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Jun 12, 2009

A chance for the U.S. to measure up against top-class opposition

Practically from the moment Bob Bradley took over as head coach of the U.S. men's national team, it was evident what players would comprise the core of his squad. The defense would be anchored by goalkeeper Tim Howard, as well as defenders Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu. The attack would depend largely on Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, while Michael Bradley would be one of the linchpins in the center of midfield. Yet filling in the remaining pieces has proved more difficult than expected, with injuries to the likes of Brian Ching, Steve Cherundolo, and Frankie Hejduk doing plenty to unsettle Bradley's plans. With the Confederations Cup now upon us, filling those spots, as well as finding quality depth, will be the primary goals down in South Africa. If the U.S. can snag a result or two along the way, so much the better, but facing the proverbial Murderers' Row of Italy, Brazil, and a much-underrated Egypt side makes progressing out of the group stage highly unlikely. Yet playing such high-quality opposition isn't something the U.S. is able to do often, and it poses some unique challenges that should benefit the team next summer. "I think you're looking at three very different styles of play [at the Confederations Cup]," said U.S. defender Danny Califf prior to last week's 2-1 win over Honduras. "We play Italy first, and you know how tactical they like to play, and how calculated their whole game is. Then we have Brazil, and they're so free-flowing and individually gifted. Egypt isn't talked about that much, but they're a really good team and very explosive, so it's going to be a good test." Such challenges will no doubt give Bradley a better sense of how acute his team's weaknesses are, while at the same time allowing him the luxury of some experimentation. For all the talk of the quick turnaround between last week's two World Cup qualifiers, the Americans face a more difficult scenario at the Confederations Cup. The opener against Italy on June 15 is followed up just three days later by the Brazil match, with the group finale against Egypt another three days after that, meaning Bradley will have to try different combinations while making extensive use of his bench. The goalkeeper situation is largely settled. Brad Guzan is set to back up Howard, while Luis Robles will get an extended look in training under Bradley's watchful gaze. As for the back line, it remains in a near-constant state of flux. The test for players like outside backs Jonathan Bornstein and Jonathan Spector will be to prove that their encouraging performances against Honduras weren't one-offs. Bornstein in particular has a great opportunity to put a vise-like grip on the left back spot. The Chivas USA defender has fared well against pacy, slightly built players in the past. But more powerful types, in the mold of Brazil's Maicon or Dani Alves, have proved especially troublesome. And since the technology doesn't yet exist to genetically fuse Bornstein's DNA with that of Heath Pearce, expect the latter performer to stay in Bradley's reckoning, despite his lack of activity at club level.

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Italy
June 15
Tshwane/Pretoria, South Africa
2:25 p.m. ET, ESPN, ESPN360 U.S. vs. Brazil
June 18
Tshwane/Pretoria, South Africa
9:55 a.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360 U.S. vs. Egypt
June 21
Rustenburg, South Africa
2:25 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360
The central positions are more clear-cut, although the sight of Bocanegra hobbling off with a hamstring injury against Honduras cries out for the need to make sure additional options exist. At present, Jay DeMerit looks to be next on the depth chart. He acquitted himself well in an emergency substitute role against the Catrachos, and he's plenty aware of the opening that's in front of him in South Africa, regardless of whether Bocanegra recovers in time to face Italy. "As always, I try to take my opportunities when I get them," said DeMerit after the Honduras match. "Yeah, I haven't had a ton of them, but that's because the guys in front of me have been playing well, and the team has been playing well. I don't expect to come in and take their spot if it's not deserved. But injuries happen, and it's my job to be ready." Up top, Ching's absence due to injury during the last week's qualifiers revealed just how critical his hold-up play and passing are to the Americans. In fact, he's become a little bit too critical to the team in that there was no ready-made replacement against Costa Rica. That is why Conor Casey should get some extended minutes down in South Africa. The Colorado Rapids striker had his share of struggles against Honduras, but his improved link-up play in the second half gave some glimpses of what he could do, and with some extended time on the training field to get more in tune with his teammates, the next three games should be a fairer test of his abilities. The tournament will also be an opportunity for Jozy Altidore to refine his play with his back to goal, although I wouldn't mind seeing a little bit more of Charlie Davies. While the Hammarby attacker disappointed in a friendly against Sweden back in January, his substitute appearances have had an impact, and his pace is a trait that is lacking in the present roster. As for the midfield, much like the outside back positions, consistency remains the byword. Ricardo Clark's stock skyrocketed with his performance against Honduras and his ability to reprise the tidy passing against stiffer competition will no doubt help his cause. The sight of Benny Feilhaber picking out Dempsey with an incisive, penetrating pass last Saturday was also a welcome development. Out of all of Bradley's midfield options, Feilhaber remains the midfielder with the most attacking upside. Given the Americans' difficulties in creating chances from the run of play, he may be the key not only in the near term, but next summer as well. Feilhaber looks to have finally put a string of injuries and indifferent form behind him, and a strong Confederations Cup could see him reclaim the slot alongside Michael Bradley that was his for the taking back in 2007. "In the last year, there's been a lot of ups and downs, more downs than ups," said Feilhaber after his 45-minute stint against the Catrachos. "But I'm really happy. The most important thing is my knee is healthy and I haven't had any problems with it, and I feel confident with it. And I'm playing for my club finally. It's been a long, long stretch where I wasn't playing for my club." That leaves Donovan and Dempsey to man the outside midfield spots, although playing Jose Francisco Torres wide on the left is one experiment worth trying. The Pachuca midfielder's best position, at least on the U.S. national team, is yet to be determined, and finding a way to get his skill on the field along with Donovan, Dempsey, and Feilhaber may yet allow the Americans to move beyond being a team that is simply hard to play against and into a side whose attack can threaten opponents consistently from the run of play. 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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