Most the attention in American soccer circles right now is rightly focused on the MLS Playoffs and this weekend’s upcoming Conference finals, the US Women’s struggle to qualify for the World Cup following the shocking defeat to Mexico some have labeled the greatest upset in the history of soccer, as well as the US 2022 World Cup bid, which received another jolt of diplomatic energy this week with the news that President Bill Clinton will be part of the final presentation team. If you’re like me, you have to think America’s most beloved figure internationally can’t hurt, and you probably were more than thrilled to get an e-mail from Slick Willie in your inbox this week. Lost in these headlines is the final match on the United States Men’s National Team 2010 calendar, next week’s Nelson Mandela Cup in Cape Town South Africa against this summer’s World Cup hosts, Bafana Bafana.
The match sits on a full FIFA international fixture date, meaning theoretically Bradley the Senior will have the full player pool at his disposal, but the frenetic pace of the EPL and the impending MLS Conference Finals mean questions abound about the side Bradley will choose to take on the United States’ third trip to South Africa in eighteen months. This is the second time the States have participated in the Mandela Cup, the previous time resulting in a 1-0 victory on a Steve Cherundolo goal. What’s certain is the United States will face a South Africa team that has called in most of its top players, including Everton’s menacing, pacy winger Steven Pienaar, as Bafana Bafana look to build momentum for African Cup of Nations qualifying.
More interesting is what Bradley will decide to do, given the reality of his roster limitations. For the second consecutive international fixture window, his team will be without star Landon Donovan, who will either be beginning a well-earned and long-awaited vacation or preparing for another MLS Cup Final. Also out due to playoff demands are forward Edson Buddle, defenders Heath Pearce, Omar Gonzalez and Sean Franklin, FC Dallas forward Brek Shea, potential “farewell cap” candidate Eddie Lewis, oft-criticized forward Conor Casey and diminutive Dallas midfielder and US Olympian Dax McCarty, among others.
Bradley’s potential European options present a more interesting predicament. It is a full international slate, true—but the flight to Cape Town is long and the Yanks will only be there for a few days, and given the demands of European football facing a few in the pool and the busy club schedule in most leagues that is endemic to November and December, there is plenty of reason for Bradley to give as many of his European players a rest as possible and earn some much-needed political capital and club goodwill in the process. Nonetheless, Bradley will want to play a side that is at least competitive, as making the long trip is in and of itself a subtle political gesture, a way for the U.S. to perhaps secure the support of the South African Federation when the 2022 bid voting occurs in Zurich a few weeks from now.
What do all of these considerations mean? First, as our friends at The Shin Guardian have pointed out—the United States will likely bring a small squad and it likely won’t contain veterans from clubs who are playing either Champions League football or battling mild injuries. Second, with a limited group, the tactical choices by Bradley will likely be conservative and it is altogether unfair to criticize him for that. The camp isn’t long enough to have several young faces play an unfamiliar brand of football. All that means really is that it would be surprising if the Yanks play anything other than a 4-4-2, and that we’ll have to wait until the New Year to see if Bob Bradley continues the 3 man midfield experiment he began a month ago. Finally, expect Bradley to use a similar formula in his call-ups, which should be released after the midweek EPL games have concluded (meaning tonight or at the latest, tomorrow morning.) This means you’ll likely see experienced members of the USMNT struggling for playing time at their European clubs mixed with MLS players who are currently beginning their vacations.
Indeed, early reports confirm this theory. Soccer By Ives is reporting that at least two new faces appear on the verge of caps—New York Red Bulls striker and USMNT Under-20 Juan Agudelo, who recently made his professional debut and has had the encouraging privilege of training with Thierry Henry for a few months, and midfielder Mikkel Diskerud, another very young player who currently plays in Norway for Staebak. The cap for Diskerud is not particularly surprising, as he is also eligible to play for Norway and perhaps Bradley is anxious to lock up a player who was once considered one of the more promising and dynamic young midfield talents in the developmental system. Both of these players would be good call-ups and allow Bradley the chance to at least evaluate a couple of players in a match where time demands and travel-time make player evaluation take a backseat to convenience.
One defense I have repeatedly made about Bob Bradley is that he gets very little credit (if any) for all the new players he has capped in his tenure. He has displayed a willingness to try new players and experiment that is not remotely comparable to any manager who preceded him, and while some of this is due to an expanding American player pool to choose from, it warrants mentioning that the perception that Bradley doesn’t try anything new and is late on the uptake calling in new talent is unfair and to some extent laughable. In that respect, calling in new faces for the Mandela Cup is nothing new for Bradley: Jozy Altidore received his first cap in this game three years ago and the greatest American player of all time, Freddy Adu, received his first start. I also expect Tim Ream, the remarkably steady rookie defender for New York, to earn a cap, meaning Bradley will continue to very quietly incorporate new blood into the system if the early reports are true.
Either way, it would be nice to end a historic year for the USMNT on a winning note, and I think Bradley will call in an eighteen that has more than a fair shake at achieving that small goal. The upside to teams like this is that in games most perceive as relatively meaningless, new faces tend to play with more inspiration and hunger, as there is the honor and sense of newness that accompanies wearing the national team shirt as well as the desire to impress the manager. Here are the players I think end up earning that privilege in Cape Town a week from today.
GOALIES: Tim Howard (Everton), Brad Guzan (Aston Villa)
DEFENDERS: Tim Ream (New York Red Bulls), Eric Lichaj (Aston Villa), Jon Spector (West Ham United), Michael Parkhurst (Nordsjaelland), Nat Borchers (Real Salt Lake), Oguchi Onyewu (allegedly, AC Milan).
MIDFIELDERS: Benny Feilhaber (AGF Aarhus), Alejandro Bedoya (Orebro), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht), Mikkel Diskerud (Staebak), Robbie Rogers (Columbus Crew), Ricardo Clark (Frankfurt), Stuart Holden (Bolton Wanderers)
FORWARDS: Jozy Altidore (Villareal), Robbie Findley (Real Salt Lake), Juan Agudelo (New York Red Bulls)
Admittedly, Holden is more a “wish” than a “likelihood”—but I’d rather see him run the midfield with Kljestan (who also is only a possibility given his heavy match-load at Anderlecht) than waste another friendly on Eddie Johnson, who is a bit more likely. I suppose we’ll know soon enough.
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Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder and Associate Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at email@example.com or you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.