With Major League Soccer at its seasonal zenith, it's been difficult to focus on today's friendly between the United States and South Africa. Usually there's a ton of chatter surrounding USMNT friendlies, but I don't know. This time, it hasn't been the same. Maybe it's domestic media traveling to Toronto for MLS Cup, but the Mandela Challenge match is being slightly overlooked. With MLS and the European season having captured our imaginations, the country's favorite soccer team is being a bit overshadowed.
Come 2:30 p.m. Eastern time, that overshadowed team will take center stage, giving us a chance to answer some questions that have surfaced over the past two months. We've wondered about formations, forwards, defensive holes. Today, we'll get some more feedback.
Below are a handful of those questions, all of which we'll revisit after today's match, but our first question has less to do with the team than the friendly itself:
1. Is this match going to give us any useful information?
First, let's define useful information: anything that serves to improve the team as it heads into its next major tournament, the 2011 Gold Cup. Given some of the names Bob Bradley's brought into the team, he'll get some idea as to whether the likes of Gale Agbossoumonde, Juan Agudelo, Teal Bunbury, Mikkel Diskerud, Eric Lichaj, and Tim Ream can be in the picture next summer.
How good an idea Bradley gets will come down to the competitiveness of this match. While having players with the team - traveling, training, interacting with teammates and staff - is an underrated and important part of a player's evaluation, the information gathered about their playing abilities will be irrelevant if the U.S. and South Africa cruise through this match.
For a mid-week friendly jammed into the middle of the club season, there's always a chance that players will coast. Given how far most of these guys have traveled, it won't be a surprise to see a few players performing below their peak. At the same time, don't expect the Bafana Bafana to cruise through a home match against the United States, and with USMNT's squad dominated by players trying to bolster their place in the set-up, anybody who cruises through this match will deal a severe set-back to their national team hopes.
The circumstances of a one-off friendly in South Africa open the door to an uneventful match, but I don't expect that to happen.
2. Will Bob Bradley continue to search for a better formation?
The 4-4-2 on which Bradley's become reliant has served the team well, but the U.S. has to keep pursuing ways to improve. To this point, that pursuit hasn't happened. In the last international break, the U.S. spent about 45 of their 180 minutes playing something other than Bob's system. That's no way to gather information on alternatives.
Unfortunately, given the personnel called-in, this match will not be the best place to experiment with a new approach. If Bradley tried a single striker set-up and it worked, that tells us little about whether the formation would be viable when Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan are playing. If the U.S. plays only one deep midfielder (instead of two) against South Africa, that won't inform us on whether the Michael Bradley-Jermaine Jones tandem should do the same.
If there is a benefit from changing systems for today's match, it's getting Bradley out of his comfort zone. Coach Bradley should challenge himself, put himself in game situations that call for him to develop more flexible decision-making and tactics. Coaches, like players, need a chance to improve.
Ultimately, though, Bradley should play whatever style gives him the best chance to evaluate the players he's called in. The might be a 4-4-2. That might be a 4-2-1-3. It all depends on who Bradley is most interested in watching.
3. Can the United States prevent goals?
In four of their last seven matches, the U.S. has allowed multiple goals, keeping only two clean sheets (the obligatory one against Algeria and the one against Columbia in October). The only other clean sheet the U.S. has kept since the 2009 Gold Cup was at Trinidad and Tobago: three shutouts in 20 matches.
Thankfully, the States has been resourceful enough to overcome that problem, finish first in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying and win their group in South Africa. However, when you're looking at places where the U.S. needs to improve, this is the start.
Jonathan Bornstein (expected to wear the armband today), Jonathan Spector and Clarence Goodson, regular selections to the team, have been a part of those struggles, but with their profiles within the national team potentially increasing ahead of next summer's Gold Cup, strong performances today could cast them as solutions instead of understudies.
Even if those defenders "step up," the kids need to be evaluated. Where injuries had the United States looking thin at the back ahead of South Africa, the potential emergence of Adbossoumonde, Lichaj and Ream would add needed depth to the defense corps.
Ream seems to be most ready contribute tomorrow. Lichaj has the potential to add a needed, attacking dimension wide, while Agbossoumonde is still too raw to justify judgment.
4. Can the United States develop forwards?
The last time the U.S. developed an impact forward was Brian McBride. Jozy Altidore has potential and we all want the best for Charlie Davies, but this is the States' thinnest position. It's a credit to Dempsey and Donovan that the U.S. has been able to generate a dangerous attack without a striking threat, but as is the case with the defense, there's huge room for improvement at forward.
Today, we'll get to see Agudelo and Bunbury, neither of whom should be expected to impact a full squad any time soon. Agudelo has barely played in MLS, though this friendly is a great opportunity to get him experience with the senior national team's set-up. He's still more viable as a U-level player, right now.
Bunbury's call-in seems more of a carrot to confirm his semi-controversial commitment to the States. He's also a long way away from being an impact internationally.
Still, in Agudelo and Bunbury we'll get a glimpse of the future; or, more readily, we'll see whether the U.S. has a future at the forward position. Unlike midfield and defense, the prospects at forward don't offer a lot of options. The United States may need to think about why they can produce midfielders but can't produce a forward.
5. Which kids can emerge before the Gold Cup?
The next big step in building for Brazil is next summer's Gold Cup, where the U.S. will get its next chance to meaningfully measure its progress. Leading up to that tournament, it's all about figuring out who should be in the team. Right now, the young players in today's squad are on the outside looking in. With strong performances today, the Tim Reams of the world could see A-team call-ups.