It's that time of year again, when a group of United States players who play in MLS and a few in Scandinavia get together, call themselves the U.S. National Team and play some team that is equally weakened without its top players at the Home Depot Center. This year, the opponent is Chile, ranked 15th in the world (when they have their best players, which they won't on Saturday) and unbelievably entertaining under manager Marcelo Bielsa who probably can't spell any other word other than attack.
Unless you're a super duper extra crazy diehard fan, you probably will not watch this match, but there is a segment of crazies out there as well as the Southern California locals who think soccer equals beer and soccer plus beer equals fun so they'll go to match. Truth be told, there is probably more to be gleaned from this year's January training camp and friendly, affectionately dubbed Camp Cupcake by United States supporters, than there is in most years.
This time around, head coach Bob Bradley went exclusively with youth and/or inexperience with his January roster. Because there is not a FIFA international date in February, Bradley can only call players in whose clubs are not playing, which limits him to MLS players and those in Scandinavian leagues. He cut that pool even further by omitting some players like Jay DeMerit, Landon Donovan and others who have experience to get a look at younger players. In fact, Alejandro Bedoya is the most experience Bradley called in with all of six caps to his name.
The youth on the team is what makes Saturday's 10 pm EST friendly versus Chile so interesting though. Not only is the team young, but its full of talent that isn't fresh out of college. For the most part, the young players with the U.S. have been in a professional set up for several years and are more equipped than past U.S. youngsters to compete at the international level. The young players are sound, dynamic and a few might even be playing with the full national team before long. In fact, a couple already have.
With the U.S. having not gotten a goal from a striker in a World Cup since 2002, the focus on youth development often is up top where fans are looking for the next young forward to bang in some goals. Right now, there are two young hopes in Juan Agudelo and Teal Bunbury.
Agudelo gained fame by scoring in his first match with the senior team back in November at the tender age of 17, becoming the youngest player to ever score a goal for the U.S. senior team. The smooth and skillful now 18-year-old who plays for the New York Red Bulls has been one of the more impressive players in training. His calm in front of goal has been praised by many who have grown accustomed to seeing young strikers get overly excited with scoring opportunities and blast the ball over the net. What opened the eyes of many though is his skill on the ball and ability to not only finish, but create in the final third. This was never more evident than in the MLS Playoffs when his made a bursting run to get onto a ball and then played in inch perfect cross to Juan Pablo Angel for a New York goal. Keeping Agudelo's feet on the ground and his head level with all of the hype surrounding him recently is a priority for Bradley and he is still being eased into the system so it wouldn't be a surprise if he came off of the bench, but he will be one to watch when he sees the pitch.
When the U.S. went down to South Africa in November, Agudelo got most of the praise for his game-winning goal, but that overshadowed some fantastic work by his strike partner Bunbury. More physical than Agudelo, Bunbury also showed great technical work when he took a ball on his left foot in that match and opened his hips well to turn and get a shot away. While the shot didn't scare the keeper, the technique he flashed to get the shot away is something many American strikers lack and at 6'2'', Bunbury is much more adept to play alone as a striker, something that will appeal to Bradley. Whether he can make the most of his opportunities and show the smarts to play alone up top while remaining involved and active will be a good test for the Canadian-born Bunbury who opted to play for the Yanks.
For all the talk of the two young strikers, the most important part of the match for the U.S. will come at the back. The World Cup scoring drought by U.S. strikers has been repeated ad nauseam and it is not as if the Yanks are blessed with forwards, but what has gone understated by many is that in four World Cup matches last summer, the U.S. allowed five goals. In the final round of World Cup qualifying, the U.S. allowed 13 goals in 10 matches. For all of the talk of the Yanks' needing strikers, keeping the ball out of the net has been the biggest problem for Bradley's squad.
