If the U.S. national team's brutal trio of friendlies were meant to be a series of tests for a team in a state of transition, then Sunday's friendly against Argentina will serve as the perfect final exam.
The U.S. defense has done well to keep the likes of Wayne Rooney and Fernando Torres off the scoreboard, but now must try and contain the mercurial tandem of Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero, a twosome that will provide the ultimate test for a U.S. back line that has held up decently against some of the strongest competition around.
You could argue that it is time to get a look at some other defenders in the starting lineup, but the reality is that the foursome of Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu, Steve Cherundolo and Heath Pearce is the best unit the U.S. can put on the field by a significant margin. And with every game against topflight competition is another chance for the unit to grow accustomed to playing together.
How will the U.S. slow down Argentina? The Americans can slow down Messi & Co. with disciplined defending and pressure on Argentina's most dangerous players. A team of American players was able to do this against Argentina for a half during the 2007 Copa America, but eventually they fell apart as Argentina kept piling on the pressure. This American defense is better than the defense that was in Copa America and the Argentine attack won't have the likes of Juan Riquelme and Carlos Tevez to tear apart the U.S. defense.
It will be up to Cherundolo and Pearce to provide plenty of help to Bocanegra and Onyewu, who could struggle trying to contain the pace and shiftiness of Messi, Aguero and Maxi Rodriguez. A key reason the Americans were able to contain Argentina for a half in 2007 was that fullbacks Marvell Wynne and Jonathan Bornstein were fast enough to keep Argentina from having much space on the wings. Cherundolo and Pearce aren't as fast, but are more polished players at this point and will need to be smart in order to limit Messi and Aguero's chances.
|U.S. men's schedule|
|U.S. vs. Argentina
Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.
7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic
It should also be noted that with grass being laid down in Giants Stadium just for this match, the field conditions (namely a slow and bumpy field) aren't likely to be conducive to Argentina's quick possession attack.
Sunday's match should hopefully present an opportunity to see some of the better young MLS players who missed the England and Spain games because of scheduling conflicts. Players such as Jozy Altidore (if he's healthy), Kenny Cooper and Robbie Rogers, attacking players who might just impress if given a chance, much like the chance Freddy Adu was given against Spain.
They can't do much worse than Eddie Johnson and Josh Wolff did against England and Spain. Johnson worked hard to get into good positions against Spain, but wasted chance after chance, and didn't exactly make a strong case for starting when World Cup qualifiers begin in a week. Wolff has done little to even justify his call-up, let alone any more significant playing time, and the availability of MLS players pretty much erases the only excuse that existed for even calling Wolff up in the first place.
The Spain game was a promising one for the Americans, particularly compared to the England game, but it did shed more light on the national team's need for a reliable forward. If Jozy Altidore is healthy -- he's nursing an ankle injury -- he has to be considered for the start Sunday. Clint Dempsey might be worth a look there now as well, but he has been off form in the U.S. team's two matches as well, no doubt feeling the after-effects of Fulham's successful attempt to avoid relegation.
As much as Argentina will test the U.S. back line, the South Americans will also give the U.S. offense time and space to attack and send numbers forward. Don't expect the Americans to get caught up in Argentina's trap though. Argentina already showed Mexico how bad an idea it is to try and match them attack for attack, so Bob Bradley isn't about to throw away the progress made in Wednesday's 1-0 loss to Spain by setting up his team to be torn apart by Argentina's blinding counterattack.
The American's won't need to commit that many numbers forward to generate offense, particularly not if Adu is handed another start. The 4-2-3-1 formation used against Spain allowed the Americans to be compact defensively while still putting the four attacking players up front with the freedom to create. Unfortunately for the U.S., Johnson couldn't finish his chances and Dempsey looked tired for the second straight game. If Landon Donovan and Altidore were healthy then we could see them and Adu start together for the first time. Injuries to Donovan and Altidore could prevent that though, making an attacking quartet of Adu, Dempsey, Beasley and Eddie Lewis more likely.
Don't expect Bradley to get too experimental with his lineup against Argentina though, not with a World Cup qualifier looming just a week later. Based on the form the U.S. showed in the first two games, it would be hard to imagine the defense or goalkeeper changing. Michael Bradley showed enough in the first half against Spain to prove that he should remain as the linking midfielder. Maurice Edu should be given another run out against Argentina while the front four will likely include Donovan (if healthy), Adu and Lewis, with Dempsey getting a look up top if Altidore can't shake off his ankle injury to start.
As much as beating Argentina at Giants Stadium on Sunday would be a boost for the national team and fans hurting a bit after two straight losses, Sunday's match isn't as much about winning and losing. It is about preparing for the road ahead and seeing just how far along the U.S. national team has come after an extremely difficult series of tests.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.