CHRISTOPHER MCCOLLUM - Friday, March 25, 2011
With the looming matches against Argentina and Paraguay this weekend, fans of the Red, White, and Blue will have their annual opportunity to take in matches against top-level South American competition.
The last game against Argentina in 2008 was a thriller, with Oguchi Onyewu coming tantalizingly close to tucking his potential game-winning header under the crossbar.
Settling for an exciting scoreless draw against the world's top ranked team in front of almost 80,000 people was a great moral victory, and in thwarting the likes of Lionel Messi, Javier Mascherano, Maxi Rodriguez, and Sergio Aguero for 90 minutes, it was a true test of character, which the team passed.
That said, the upcoming Saturday night feature, again in New Jersey, again in front of a massive crowd expected to top 70,000, and with eight players from the 2008 game on the roster for Saturday, it is an opportunity to take another step on the world stage.
Defeating Spain in the Confederations Cup and putting the boots to Brazil in the first half of the final were clear indications to the world at large that the Yanks are marching in. Eventually. It has to happen, right?
An underdog tie against England, an erased two-goal deficit to tie Slovakia, and a last minute victory along with some help from the crossbar against Algeria sent us through to a disappointing second round exit against Ghana.
It never quite seemed to have the same magic as the 2002 run, and a fair defeat against a good team tasted far more sour than an unfair (I don't care what referee you ask, that was a handball) defeat against one of the best teams in the world.
We've come to the point of evolution in our game and soccer culture, where we can no longer justifiably explain losses away as positive learning experiences.
For the past 14 years, from Steve Sampson to Bruce Arena and finally to Bob Bradley's reign at the helm, we've had a disappointing track record of losing or tying both quality and backwater teams, and taking away "positive learning experiences" from the result.
At some point in time, those lessons learned in the school of hard knocks need to come through on a consistent basis. Continuing to give up early goals in big games has been the trend of the past couple years, despite numerous "positive learning experiences" taken away from those games where we had to dig ourselves out of a hole after an early defensive collapse.
A good test will be Argentina, although it will not be the same Lionel Messi that was shut down in the last game. This Messi is older, faster, stronger, and better.
He has reached the early stages of his prime, as opposed to just being on his way, but still better than everyone else on the field. All the more reason that the lessons learned from past experiences need to be put into use.
A solid, quick-reacting, organized and aware defense and midfield can slow down the fast passing game that Argentina utilizes to pick apart opponents in the offensive third.
Keep Messi from receiving the ball, or at least have him under tremendous pressure when he does receive the ball, and it will obviously limit his effectiveness and the risk of giving up an early goal, and then having to play catch up. The man is still only human (for now. We‘ll see where his ascension stops), and he can be stopped by a focused enough force and the right circumstances.
An always intriguing aspect of playing South American teams, Argentina included, is the lack of familiarity with their players in club competitions. Jonathan Spector, Clint Dempsey, and Carlos Bocanegra all have plenty of field experience against Javier Mascherano, and even Landon Donovan got a game in there as well while on loan to Everton. Aside from that case however, there's not much else.
Sacha Kljestan plays with Lucas Biglia at Anderlecht, but otherwise, none of the Americans on the roster currently share a league with the Argentinian players, except for Marcos Angeleri, who has yet to play against an American in his three appearances for Sunderland. For the sake of the argument, we're not going to count Onyewu's time as an unused reserve in Milan.
Because of that lack of experience, accurate scouting reports and friendly advice must do the job, especially with 14 relative new-comers to the international stage being featured on Argentina's roster.
The greatest benefit of friendly advice will hopefully be Tim Ream and Juan Agudelo, who could perhaps pick up a tip or two from Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez on how to deal with their former Barcelona teammates in Messi and Gabby Milito.
A loss against Argentina at this point of our development should simply count as a loss. Not as a moral victory for holding them to a limited number of goals, or a positive learning experience for the future. A tie is of course a tie, but there can still be a great positive to the result. I don't need to explain what a victory would mean.
If Argentina is a good test to see what we've learned from Qualifying, Confederations Cup, World Cup, and several exhibitions and challenges along the way, then the game three days later against Paraguay should be an even better test.
While still a top caliber South American team with an impressive array of victories during the 2010 World Cup Qualifying campaign, Paraguay still lacks the pedigree of Argentina and Brazil, and we should expect a better chance of posting a positive result against them.
Not having to defend Roque Santa Cruz (left off the roster) is a definite plus for the American defense, and the current European contingent have just a tad bit more experience playing Paraguayans than Argentineans in England and Germany.
Whether that tad bit more experience pays off is something that only time can tell, but to host Paraguay on American soil and not come away with a victory will surely equal a defeat, but not quite a step backward. There is no shame in losing respectably to a team that beat Argentina and Brazil in qualifying, but surely the only option for March 29 is victory.
The roster selection is one largely brimming with the promise of excitement, with a good deal of the selected players being favorites for this summer's Gold Cup.
No doubt about it, if not for Stuart Holden‘s unfortunate and untimely injury, we could be seeing one of the best lineups that Bradley has ever put on the field.
There are some youngsters to integrate in with the veterans, and without a doubt, the two upcoming games will be full of learning experiences. I just don't want to hear that used as some kind of token of accomplishment anymore, where we accept defeat in exchange for the experience of playing a game.
It's time to take game experience and turn it into consistent victories against solid opponents.