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Road to South Africa starts with island foe
by Ridge Mahoney, June 13th, 2008 6:45AM

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Two years ago began a changing of the guard for the U.S. men's national team, with the retirement of several veterans following a disappointing showing at the 2006 World Cup. On the eve of qualifying play for the 2010 tournament, not all of the questions that faced the national team at that time have been answered. A promising crop of midfielders has emerged to supplant Claudio Reyna, a solid group of central defenders has taken over for Eddie Pope, and the search continues for a rugged targetman in the mold of Brian McBride. The campaign begins Sunday (5 p.m. ET, ESPN2, Galavision) at Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., against Barbados in a two-game series, with the second leg set for June 22 in Bridgetown.

 

The series winner advances to a four-team semifinal group that will play in late summer and autumn to determine which two teams progress to the six-team Hexagonal, from the which the World Cup participants will emerge.

The Caribbean country isn't given a chance to advance at the Americans' expense. When the countries met eight years ago, in in the semifinal round of Concacaf qualifying for the 2002 World Cup, the Americans won, 7-0 at home and 4-0 in Barbados.

Still, Barbados fields fast, physical players that fight for every ball, at least for a while.

"They are always athletic," says U.S. coach Bob Bradley, who has named a 21-man squad that is very close to full strength. "They have some talented individuals. They have added some players for World Cup qualifying, and I think that you see a team with a Caribbean style that has some individual flair and some overall athleticism."

The matches against England (0-2), Spain (0-1), and Argentina (0-0) provided a platform for several players who have either been out of the national team picture and/or haven't been starting regularly for their club teams in recent months. One such player is left back Heath Pearce, who moved to German club Hansa Rostock last summer from Denmark and made 19 Bundesliga appearances as Rostock finished second-to-last and was relegated to the Second Division.

With Chivas USA defender Jonathan Bornstein injured and nobody else established as a clear-cut alternative, the 23-year-old Northern California product is primed for his first taste of qualifying competition, regardless of the circumstances or opposition.

"It's always a big step up to the national team, no matter if you've been playing in the Bundesliga or Denmark or here in the States, but when you play teams like those three, you need to raise every part of your game," says Pearce, who debuted for the USA in 2005 when he came on as a sub against Scotland. "I think you saw a progression and improvement in each game and we're ready for the start of qualifying."

Thirteen players on the roster have appeared in qualifiers. Bradley knows far tougher tests lie ahead, but stresses to his players, veterans and neophytes alike, the pressures and pitfalls of CONCACAF competition are unique.

"We are fortunate that we have some experienced players who have been through World Cup qualifying," said Bradley, who is embarking on his first qualifying attempt after compiling a record of 14-7-3 since taking over in the fall of 2006. "I think they have done an excellent job of setting a good tone in terms of the importance of these games, in terms of what to expect and making sure that we never take anything lightly.

"It's the start of World Cup qualifying. Everybody understands the importance of these games."

Click HERE for U.S. roster.

 



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