The central defense pairing that most expect to see on Saturday could be the fix the U.S. needs to stop the barrage on their goal and also provide the team a stout backstop for years to come. Omar Gonzalez and Tim Ream are two of the United States' and MLS' brightest young defenders. Gonzalez has been praised for his strength and at 6'5'', Gonzalez is a force in the air. Ream isn't quite as big, standing 6'1'', but he's as good a distributor out of the back as the U.S. has. Both Gonzalez and Ream have only made one appearance for the Yanks and Chile will test the pairs' biggest weakness.
If one was to go looking for questions in Gonzalez and Ream's games, it would be one big one and it would be whether or not the pair are competent enough defenders when forced to cover space and run. Both were asked to do that in their final MLS Playoff matches and both failed spectacularly. In the matches in which Gonzalez's Galaxy and Ream's Red Bulls were eliminated, both were exposed for their lack of pace and quickness to run with attacking players in space. Chile are among the most attacking sides in the world and will put Gonzalez and Ream in situations where they have to turn and run with Chileans. Whether or not they can handle the Chileans will be another opportunity to gauge whether either has the movement necessary to play at the international level.
There are a host of other intriguing players and questions about where they will play. Mikkel Diskerud is a highly skilled midfielder who has played in Europa League matches for his club, Stabaek, but when he got his first cap against South Africa he was deployed on the wing. Where Bradley utilizes him on Saturday could be an indicator of where Bradley sees Diskerud's international future. Anthony Wallace is the only left back in camp for the U.S. and since the team has lacked a quality left back for nearly a decade now, all eyes will be on whether the 21-year-old can step forward and make a case for being the left back of the future. If Wallace does not play all 90 minutes, Zach Lloyd, who seemingly can play every position on the field, will likely get a look at the position and see if he can make a case for staying in the mix at the position.
More than anything, the last two weeks of training and Saturday's match present these young players the opportunity to see what it is like to play with the national team. Since being named head coach for a second World Cup cycle, Bradley has begun to implement a more possession based style with the U.S. This has included a move from the 4-4-2 formation that Bradley used at the World Cup to a 4-2-3-1 or hybrid 4-3-3 formation that emphasizes the midfield. In all likelihood, Bradley will use a five man midfield to see where the young players can fit in in such a formation if they're to get called up to the full team.
Two things are readily apparent in the style Bradley is trying to implement with the Yanks. First is that he wants to improve the team's passing beginning along the back line. The U.S. has long been content to boot the ball deep with their defenders, but Bradley is now asking defenders to be calmer on the ball and initiate the attack from the back four. Because of that, Ream and his excellent distribution will likely be focused on and Gonzalez, whose distribution is shaky at times, will have to prove to Bradley that he can pass the ball well enough to merit call ups with the full team.
The second thing that Bradley has begun to do more of is play with a single striker. Many will question where that idea was at the World Cup when Bradley's insistence on playing with two strikers put Robbie Findley in the starting XI, while one of the more productive midfielders sat on the bench to begin, but the change in underway now. That change is why Bunbury is likely to start and Agudelo is likely to find himself on the bench to begin. A bigger and stronger player, Bunbury's style is more conducive to playing alone up top. That said, in a friendly like this, Bradley has enough substitutions that he will likely show other formations in the second half in an effort to get several players onto the field. When Bradley begins to make his substitutions, it is then that Agudelo will likely be introduced, possibly to play alongside Bunbury in what some overly optimistic fans have already pegged as the starting frontline of the future for the U.S.
Even without their top players, Chile has more experience on their roster than the U.S. and would have to be tipped as favorites. However, the scoreline is hardly the most important thing when the two teams take to the Home Depot Center Field. It is not that both sides won't want to win because all teams always want to when, but the teams will really be looking at individual players and how they cope in an international match. If Bradley can come away from the match with the notion that a handful of players are capable of playing with the full team right away and a few other of the younger ones can be impact players in two years when the team begins to really gear up for the 2014 World Cup, the match with be a smashing success regardless of the score.