There was a time when Saturday's clash between the United States and South Africa looked like your typical, nondescript friendly. Occurring as it does amid this weekend's MLS Cup festivities, the Americans' last international of the year looked destined for afterthought status, despite Nelson Mandela's illustrious name gracing the winner's trophy. That is, until New York Red Bulls forward Jozy Altidore was named to the U.S. roster, at which point the interest-meter for the match was kicked up a few notches.
It's a development that many members of the soccer cognoscenti have been demanding for months, especially given Altidore's four goals for the U.S during this past summer's FIFA U-20 World Cup, plus another nine goals this season with the Red Bulls in MLS. The rather tepid displays from a smattering of U.S. international forwards this year have only added to the feeding frenzy.
Such expectations are the reason I went on record as saying a bit more patience is needed with regard to Altidore's international debut, although I'll admit that playing halfway around the world at 9 a.m. ET on a Saturday is about as low-key as it gets.
But the fact remains that Altidore has been pegged as the savior to galvanize the U.S. attack. That explains why coach Bob Bradley is doing his best to rein in the hype, even as it reaches escape velocity.
"It's essential when we have young players come into national team camps that we allow them the opportunity to experience the environment without too much pressure," Bradley said via e-mail. "We need to bring these players along the right way, and part of that is not placing expectations on them in the early going."
In many ways, that Pandora's box has already been opened, leaving it to Bradley and the veteran players present to show Altidore how things are done and plant the seeds that will hopefully prevent him from getting sidetracked the way Eddie Johnson did earlier in his career. For that reason, don't be surprised if Altidore starts the match on the bench and enters the game in the second half, exactly like Freddy Adu did in the Americans' victory over Switzerland one month ago. And if Altidore can perform as well as Adu did, the calls for his inclusion will begin to look prescient.
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Until then, plenty of eyes will be on the U.S. defense to see if it can meet or exceed the performance it delivered against the Swiss. In that match, a composed American back line dealt with the Swiss attack quite comfortably, leaving Bradley to remark that he was "especially pleased with the mentality and concentration" that his team displayed.
But that was against a Swiss team whose forwards couldn't begin to match the ability of South African attackers like Blackburn Rovers striker Benni McCarthy and Arminia Bielefeld's Sibusiso Zuma. Such players have the mobility and skill to pose a different kind of problem for Bradley's likely central pairing of Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu, and the traits McCarthy and Zuma possess are ones the two Americans have struggled to cope with in the past.
Fortunately for the U.S., even with the talents of McCarthy, Zuma and Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar, the South African team is short of confidence at the moment, with both the midfield and back line well short of peak form. A relatively straightforward qualification for the African Nations Cup (ANC) turned frightful on the last day of qualifying, when a shocking 3-1 home defeat to Zambia saw South Africa lose the top spot in its group. That left Bafana Bafana needing to qualify as one of the three best second-place finishers, a goal they barely achieved by edging out Uganda on goal difference. A victory in the Council of Southern Africa Football Associations (COSAFA) Cup restored a bit of pride, but that was accomplished with mostly domestic players, leaving many observers to take a wait-and-see approach.
Coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, who led Brazil to the World Cup title in 1994, has also been at odds with officials from South Africa's Premier Soccer League over the release of players. The PSL opted to schedule a full slate of games Wednesday, leaving Parreira concerned that the nine domestic performers on his roster would be unable to recover in time for Saturday's match.
Such feuds, as well as South Africa's lowly FIFA ranking of 83rd in the world, have many followers of Bafana Bafana fearing a first-round exit at the ANC finals in January. In addition, there already has been talk that South Africa will become the first host nation in the history of the World Cup to be eliminated in the first round.
Parreira can take comfort in the fact that the World Cup is a long way off, but with the ANC looming, the U.S. match represents one of the few remaining opportunities to work out the kinks, especially in a defense that looks shaky, aside from Aaron Mokoena and Nasief Morris.
Such struggles represent an opportunity for the American attack to give a better showing than it did against Switzerland. For all the praise the team received for the result, it was achieved in smash-and-grab style, with Michael Bradley prodding home the game-winning goal late in the match. The Americans proved their defensive mettle while on the road against the Swiss. In Saturday's match, we'll see if they can win with a bit more flair.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.