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Jan 17, 2008

Bradley's men continue to find comfort zone

In soccer, as in other sports, players and coaches often talk about finding their comfort zone. The reference usually applies strictly to on-field performance, but that wasn't the case one year ago for the U.S. men's national team. Back then the buzz surrounding the side, as well as new head coach Bob Bradley, was all about off-field concerns. How would Bradley settle into his new job and would the players be able to adapt to their new manager?

The ensuing 12 months, which witnessed a Gold Cup triumph, have seen the two sides mesh well, although it is still a work in progress. But the result is that as the team begins its 2008 schedule with this weekend's friendly against Sweden -- the 500th game in U.S. men's national team history -- the relationship between manager and team is one that now sits upon a more solid foundation.

"I think we know each other well, and on the inside there is a good level of trust in terms of what we're doing and our vision and the way we go about things," Bradley said. "That certainly does make the second year different. But at the same time, the ideas are basically the same and we're reinforcing things that we think are important and we're constantly trying to build and understand exactly what it is going to take to be a very, very good team."

That's not to say the change didn't take some getting used to. As veteran international Landon Donovan put it, it's one that has taken some time, especially given the contrasting styles between Bradley and predecessor Bruce Arena.

"Initially we lost a little bit of freedom [off the field] that we were used to having," said Donovan. "Now that you know what it's about, it's easy. And Bob has done a good job of mixing it up so that we have some leniency and some time to do our own thing. We went from having everything to not having everything on our own, so it was a little bit of a learning curve for us."

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Sweden
Jan. 19
Home Depot Center, Carson, Calif.
8:30 p.m. ET

That transition extended to the field as well. Whereas Arena could call on a passel of experienced internationals like Brian McBride and Kasey Keller, Bradley has been intent on expanding the U.S. player pool to such a degree that it could almost qualify for its own area code. That has meant a steady reliance on younger players, ones whose performance can take player, coach and fan on bit of a rollercoaster ride.

Donovan, he of the 96 caps, is certainly not in that category and is now one of those players that Bradley counts on for experience. But even Donovan has gone through an evolution of his own, given the increased playing time he's seen out wide. That "wide" label is one that Bradley takes issue with, insisting that "attacker" is a more appropriate term for what Donovan brings to the team, given his offensive freedom. But Donovan himself admits that the positional switch required something of an adjustment. While he has grown to enjoy the increased opportunity to face up to goal and make late runs, he admits that he's still trying to find the perfect balance between attack and defense.

"I try to be fairly honest defensively with my responsibilities because I don't want it to be taken as I'm just another forward who happens to be playing [wide]," Donovan said. "But a lot of times I take that too far and I do things tactically that I don't need to do. I can use my energy better in other ways and Bob and I have worked a lot on that."

Donovan will get another opportunity to further refine those competing responsibilities against a Sweden team with many of the same goals as the host. The rosters of both sides are mostly comprised of domestic players at the beginning of their international careers. Of the Swedish players listed, many of the available players are looking for their first cap, and only a handful of names like Niclas Alexandersson, Anders Svensson and Daniel Andersson ring a bell. In Bradley's mind, that won't stop Sweden from providing exactly the kind of test that his young side needs.

"Sweden's success over the years has really been built on a team concept along with many, many talented players," Bradley said. "But that collective idea on how to play is their starting point. Saturday is a chance for them to assess where they are with other players and get a good game. I think it's a perfect matchup because it allows both teams to have the same goals."

The goal of many fans will be to get their first stateside look at forward Jozy Altidore in a senior national team uniform, but it remains to be seen to what extent Bradley will grant them that chance. The U.S. manager, as is his custom, has been loath to single out any player's performance during the last two weeks, Altidore included.

"The best moment to say that a player has done well is after the game," Bradley said. "Because then we're going to know that someone came through the camp well, understood what the game was all about and then was able to step on the field and demonstrate what they could do."

And then the process of finding that comfort zone at international level can begin.

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