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Jun 20, 2008

Second leg against Barbados just a formality

"What's my motivation?" is a query that actors the world over ask themselves in an attempt to find the requisite emotion for a role. And as the U.S. men prepare for the second leg of their World Cup qualifying series with Barbados, one in which they carry an eight-goal lead, they're no doubt asking themselves the exact same question.

Of course, calling the Americans' advantage a lead doesn't quite do it justice. It's more like a yawning chasm that not even Superman could cross in a single bound, making the task of taking the game seriously even more difficult. But Sunday's game in Bridgetown is one that is a perfect breeding ground for bad habits to take hold. And considering that the next outing for the U.S. will be an away date in Guatemala, attempting to maintain some level of sharpness is foremost in the Americans' collective mind.

"I think our objective is to focus on getting the job done," said U.S. defender Jay DeMerit. "We know that this game will be a huge challenge for Barbados, and we know what we need to do going into it. But [our challenge] is to continue to build on performances, to build on relationships on the field, and hopefully just go from there, because this is step one of many steps that will get us to the end goal."

For those fans expecting that this match will allow for some experimentation on the part of U.S. coach Bob Bradley, don't get your hopes up too high. There should be some tinkering in terms of personnel, but just how much remains to be seen. Ten players, most of them from MLS teams, have been excused from the game. And in an effort to stay on good terms with the league's coaches, Bradley is culling their replacements mostly from the Chicago Fire and Chivas USA, who played Thursday night, and thus won't have a game over the weekend.

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Barbados
June 22
Kensington Oval; Bridgetown, Barbados
3 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic

The roster changes should mean that players who have seen scant minutes in the team's last four outings will get more playing time. Specifically, defenders DeMerit and Danny Califf are in contention to log some increased minutes in the center of the American defense, especially since Oguchi Onyewu was booked in the first leg, and another caution would rule him out of the Americans' next qualifier. That said, DeMerit is taking nothing for granted.

"Guys who haven't seen a lot of time, such as myself, are hopefully looking forward to some more," said DeMerit. "But by the same token, we still have a job to take care of, and coach Bradley is going to put the best guys out there that he sees fit. Like we've said all along, it's about the group and getting through these early rounds."

With Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey among those players who will be sitting out this weekend's exertions, Freddy Adu seems set to play a significant role in the team's attack. Despite seeing precious little time with club side Benfica over the last six months, Adu seems to have found his niche with the national team as a kind of creative supersub/Donovan deputy, and a solid performance in Sunday's match could see him cement his position in those roles.

As far as tactics are concerned, don't expect much of anything to change there either. True, if you can't experiment with an eight-goal lead, then when can you? But with so many first choice players missing, any strategic tinkering would be of little value. Instead, expect Bradley to try and reinforce the tactical foundation he has laid over the last 18 months.

Of course, all of this is academic given that, as impossible as it sounds, things have gotten worse for Barbados in the passing week. Head coach Eyre Sealy disclosed on Thursday that captain Norman Forde will miss the match due to yellow card accumulation, while midfielders Jonathan Forte and Romelle Burgess are out due to undisclosed personal reasons. Holding midfielder Romell Brathwaite, who injured his thigh prior to the first leg, will miss the return match as well. And Rashida Williams, who Sealy said, "was our best player in the first round of qualifying," is still suspended after picking up a red card in the second leg against Dominica.

The Bajans will get some help in the form of Wigan Athletic defender Emerson Boyce, who Sealy confirmed "has come in and is ready to go." But that seems unlikely to make much of a difference given the first team players they will already be missing, not to mention the gulf in talent that exists between the two sides. All that's left for Sealy to do is to urge his team on and hope for a better performance.

"The mood of the guys isn't too bad," said Sealy. "The guys are trying to remain positive. Everyone knows we have to improve on our performance and give a better showing of ourselves. And I think we will play better. We'll be at home, in familiar territory, so we should be able to do a lot better than we did in the first game."

So both teams have their motivations, and keeping tabs on that count likely will be more interesting than what will happen on the scoreboard.

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

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