Three Things to Watch For as the US National Team Faces South Africa
A new four-year cycle has started, and coach Bob Bradley, signed to guide the program toward another World Cup, has begun the long process of building his new team.
The South Africa game (2 p.m. ET, ESPN2) comes at an intriguing time. With the MLS season nearing its climax and the national team's European regulars in the meat of their club campaigns, Bradley had the chance to experiment with some untested talent.
And he's taken that chance, calling in several players who could make significant contributions in 2014 and beyond.
The beautiful Cape Town Stadium, which hosted several games during the World Cup, including Holland's semifinal victory over Uruguay, is sold out for Wednesday's Nelson Mandela Challenge. Those in attendance will be watching Bafana Bafana. Here's what FanHouse would like to see happen, from an American perspective:
Youth Teamers United
The trip to South Africa is the first for Gale Agbossoumonde, Juan Agudelo, and Mikkel Diskerud, all of whom boast impressive experience at various levels of the U.S. youth system. Agudelo and Agbossoumonde are the first U.S. Soccer Development Academy alumni to be called up to the senior national team. Agbossoumonde and Diskerud represented the U.S. at the 2009 Under-20 World Cup in Egypt.
As American soccer continues to grow and improve, it's vital that young players like these step up and contribute at the highest level. U.S. Soccer has made an impressive push toward modernizing the country's youth system, and MLS has helped with its focus on youth development. In fact, on Tuesday, the league announced that clubs will be able to sign an unlimited number of their youth academy players to senior contracts, and team rosters will be expanded from 26 players to 30 to accommodate them.
Wednesday's game is the perfect opportunity to start seeing some results. Agudelo came up through the New York Red Bulls system and made his pro debut in the playoffs, while Agbossoumonde played for the IMG Academy in Florida.
Athough Agudelo (19), Diskerud (20), and Agbossoumonde (turning 20 on game day) are still very young, it's important that they make a good impression in South Africa, both in training and if they see the field. Every other contenting soccer country in the world boasts a stable of teenage talent, and it's about time the U.S. catches up.
Former Chivas USA and new Tigres UANL defender Jonathan Bornstein has long been the subject of debate among soccer pundits. Some argue he's been one of the most inconsistent and underperforming players in the national team pool and played in the World Cup only because of his personal relationship with Bradley. Others see him as a mobile left-back with solid tackling skills who's dangerous going forward. He did score that stunning stoppage time header against Costa Rica to help the U.S. win the CONCACAF Hexagonal last year.
Whether you like Bornstein or not, the truth is that he's got a load of international experience and could be a very important player for the national team over the next few years. Consider this: when the 2014 World Cup in Brazil rolls around, Carlos Bocanegra will be 35 years old. So will Steve Cherundolo. Jay DeMerit will be 33. Oguchi Onyewu will be 32.
Needless to say, that's not the most youthful of back lines. It's time for Bornstein, who will be 29 in 2014, to step up into a leadership role. He's the most capped player on Bradley's roster for this game, and he needs to act like it on Wednesday night.
Brad Guzan should be the future of American goalkeeping. He's tenacious, athletic, and intelligent -- and he's still got a long career in front of him. Still just 26 years old, he has proven his worth and has become the go-to understudy for normal number one Tim Howard.
The big question for him on Wednesday will be whether or not he can step out from the shadow of veterans like Howard, and Aston Villa teammate Brad Friedel and become his own man. He's shown signs he can do it, with five shutouts in 15 appearances for the U.S. and an outstanding display against Brazil in August. But can he keep it up, especially when he's not seeing much action for his club team?
Guzan has struggled to get minutes since moving to Villa in 2008. Nabbing a shutout in Cape Town would go a long way toward proving to Bradley coaches that he deserves to be in camp ahead of competition like Real Salt Lake's Nick Rimando and Colorado's Matt Pickens, who are playing 90 minutes week-in and week-out. It also may send a signal to other clubs looking for a top-notch goalie.
For now, Guzan needs to make sure he takes advantage of playing opportunities when they come along. His ability to do that could influence the lineup in the next two World Cups.