EDGAR ZUNIGA - Thursday, March 4, 2010
Like all 32 participants of this summer's World Cup, the US National Team has already scheduled a series of exhibition matches that will test their mettle and allow Bob Bradley an opportunity to observe the current form of his roster and begin the arduous task of fine-tuning before facing off with England in the World Cup.
Friendlies against Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Turkey have all been booked. It is important to point out that the purpose of these matches is not to necessarily go out and win, but to see how the team stacks up against strong opponents, especially the Dutch, who are perennially considered by many pundits as one of the contenders for the World Cup Trophy.
And, although the Czech Republic and Turkey failed to qualify for the World Cup, they are no lightweights and will give Bob an opportunity to tinker with his lineup and experiment with different players, who will be placed in situations of varying degrees of pressure.
And…that's it, not counting the game against El Salvador.
While some of you might be thinking that these three matches will be enough to prepare for the World Cup, let me be curt: No. It's not enough.
Have you seen Mexico's World Cup tune-up?
Talk about globe-trotters, Mexico is preparing for the World Cup by going on a world tour.
Their exhibition schedule includes matches against Bolivia (in San Francisco), New Zealand (Pasadena), North Korea (Mexico), Iceland (Charlotte), Ecuador (Meadowlands), Senegal (Chicago), Chile (Mexico), England (London), Netherlands (Austria), Portugal (TBA), Italy (Brussels) and another match, yet to be scheduled, thrown in the midst of all that.
During one stretch, Mexico will play eight friendlies in four weeks.
Overkill? Maybe. But, it will definitely be interesting to see El Tri pull this off.
Without a doubt, Mexico will be the most prepared team in the World Cup. And, although the schedule includes matches against Bolivia and Iceland, the opponents they are facing get progressively more difficult as they progress.
You gotta give it up to the reigning CONCACAF champions. Mexico is aggressively preparing for the World Cup, announcing their plans with the gravity of a presidential press conference. Where the US Soccer Federation is content with three matches against quality opponents, Mexico is running the gauntlet against everyone.
It would be very nice if that match yet to be scheduled is against the US. However, there hasn't been a peep about that from the suits.
While the prospect of playing so many games in such a short time might be staggering, it's not like Mexican coach Javier Aguirre will be throwing out the same players for every game. This is where the Mexicans will benefit greatly from this adventure.
Think for a moment about the US National Team player pool. Arguably, it is quite shallow. It's been pointed out before that if you take out one or two of the main components, the team's prospects for doing anything memorable at the World Cup drop considerably. Imagine the US without Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley or Jozy Altidore.
Sure, there are players Bob can throw in there to replace them, but it's not the same.
Some of the backups aren't as skilled or lack experience with the national team.
Despite all the scouting and training camps, nothing compares to actually getting some playing time. Think about all the fringe players that haven't had an opportunity to crack the senior squad or make the starting 11. Think about all those Yanks abroad that have gotten off to promising starts in MLS only to find themselves warming benches across Europe. Think about those guys who have fallen from the national team radar and are attempting a comeback.
This is where scheduling more friendlies prior to the World Cup can prove useful for the US. Bob could plug players in and out and see which ones fit best on the team. This also opens up discussion over which players deserve a longer look and benefit the most from this.
How about giving more playing time to guys like Francisco Torres (Pachuca), Michael Parkhurst (Nordsjælland) or Edgar Castillo (Tigres UANL), among others. In Torres, for example, many fans and pundits argue that we have the best midfield option after Michael Bradley. Hell, he might even be better.
With some of the more important components of the US World Cup squad still missing—Oguchi Onyewu and Clint Dempsey are on the mend and Charlie Davies is attempting an improbable return to action (considering the circumstances)—Bob has been shuffling his cards while keeping his fingers crossed that those guys are in top form by the World Cup.
However, some players that were practically forgotten have begun to cause ripples from the edges of the US player pool.
Despite modest accomplishments, Freddy Adu never really lived up to heavy expectations. The kid was a hype machine and everyone drank the Kool-Aid. Nevertheless, he has never fallen far from favor and has recently sparked up interest with his performance with Aris Thessaloniki, affectionately known as the God of War of the Greek Super League. Is Adu still the future of the National Team?
Guess we won't know any time soon, since he wasn't even on the roster to face Netherlands. But, hey, Eddie Johnson was there. Can't believe Bob chose GAM over Adu.
If the US did what Mexico is doing, Bob would get a wide and very clear look at many more players than three matches will allow. Think of the benefits of having a large group of players hungry for a spot on the World Cup squad, fighting tooth and nail to impress Bob. Not only might some of those players rise to the occasion, they would be getting invaluable experience that only serves to deepen that player pool.
On top of that, Bob could carefully mold the team to his liking with each progressive game, and the players would begin to get used to playing with each other, so that by the time the World Cup rolls around, Bob will have a group of the best players from the entire pool who have had the opportunity to bond and develop strong team chemistry, which is often difficult to achieve on the national team-level.
However, that's not the case. Bob has three (maybe four) matches in which to decide who is in and who is out and which formations and tactics he will employ in the World Cup.
It must also be pointed out that the majority of the Mexican players play in Mexico and their Federation has the cooperation of the league clubs. This is something that US Soccer cannot do and Bob doesn't have the luxury of calling on his non-MLS players on a non-FIFA match date.
For Mexico the benefits of this hectic schedule will go beyond the World Cup, galvanizing their entire system, allowing them to plan and build for the future. This is why they will be raising the bar in CONCACAF for years to come.
For the US, another solution would be to constantly schedule games against quality opponents in Europe. Other CONCACAF teams offer rough and tough competition but are not at the level of Europe. This is something the US must do if they want to proclaim themselves the dominant force in the region and shake the world on a grander scale.