time during World Cup qualifying, the experience they would have gained from the Copa would surely have paid off down the road. European-based players like DaMarcus Beasley and Frankie Simek would have benefited as well, but the rest period mandated by their clubs rendered them unavailable.

Instead, a patchwork squad, painfully thin on international experience was cobbled together, and upon reflection, it seems a bit mind-boggling that there wasn't more foresight in putting the team together.

Granted, injuries to the likes of Dallas forward Kenny Cooper and Chicago attacker Chris Rolfe had an impact, but there are some deeper problems at work here. One is the understandable reluctance of MLS sides to release their players when they don't have to. It's almost as if the league's teams loved the idea of MLS players participating in Copa America, just as long as it was some other team making the sacrifice and it wasn't their side hurting for results. Once those two realities set in, missing key performers for two weeks, following a similar spell for the Gold Cup, wasn't nearly as palatable.

Since the MLS coaches weren't required to give up their players for Copa America like they were for the Gold Cup, U.S. head coach Bob Bradley was put in the unenviable position of struggling to fill out his roster. This is not how the coach of a national team should have to operate. Yes, the club against country tug-of-war goes on to a certain degree all over the world, with club coaches using the slightest excuses to avoid losing a player to international duty. But overseas, the worry is that the prized asset will get injured. In most cases, the possibility of missing a league game is not an issue.

Not so in MLS, where players have missed matches due to international commitments since the league's inception -- much to the chagrin of the league's head coaches. But the team that went to Copa America shows that the time has come for MLS to start paying more attention to the subtleties of the international calendar. Enough with the excuses of how scheduling problems prevent the league from shutting down for any length of time, be it a World Cup or an international weekend. Seven of the 13 teams are playing in soccer-specific stadiums, with ground already broken on two more. The league's flexibility has never been greater.

Considering that 2009 will see the Confederations Cup and Gold Cup all played in the summer, maintaining the status quo cannot be an option. Instead, adhering more closely to the FIFA calendar and shutting down MLS for at least one of those tournaments has to be considered. And while it will require MLS to play more midweek games, the benefits would be twofold. Not only would it reduce the number of matches missed by the league's top performers, but it would make MLS teams more amenable to releasing their players when conflicts such as Copa America arise. This would then lessen the chance that a repeat of this year's Copa would occur.

Not that the news from South America was all bad, mind you. Despite some stretches of brutal play, including the entire of the final match against Colombia, the U.S. did enjoy some solid stretches against Argentina, and should have beaten Paraguay.

Bradley also had a chance to learn some things about his players during his time in Venezuela. Although Benny Feilhaber remains a bit mistake-prone on the defensive side of the ball, his defense-splitting passes give the team an unpredictability that has been missing since John O'Brien went on permanent IR. Ricardo Clark's range, tackling, and ability to shoot from distance confirmed his status as a player for the present as well as the future.

Despite some occasional mistakes, central defenders Jimmy Conrad and Jay DeMerit put themselves firmly in contention for starting spots down the road, especially in light of the inconsistent displays by Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu in the Gold Cup. In particular, the performances of DeMerit, whose impeccably timed tackles were a joy to behold, would appear to have done much to help his cause.

Bradley learned some other things as well. Players like Justin Mapp and Sacha Kljestan, while showing some good moments, need more consistency and quicker thinking on both sides of the ball. The veteran presence of Ben Olsen may yet have a part to play in this World Cup cycle. And the long, slow, painful search for a forward who can finish continues. Some are pinning their hopes on U.S. U-20 standout Jozy Altidore to fill the finishing void, but despite his two goals against Brazil on Friday in the U-20 World Cup, there is a long way to go in his development. Any kind of help at senior level appears to be a year or two off. Perhaps the next spate of competitive internationals will be his coming out party. One can only hope that America's best will be by his side.

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