At some point, expectations have to be ratcheted up, so Coach Bob Bradley and his players have a more Darwinian cost to their performance at internationals, whether they be friendlies, qualifiers, or other competitive events, such as the Confederations Cup and Gold Cup. But for a country with many players struggling to get regular time at foreign clubs and the rest laboring in a demanding yet limited domestic league, the long-term approach makes the most sense.
Confederation Cup opposition in South Africa this year is deemed too tough, though at the last World Cup only the Americans took any points off eventual champion Italy by tying, 1-1. The Brazilians can and probably will dismantle the USA as they did two years ago in Chicago (4-2). Egypt is beatable, and in a bit of a crisis, but also realizes it probably has just this one chance to win.
Normally, there'd be intense pressure to win the Gold Cup, the regional championship that decides who represents Concacaf in the Confederations Cup. By beating Mexico, 2-1, two years ago in a thrilling Gold Cup final, the U.S. earned passage to South Africa this summer. But there is no such motivation this year, since the 2009 Gold Cup will be followed by another one, with that winner qualifying for the subsequent Confederations Cup.
U.S. Soccer values continuity, and knows its potential player pool - despite the dozens of players summoned by Coach Bradley since he took the job - is still rather shallow. Otherwise, there's no way Eddie Johnson would have labored through so many desultory performances before being dropped (only to be recalled, and jettisoned again), and the occasional shockers turned in by numerous players would be tolerated. A reliance on experienced players, mostly, to play in the Hexagonal can be infuriating at times, yet the national team is still not capable of cake-walking through the final phase of qualifying, and only chronic losers bet big with the odds and tall piles of chips stacked against them. Bob Bradley can be conservative, but he's not a fool.
Two years ago, fans and numerous observers ranted and raved and tore their hair out when a 'B' team lost three straight in the Copa America. They moaned, they groaned, they wailed, and quickly forgot the 'A' team had just won the Gold Cup. They also ignored the fact Bradley took long looks at players in tough conditions at the Copa, and will do the same this month in South Africa.
Nobody foresees Drew Moor representing the USA next summer, while Marvell Wynne's incredible athletic talents have already convinced some fans he should be the starter at right back yesterday, or at least they did feel that way until a fit, poised Jonathan Spector turned up against Honduras. Wynne wasn't the only U.S. player out of his element at Estadio Ricardo Saprissa.
Both Moor and Wynne, and Kyle Beckerman and Bobby Boswell and Justin Mapp and others, got tested two years ago in Venezuela. The same will be the case for Wynne and Jose Francisco Torres and Freddy Adu, et al., this month and next.
The regular presence of Michael Bradley in the starting lineup seems inviolate, but what will be the consequences if Brazil and/or Italy cut him to pieces while other players hold their own? On the other hand, his value will be confirmed if he handles his role while teammates falter.
Torres has hardly played enough to be accurately evaluated. And the whole central midfield puzzle can't be assembled for a few months at least, with Maurice Edu - tough, quick, and getting invaluable experience at Rangers - healing a knee injury, and Pablo Mastroeni back in the USA. By the way, anybody seen Sacha Kljestan lately?
Many fans and certain journalists anointed DaMarcus Beasley as Left Back For Life after a 3-0 victory over Trinidad & Tobago on, appropriately enough, April Fool's Day. That title has been bestowed upon Jonathan Bornstein for his display last week against Honduras, which returned him to the heights he attained -- and from which he subsequently fell -- two years ago at the 2007 Gold Cup. At the same competition, Benny Feilhaber seemed to be "a can't-miss"; well, he went more or less missing for more than a year, until a sharp 45 minutes in Chicago. He's back on track but a long way from the winners' circle.
Playing Landon Donovan at left mid is all well and good, but that spot is open again if the right side continues to be a black hole. Maybe Clint Dempsey needed a bit more rest before facing Costa Rica and Honduras, against which he did set up a goal. Another week to recover from a grinding Premier League season may refresh him. But if he plays in South Africa like he's cocksure he'll be back in the starting lineup a year from now, that will convince Bradley there's a problem.
Here's hoping we'll see some tinkering in South Africa, like we saw two years ago. Maybe Carlos Bocanegra gets a run at left back, where he plays for Rennes, with Spector or Jay DeMerit and Oguchi Onyewu in the middle and Wynne at right back. The Bradley-Feilhaber central combo is surely intriguing, maybe Torres gets time on the left, Adu might play on the right wing or as a second forward; he and Charlie Davies as a forward tandem wouldn't be worst experiment in the world. Neither would be Adu and Jozy Altidore, or Davies and Altidore. Dempsey up top if the midfield slots look set? Why not? Well, because all too often the results matter even when they shouldn't.
But what counts in South Africa is poise, toughness, instinct, skill, focus, stamina, courage; not as means to an end, but as building blocks for the future, for that future is only a year away. If they can't win games, the Americans must win tackles, they must win duels, they must win balls, and they must win respect.