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Underdog USA brings some bite to Copa
by Ridge Mahoney, June 28th, 2007 7AM

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TAGS:  copa america, men's national team

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The much-maligned roster taken by Coach Bob Bradley to the Copa America is designed for long-term benefit, not short-term results. With 15 of the 22 players chosen based in MLS, and many eligible to compete as U-23 players in the Olympic soccer tournament next year, getting out of the group is a realistic, if difficult, task. It is not the main objective. Yet failure to do so, with two of the three third-place teams advancing, would be a disappointment. They need a win and a tie, plain and simple.

The Copa America is as much a measure of the league as the national team program, for even those without a cap - Kyle Beckerman, Herculez Gomez and Drew Moor - are regular starters on their MLS teams.

Most of the players have been members of the U.S. U-17 and/or U-20 national teams and are veterans of international competitions, including world championships, at those levels. This isn't anything close to the cream of the crop but it's not sour milk, either.

There's creative talent in Beckerman, Benny Feilhaber and Justin Mapp.

There's athleticism and youth in Ricardo Clark, Marvell Wynne, and Eddie Johnson.

There's experience in Ben Olsen, Jimmy Conrad, and Kasey Keller. There's feel-good stuff galore in Jay DeMerit, Jonathan Bornstein, and Taylor Twellman.

There's young men at the crossroads of their pro careers in Eddie Gaven, Heath Pearce, and Danny Califf.

So here's a look at what the U.S. can bring against Argentina, Paraguay and Colombia.

What the best U.S. players do at the World Cup is one thing; what this squad can do says much about the state of player development, especially through the domestic channels, at Level 2.

Goalkeepers: Keller is the only veteran of the 1995 Copa America in which the U.S. stunned Argentina, beat Mexico on penalties in the quarterfinals, and lost to Brazil in the semis. He's been honed by Gold Cup competition. Brad Guzan played a season for Bradley at Chivas USA so the coach should know if his one-cap keeper is ready for something like this. But the kid has the physical tools and the right mindset.
Rating: Good.

Outside backs: Bornstein and Pearce have national-team experience but nothing like they'll face in this competition, so the left corner could be busy. DeMerit has played some right back at Watford yet is more suited to the middle, where Conrad has Califf and Bobby Boswell as other possible partners. At right back, Wynne is still grafting soccer sense onto his amazing physical talents, Drew Moor is still learning the position.
Rating: Poor.

Central defenders: If he could find midfield players to run the flanks, Bradley could use his tough, central defenders in a three-man back line. Regardless of formation or system, Conrad's World Cup experience is a critical element for U.S. success, as is Califf's toughness. This tournament is invaluable for DeMerit, who eagerness to learn and blend with his teammates is matched by sharply developed instincts. Adjusting to the pace and trickery of good South American teams will stretch Boswell.
Rating: Average.

Holding midfielders: Since he came into MLS four years ago, Clark has amazed observers with his range and touch. He can be prone to bad passes and sometimes tries to jab the ball away rather than get stuck in, yet he could blossom into a possible transfer target with a good showing in this tournament. Sacha Kljestan is in Bradley's Olympic plans and has been playing on the right side recently for Chivas USA. His ability to hold the middle and use the ball wisely can help the U.S. in the chaotic midfield flurries it will encounter. Olsen may find the pace too hot, yet his sharp form for D.C. this season, plus his 34 caps (second-most on the roster), plus his workrate, are valuable assets.
Rating: Average.

Creative midfielders: Justin Mapp, Feilhaber, Beckerman and Gaven bring different approaches to unlocking defenses. Beckerman can win balls as well as deliver them over most distances. Feilhaber scored twice in his first eight U.S. games and can escape pressure like few Americans. Mapp has audacious dribbling skill and a potent left foot. Gaven's MLS career has stagnated the past two seasons as he's been tried on the flank as well as in the middle; he's an excellent passer whose shooting needs to be sharper. All four are inexperienced at this level. Lee Nguyen is extremely quick and a clever dribbler with the instincts and vision to slice up defenses. Bradley has few options to play on the right, so this is where Nguyen could see some time.
Rating: Average.

Forwards: Speaking of the right flank, that's where Gomez has played a lot this year for Colorado. He's direct and can skip by people but this is a big step up from league play. Twellman and Johnson are tied for the lead with nine goals in MLS yet their recent scoring form for the U.S. isn't good, though Johnson did net one in the Gold Cup. Charlie Davies, like Nguyen, is very young (just turned 21), but he passed up a multi-year $1 million offer from MLS to sign with Swedish club Hammarby. He's got great feet, is very hard to knock off the ball and is always in search of a seam.
Rating: Average.

Coach: He's American through and through, yet Bradley's knowledge of soccer in other parts of the world is extensive. Ask him to compare the AC Milan teams that played in the 2005 and 2007 Champions League finals, for example, and you'll get plenty. Argentina's formations and tactics and strengths and weaknesses in the past few World Cups? Pull up a chair. The American players won't lack for information on their opponents, and there also won't be any confusion as to their roles and responsibilities, or the costs of shirking those duties. There were curious personnel and tactical decisions at the Gold Cup but it all worked out. This tournament is the coming-out party for Bob Bradley. What he can do with less than his best?

 



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