[WHAT TO WATCH: USA-ARGENTINA] Three years after battling Argentina to a 0-0 tie in the Meadowlands, the USA plays a different Argentina at a different Meadowlands facility. As of Thursday, nearly 60,000 tickets had been sold for the match Saturday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2, Univision) at the New Meadowlands Stadium. Last May, Mexico drew a crowd of 77,507 for its final pre-World Cup friendly against Ecuador at the stadium, and Brazil’s friendly against the USA last August attracted 77,223.
Coach Bob Bradley has summ oned most of his regulars, 14 of which represented the U.S. last June at the World Cup. Steve Cherundolo (groin), Stuart Holden (knee), and Zak Whitebread (back) were scratched from the original roster because of injuries, and the only replacement named was right back Eric Lichaj of Aston Villa. From the squad of 22 Bradley will pick 18 to suit up for the match, which is followed by a second friendly in Nashville against Paraguay on Tuesday.
Here are some things to watch as the Americans take on a team that after the World Cup beat Brazil, 1-0, and earlier this year thumped world champion Spain, 4-1.
MIDFIELD ISSUES. Holden’s injury deprives the U.S. midfield of many elements: his energy, his stamina, his prowess on set plays, and his adaptability to play out wide or in the middle. To hold the center, a pairing of Maurice Edu and Michael Bradley is likely, unless the coach deems that his son isn’t fit enough due to his lack of playing time since being loaned to Aston Villa in late January. Jermaine Jones is an obvious alternative, and though he’s prone to the late tackle his strength and range could help the U.S. blunt Argentina’s blend of skill and steel in midfield.
Mix Diskerud started against Chile in January and though he’s never faced this caliber of opposition it’s likely he’ll see some time, as might Benny Feilhaber to give the attack a lift if it can’t penetrate Argentina, which is being revamped by Coach Sergio Batista in the wake of Diego Maradona’s departure after the 2010 World Cup. Lionel Messi is still the main man, yet midfielders Ever Banega (Valencia) and Javier Pastore (Palermo) are capable attackers, and veterans Javier Mascherano (Barcelona) and Esteban Cambiasso (Inter Milan) have yet to be deposed.
LONE FORWARD? Since only three forwards are on the roster – Juan Agudelo, Jozy Altidore and Edson Buddle – Bradley may start the match with just one of them and rely on Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey to get into the box whenever possible. Both can play as second forwards anyway, and both can also flip flanks or run the channels. How quickly they recover when the ball is lost and can drop back into passing lanes when possible will be key factor in contesting Argentina’s possession and passing, but they need to be sharp and menacing going forward.
Agudelo scored New York’s goal in its 1-0 defeat of Seattle last weekend on a ball played over the top and that’s not a bad weapon to send out against a superior team. Altidore didn’t join the team until Tuesday night and Buddle has scored two goals in six games for German club FC Ingolstadt since leaving the Galaxy.
HELP FOR HOWARD. At Giants Stadium three years ago, the Argentines dominated play but a spectacular game by Tim Howard stymied them in a 0-0 tie. How secure the U.S. back line can be against Messi and Co. is compromised by the absence of Cherundolo, who patrols the flank often used by Messi. Jonathan Spector hasn’t played much lately for West Ham, and Jay DeMerit has played one competitive match – in Vancouver’s MLS debut last weekend against Toronto FC – since the World Cup. But he’s the most mobile of the experienced U.S. centerbacks.
Bradley does have Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu, and uncapped Timothy Chandler playing regularly, and Red Bull defender Tim Ream looked sharp in New York’s 1-0 victory against Seattle. Facing Argentina is a stiff test for any defender, and the coach should have a clear idea of their sharpness and fitness having observed them closely since preparations began Monday. Jonathan Bornstein has played only four of 11 Mexican league matches for UANL.
FOLLOW-UP. Weighing into Bradley’s decisions will be how many players are released back to their clubs after the Argentina game. Eighteen of the 22 squad players are based in Europe, but because the MLS season just started, he may bring in only a few replacements from the U.S. league and use players against Paraguay who came off the bench or didn’t see the field at the New Meadowlands. More than a half-dozen players are on standby, yet a short turnaround time before the Tuesday game may rule some players out of the reckoning.