EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- After a disappointing showing against England, and a better but still not complete effort in a loss to Spain, the United States had one more chance to show its fans that it could stand toe-to-toe with a world power.
The Americans did just that on Sunday, riding a heroic effort from Tim Howard to battle Argentina, the No. 1 team in the world, to a scoreless tie in front of 78,682 at Giants Stadium.
Argentina did what it is known for early on, creating countless chances with its speedy and unpredictable attack, but the U.S. defense held firm as Howard came through with a series of jaw-dropping stops to give his team the confidence it needed to deliver its first complete performance of the recent friendlies.
"If you look over the last three games, [our performances] have gotten better and better," Howard said. "I thought we played to a high level tonight and if we can do that [in qualifying], starting with Barbados, I'm sure we'll get the job done.
"Tonight we didn't back down. We stuck our foot in every challenge, and that's what we're going to have to do going forward to be successful."
"That's a damn good team we played against and it took us a while, but I think we finally figured it out in the second half," said U.S. captain Landon Donovan, who earned his 100th cap on Sunday. "We had some decent chances to win the game, but all in all you, can't be disappointed after that result."
An 0-2-1 record in this stretch of high-profile friendlies won't be seen as successful to most observers, but if the goal of these matches was to test the U.S. national team and help it grow as a group, then Sunday's performance against Argentina will make it hard to argue against the belief that the U.S. team is heading into World Cup qualifying a stronger and more confident than the group that headed into that first match against England two weeks ago.
"We hope we've learned a lot," Donovan said. "It would have been nice to score a goal in these three games but I think the adjustment from the first half to the second tonight, figuring out what we have to do, and building the confidence that we're good enough to play with these guys."
Howard, a New Jersey native and former MetroStar playing what was likely his final match at Giants Stadium, gave arguably the best performance of his national team career, thwarting Argentina's attack on a series of one-on-ones to keep the match scoreless and give the Americans a chance of knocking off the heavy favorites.
Howard stopped dangerous chances from Julio Cruz in the fifth, 28th and 45th minute to help give the Americans some momentum going into halftime.
"You know with Argentina, they're going to have their chances no matter how well you play defensively, and those chances seemed to come one-on-one," Howard said. "The way I play, that's probably one of my stronger points so when I made that first save, and I felt comfortable, the saves kept on coming a little bit, but we got better as the game went on."
Howard wasn't the only American to step up on Sunday night. Heath Pearce, who came into the match off impressive showings against England and Spain, played his best match yet for the national team and solidified his hold on the starting left back position.
"I felt like I sort of came into my own as a player," Pearce said. "I think it's taken me a long time with the national team to get comfortable, and I still have a lot to learn, but getting to play 90 minutes with the group and getting to understand each other is going to help us as a group in the long run."
Sunday's match also helped alleviate some concerns about veterans Clint Dempsey and DaMarcus Beasley, who weren't as sharp in the England and Spain matches as would be expected of two of the team's two most important players. Beasley, playing just his fifth match since returning from major knee surgery, was all over the field, showing off the speed and relentlessness that makes him such a key figure in the U.S. attack. Dempsey also showed more energy, testing Argentina's defense and looking less like the tired player he was against England and Spain.
"This game was very important for DaMarcus," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. "When you're coming back from an injury sometimes it starts out high and then there's a little bit of a drop. He still has days where his knee is a little bit stiff, but you could tell that he was excited about playing against Argentina. He was excited about this kind of game and it showed.
"He had energy and it was an important thing for him at this time," Bradley said. "Clint has done a good job throughout this, since we started in England, working with our trainers. We have a number of players, Tim [Howard] being one, that played a lot of games this year, so you have to manage minutes and that kind of thing."
All in all, Sunday's match helped restore some of the confidence lost in defeats to England and Spain, and showed us a U.S. national team that can indeed play with the best teams in the world.
Player rankings (scale of 1-10)
Tim Howard, 9 -- Kept the Americans in the match with a series of amazing one-on-one saves. It was arguably the best performance of his national team career.
Heath Pearce, 8 -- Solid from start to finish, thwarting countless attacks and showing composure against a dangerous Argentina attack. After three solid friendlies, Pearce has put a lock on the starting left back position.
Steve Cherundolo, 5 -- struggled to deal with Argentina's speed and movement, but he isn't the first defender to be dazzled by Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero.
Oguchi Onyewu, 6 -- The big man nearly won it with a header off the crossbar, but was solid despite getting caught on some of Argentina's combination plays.
Dan Califf, 5 -- Not the quickest, but kept himself in good positions and avoided big mistakes. He's not going to challenge Onyewu or Carlos Bocanegra for a starting role, but staked a good claim to being No. 3 in the center back pecking order.
Michael Bradley, 5 -- Grade would be higher if he didn't just play 45 minutes. His performance in the first half was steady, with better passing and positioning, but he did lose the ball more than you would like to see in midfield.
Pablo Mastroeni, 6 -- Was strong and proved difficult for Argentina to get around. He avoided the ugly tackles and made himself a good candidate for time when World Cup qualifying begins. Unfortunate second yellow card was an unjust call, but the red cart hurts his grade.
Clint Dempsey, 6 -- A good performance from Dempsey and certainly his best of the three big friendlies. His movement and passing were more like the Dempsey we're used to seeing and he looks ready to be an impact player in World Cup qualifying.
DaMarcus Beasley, 7 -- Was at his speedy and active best, covering ground like crazy and giving Argentina fits with his runs down the wing. He's still not all the way back, but this was certainly a positive step for a player who just missed six months after knee surgery.
Landon Donovan, 7 -- In the first half Donovan did the dirty work needed to help contain Argentina's attack, but in the second half he opened things up and started taking it to Argentina's defense. He is primed for a big World Cup qualifying campaign.
Eddie Johnson, 4 -- Three games, three starts and zero goals. On Sunday, he had one great run at goal but took a bad touch and squandered what could have been a great chance. He just isn't productive and with Donovan, Beasley, Dempsey and Freddy Adu all looking like they should be on the field, Johnson is looking less and less like someone who should be starting.
Freddy Adu, 6 -- Wasn't as effective as he was against Spain, but did work hard to get involved and defend. He still makes things happen when he gets the ball and is clearly growing as a player.
Maurice Edu, 6 -- Looked confident and steady, much better than his performance against Spain.
Jay DeMerit, 6 -- A good showing coming off the bench, providing composure when the Americans went down a man. His battle with Califf for the No. 3 center back spot should be a good one this summer.
Sacha Kljestan, 6 -- Very promising 16 minutes from Kljestan, who definitely brings a good attacking element to the game.
Eddie Lewis (incomplete) -- The veteran provided a steady 12 minutes at left back and leaves the big friendlies having asserted himself as someone who still brings plenty to the table.
Frankie Hejduk (incomplete) -- Played a few minutes just a day after playing for the Columbus Crew. Not bad.
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.