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Aug 3, 2009

U.S. focus back on World Cup qualifying and Mexico

The days of summer fun and experimentation are over for U.S. Soccer. For Bob Bradley's men, it's time to get back to the important business of keeping the qualification train on track.

Conveniently for fans and media, it's also time to start stirring the pot for the next chapter in the U.S.-Mexico page-turner, with all the drama and histrionics perennially attached to the region's top rivalry. The pair meets again -- always a donnybrook waiting to happen -- on Aug. 12 in the soupy Mexico City air.

U.S. Soccer officials say Bradley will announce his roster later this week or early next week, following standard operating procedure and delaying as long as possible in order to weigh the maximum information on injuries, form and otherwise.

The summer was replete with Confederations Cup fabulousness and Gold Cup adventure, that little five-goal hickey in the final not withstanding. But even after a depth-testing summer in which we learned more about who does and doesn't have the chops for big-boy international soccer, don't look for anything fancy-schmancy when Bradley reveals his selections.

If the big summer of matches was like a sophomore year abroad, this roster should be like spending summer at Grandmother's house. You know: quite predictable, and even a little boring.

So barring some tough twist of fate, Tim Howard will be the first-choice goalkeeper, backed up by Brad Guzan. In front of Howard, look for Bradley to call in Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu, Jay DeMerit, Jonathan Spector, Steve Cherundolo and probably Frankie Hejduk. Jonathan Bornstein or Heath Pearce should be the designated left fullback selection.

The midfield will almost surely include Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Benny Feilhaber and Ricardo Clark, along with one wild card. And up front, Brian Ching, Jozy Altidore and Charlie Davies will almost surely be preferred.

See? Predictable as spring rain. Plain as prison clothes.

U.S. men's schedule
Aug. 12
U.S. vs. Mexico
Estadio Azteca; Mexico City
4 p.m. ET, Mun2

There could be a couple of other choices to protect against late injuries in rounding out an 18-man roster. But again, look for more meat-and-potatoes-type selections.

Chad Marshall, Kyle Beckerman and Stuart Holden looked pretty good at the Gold Cup, but don't look for them to pop up on the roster announced later this week. One might, but any more than that seems unwise.

Jose Francisco Torres? Perhaps, but only because he plays in Mexico. Sacha Kljestan? Bradley loves the guy, but it would be a big surprise to see him at Azteca.

There are no mitigating circumstances that would prompt a call for one of the up-and-comers. Most of the A-list selections are available, depending on how you'd like to count Rangers midfielder Maurice Edu, who remains on the mend for the Scottish giants and is highly unlikely to get the call.

There are no suspensions. Well, there's Jay Heaps, who is technically suspended. Heaps is a fine MLS player, doing more than his share as injury-battered New England manages to stay close in the league playoff chase. But the closest he'll come to Mexico City smog on Aug. 12 is maybe idling behind a city bus in Boston gridlock. So no worries about suspensions.

The "single-date" fixture can sometimes make things a little tricky. (As opposed to so-called "double dates," in which teams plays twice over a four-day period, helping to justify the trans-Atlantic travel for player, club and country.)

But that isn't an issue in this case, as most European leagues won't have started, which means Bradley doesn't have to worry about hacking off European managers and jeopardizing his players' standing with their clubs.

That's a good thing, since Bradley can use all the experience he can get in Mexico City. Of the likely call-ups, only Donovan, Cherundolo, Bocanegra and Onyewu were starters last time in the Azteca cauldron. (Five if you include Pablo Mastroeni, who seems unlikely to be called.) But the likes of Dempsey, Bradley, Feilhaber, Clark and Ching have added considerable seasoning in the four years since.

Could Bradley tweak the team a bit, acquiescing to the temptation to play for the draw? Maybe bring an extra holding midfielder and choose from the fullbacks who are better defenders than attackers? Could be.

But probably not. The U.S. should, and probably will, play for a win, even if it knows deep down inside that a tie would be wonderful and a loss won't seriously dent the overall cause.

The truth is, this game is way more important for Mexico than it can ever be for the United States. So there's really no call for anything beyond the ordinary; there's no reason to try things next week just for the sake of trying them.

Home wins over Honduras, Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago -- plus the draw in El Salvador -- provided this cushion for the United States. So there's no reason to believe Bradley will deviate from well-worn patterns. They'll play as they play, probably with two holding midfielders, with the attacking push coming from Donovan and Dempsey along the outside.

Nobody in the U.S. camp looked at the qualifying schedule back when it was announced and realistically counted the trip to Mexico as one in which points could be found.

For the U.S. players, it would certainly be fantastic to go to Azteca and win, to throw it in the Mexican team's face and be responsible for putting El Tri in serious trouble. Mexico's next match is at Costa Rica, and that's a tough one even for the Tri-colors. So losing Aug. 12 to the Yanks would leave Javier Aguirre's boys with one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. And that's not to mention the raging indignity of losing at home to the United States.

Exactly halfway through final-stage qualifying in the region, Mexico sits in fourth place, four points behind the second-place Yanks. Yes, half the games remain. And yes, even fourth place doesn't mean automatic national doom and gloom, since CONCACAF's fourth-place finisher gets a last-chance reprieve: The region's No. 4 plays a white-knuckle home-and-away series with South America's No. 5. Still, fourth place isn't where anyone wants to be at this point … well, unless you're sitting in fifth or sixth place.

So the United States is in reasonable shape; Mexico will be carrying all the weight next week. But that shouldn't diminish any of the fun for the rest of us.

It is U.S.-Mexico, after all.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Dailysoccerfix.com, and can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.

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