[USA-AUSTRALIA] Reading between the lines -- always a treacherous exercise when the U.S. national team is concerned -- would suggest a projected starting XI to face England June 12 will be on the field against Australia Saturday when both teams play a final World Cup tune-up game (8:30 am ET, ESPN2, Galavision). U.S. coach Bob Bradley and counterpart Pim Verbeek both want a crisp, clean game with good energy and moderate intensity minus studs-up tackles and flailing elbows, and both teams are monitoring injuries to key attackers.
U.S. forward Jozy Altidore suffered a sprained right ankle in training Wednesday and is scheduled for a fitness test Friday to ascertain his condition. An MRI performed Thursday came back negative.
Australian forward Harry Kewell (strained groin) and midfielder Brett Emerton (injured calf) sat out a friendly against Denmark on Tuesday, a 1-0 Aussie win, but both players have undergone strenuous training sessions this week in preparation for the U.S. game at Ruimsig Stadium in Roodepoort.
“We’re still determining how to balance it out,” said Bob Bradley of his approach to this match against Australia, which qualified through the Asian confederation for the first time following decades of much weaker competition in the Oceania region. “Certainly a week before the match, we want to continue to move our team forward, but that sometimes involves different plans for different guys. So we look at each individual, try to sort out what’s best, and at the same time keep in mind the group and how to be ready for a big match next week.”
One player who must be as ready as possible is defender Oguchi Onyewu, whose appearances against Czech Republic and Turkey in the final send-off games before the team departed for South Africa represented his first competitive play in more than seven months. He played 65 minutes in the first match and the second half against Turkey; fitness coach Pierre Barrieu and the team’s medical staff are closely observing his progress and recovery from a ruptured patellar tendon.
“We will certainly use him more against Australia, and try to assess exactly where that fits in as we make the decisions for the starting XI vs. England,” said Bradley, who has a few lineup decisions up in the air: a forward partner for Altidore, assuming he’s fit enough to start; a central midfield partner for Michael Bradley, and whether to play Carlos Bocanegra in the middle with Onyewu or keep him at left back.
In case Altidore isn’t ready to start, Bradley could give more time to Herculez Gomez, Robbie Findley and/or Edson Buddle.
Findley, along with three other halftime subs, sparked a sharper second half that yielded two goals against Turkey. Gomez came on as a sub against Czech Republic and headed in a goal; he had replaced Buddle, whose challenge on keeper Peter Cech from a corner kick triggered a scramble that Maurice Edu polished off with a goal.
Or, if Altidore’s ankle doesn’t heal sufficiently, Bradley could again start Dempsey up top -- as he did in the Turkey game -- and juggle his midfield to utilize DaMarcus Beasley, whose pace might give England coach Fabio Capello another possibility to ponder. Still, Bradley’s modus operandi is to focus on his team, not pump out smokescreens.
Australia is also kicking off its World Cup with the group heavyweight; a day after the U.S. faces England, the Aussies play Germany. Keeper Mark Schwarzer, who had been sidelined with a thumb injury, returned to the starting lineup against the Danes, and on Saturday gets a chance to thwart Fulham teammate Clint Dempsey.
“In any game you play in, you always want to score, but it would be good to score against him because he’s always running his mouth in training,” said Dempsey. “Really, he’s a great goalie. He helped us out a lot at Fulham. I think a lot of the success of the team goes to having that experience between the sticks.”
The experience of facing Australia, which is well-stocked with English Premier League players past and present, should hone the Americans. Midfielder Tim Cahill, who briefly was a teammate of Landon Donovan during his loan stint with Everton, is one of several players who can stretch the U.S. in any game, friendly or otherwise.
“Australia plays well as a team,” said Bradley. “They have a great mentality; we’d like to think that there are similarities between the mentalities of both teams in that regard. Their game against Denmark was a fast game, their field is a little tight and it made for a fast game, some turnovers and put a premium on reactions when the ball turns over, so it wasn’t a game that had a great flow.
“But I think it provided a good kind of match for getting teams ready, so we’ll try and have the same thought as we prepare.”