The U.S. national team was hit and miss during the friendlies against Argentina on Saturday and Paraguay on Tuesday, and it has nothing to do with the scorelines.
The Americans rallied to tie Lionel Messi-led Argentina, 1-1, in East Rutherford, N.J., a flattering result that provides no suggestion of how dominant were the Albiceleste. The U.S. was much better against Paraguay in Nashville, dictating large swaths of action, but couldn't overcome an early deficit in a 1-0 defeat.
Bob Bradley's team, 1-2-4 since the World Cup, is preparing for the CONCACAF Gold Cup, where there are weighty expectations (the U.S. must make it to the June 25 final at the Rose Bowl, likely against Mexico) and a big prize (the winner heads to the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil).
The bigger picture, of course, is 2014, the next World Cup, and Bradley has blooded more than two dozen players, with a handful demonstrating that they might have a real future at the international level. The U.S. coach already has had 58 players in camp since August and used 51 in the games against Brazil (2-0 loss, Aug. 10 in East Rutherford), Poland (2-2 draw, Oct. 9 in Chicago), Colombia (0-0 draw, Oct. 12 in Chester, Pa.), South Africa (1-0 win, Nov. 17 in Cape Town), Chile (1-1 draw, Jan. 22 at Home Depot Center), Argentina and Paraguay.
Here are five things we learned, or saw confirmed, in the games the past week:
1. IT'S WISE TO KEEP THE BORDERS OPEN
U.S. Soccer once scrambled for every U.S.-eligible player that could be found in Europe -- every serviceman's son (Thomas Dooley, Earnie Stewart, David Wagner, etc.), every player married to a Yank (Roy Wegerle, David Regis -- too bad we missed out on Juergen Klinsmann!), every U.S.-born, foreign-raised talent (can't think of any off hand, sorry).
The European flavor became less vital as American talent grew and more U.S. players found work with teams in Britain and on the continent, but three Bradley now has three German-born players -- all sons of servicemen -- in his pool: midfielder Jermaine Jones (Blackburn), 29, who was discovered in 2009 and debuted against Brazil; and defender/midfielder Timmy Chandler (FC Nuremberg), 21, and goalkeeper David Yelldell (MSV Duisburg), 29, who joined the team in this camp.
Jones is a starting option in central midfield, but the real prize might be Chandler, who was exceptional at right back off the bench against the Argentines and in a starting role against Paraguay. His attacking sensibilities are well-developed, he's as good off the ball and with it, and he's already in the top line of crossers in the U.S. pool.
And let's not forget Norwegian-born midfielder Mixx Diskerud, 20, whose mom is American. He looked good in appearances against South Africa and Chile but didn't play against Argentina and Paraguay, although he was in camp.
2. FAMILIARITY BREEDS COMFORT
The U.S. looked a lot better in a conventional 4-4-2 alignment Tuesday than they were in a 4-2-3-1 Saturday, and a good deal of that seemed to be about familiarity with the system and the roles within it. (A lot had to do with Argentina, too, of course.)
So, should Bradley stick to the tried and true? Not necessarily. We like the idea of a 4-2-3-1, especially a midfield triangle (Saturday's had Maurice Edu in the advanced role and Jones and Michael Bradley behind him) and how it emphazises Landon Donovan's and Clint Dempsey's attacking abilities.
Should the experiment wait until after the Gold Cup? Perhaps. The results matter in June.
3. JUAN AGUDELO HAS STAR POTENTIAL
Agudelo, the Colombian-born New York Red Bulls forward who was just 17 when he debuted -- and scored -- in the win in South Africa, netted his second international goal to give the U.S. the draw with Argentina. It was a pure poacher's goal, and the Yanks certainly could use a pure poacher.
Agudelo, now 18, does so much more that that, as we saw during a fine performance against the Paraguayans in his first start for the U.S.
The Red Bulls are trying to protect their youngster, who also has impressed in Major League Soccer action, limit the frenzy in any way they can. But they know what they've got. Said Thierry Henry this week: “There’s never smoke without fire. The guy is a beast. He’s going to become our go-to player.”
4. TIM HOWARD IS THE MAN
The Americans stayed in the Argentina game because of Howard, who must be considered among the elite keepers, along with Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel, who contributed so much to the national team's success. (We'll throw Tony Meola's name in there, too -- his performance against England in 1992 remains, in our eyes, the finest moment by a U.S. player in the modern era.) Howard, at his best (as he was Saturday), is in the discussion about the world's finest netminders.
5. ARGENTINA IS SOMETHING ELSE
Imagine what the Albiceleste might have accomplished had Sergio Batista, rather than Diego Maradona, been in charge in South Africa. Messi, who has always been better for Barcelona than for Argentina, was jaw-droppingly fantastic, and almost as good were, especially, forward Angel DiMaria, right back Javier Zanetti and central midfielder (and goalscorer) Estaban Cambiasso.
Argentina, which dominated nearly every facet of the clash, ought to have scored at least a half-dozen goals. Their triumph at Copa America, on home ground, seems certain. Anything less won't be tolerated at home.
At New Meadowlands Stadium (East Rutherford, N.J.)
Saturday, March 26
United States 1, Argentina 1
A -- Esteban Cambiasso 42
U.S. -- Juan Agudelo 59
United States: Tim Howard; Jonathan Spector (Timmy Chandler, 46), Jay DeMerit, Oguchi Onyewu, Carlos Bocanegra; Jermaine Jones (Juan Agudelo, 46), Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan; Jozy Altidore. Unused subs: Jonathan Bornstein, Edson Buddle, Marcus Hahnemann, Sacha Kljestan, Tim Ream.
Argentina: Mariano Andujar; Javier Zanetti, Nicolas Burdisso, Gabriel Milito; Marco Rojo, Ever Banega, Javier Mascherano, Esteban Cambiasso (Lucas Biglia, 73); Ezequiel Lavezzi, Lionel Messi, Angel Di Maria.
Yellow cards: Edu 35, Chandler 48, Donovan 79, Bocanegra 91+.
Referee: Roberto Garcia (Mexico). Att.: 78,936.
At LP Field (Nashville, Tenn.)
Tuesday, March 29
United States 0, Paraguay 1
P -- Oscar Cardozo (Victor Hugo Mareco) 18
United States: Marcus Hahnemann (David Yelldell, 46); Timmy Chandler (Jonathan Spector, 80), Jay DeMerit (Carlos Bocanegra, 41), Tim Ream, Jonathan Bornstein (Sacha Kljestan, 77); Clint Dempsey, Maurice Edu (Jermaine Jones, 46), Michael Bradley, Landon Donovan; Jozy Altidore (Eric Lichaj, 60), Juan Agudelo. Unused sub: Mixx Diskerud.
Paraguay: Justo Villar; Marcos Caceres, Victor Hugo Mareco, Paulo Da Silva, Miguel Samudio; Enrique Vera (Dario Veron, 79), Osmar Molinas (Marcos Riveros, 63), Cristian Riveros; Hernan Perez (Osvaldo Martínez, 68), Oscar Cardozo (Lucas Barrios, 79), Marcelo Estigarribia (Aureliano Torres, 91+).
Yellow card: Vera 29.
Referee: Jose Benigno (Honduras). Att: 29,059.