Almost five months ago, the U.S. men’s national team faced an African team in South Africa and saw a late goal deliver a painful ending.
On Wednesday, facing somewhat similar circumstances, the Americans wrote a different outcome, with a happier and more promising ending.
Juan Agudelo’s record-setting goal didn’t just deliver a 1-0 friendly victory against South Africa, it served as the official turning of the page for the U.S. men’s national team.
No, it didn’t erase the memories of the disappointing World Cup loss to Ghana, but Wednesday’s victory, propelled by a half dozen promising young players, gave American fans reason to feel optimistic about the future.
Consider Agudelo’s goal, which made him the youngest player in U.S. national team history to score (he turns 18 on Tuesday). It came on a pass from fellow debutant Mikkel Diskerud, the young Norwegian-born playmaker who only turned 20 last month. Their skill and daring on the goal sequence provided the perfect cap to a strong group showing by a team of newcomers.
Agudelo’s New York Red Bulls teammate, defender Tim Ream, also made his national team debut and showed the poise and passing ability that helped him challenge for MLS Rookie of the Year honors (an award he should have won). Fellow rookie Teal Bunbury also impressed, coming on as a half time substitute. Even U.S. Under-20 defender Gale Agbossoumonde, who was celebrating his 19th birthday, showed some flashes of his considerable potential in a handful of minutes spent preserving a one-goal lead.
The victory itself wasn’t as important to the United States as the signs of promise in the next generation. Not just the players who made their debuts, but also players like Brad Guzan, who looked every bit like a veteran leader in preserving the shutout. Eric Lichaj also stood out, neutralizing South African World Cup star Siphiwe Tshabalala and surging forward with threatening runs the like we haven’t seen since Tony Sanneh rampaged through the 2002 World Cup.
Alejandro Bedoya was also solid, looking far better than he did when he endured a brutal performance against Brazil in August. Even Eddie Gaven, an old Bradley favorite, stepped up to show the glimpses that have earned him caps in the past.
Veteran defender Clarence Goodson, one of two American World Cup field players not to play at this summer’s World Cup, impressed as the leader of the back line, showing why Danish club Brondby secured his services and why he is making a good case to become a regular national team starter.
This young American team wasn’t expected to put up much of a challenge, not against a nearly full-strength South African team that hadn’t lost since the World Cup. Early on, the jitters showed, as did the continued ineffectiveness of Robbie Findley.
Bob Bradley trotted the Real Salt Lake striker out for what had to be the last time and he struggled badly to make any impact. While it can be argued that he wasn’t really playing a role that suited him, the fact remained he was never able to be a factor while youngsters Bunbury and Agudelo made impacts almost immediately.
The U.S. team’s continued struggles with the left back position were clear as day. Jonathan Bornstein and Jonathan Spector took turns being inept on the left, committing turnovers and being beaten by South Africa’s speedy wingers.
Unfortunately for the national team, and for Bradley, there are no quality young left back options ready to be thrown into the mix, and Bradley may have to consider using Lichaj at left back given the continued presence of veteran right back Steve Cherundolo in the pool, and if Carlos Bocanegra were needed in central defense.
While left back remains a problem, Wednesday’s match seemed to provide some evidence that help is on the way at other needed positions. Bunbury and Agudelo have the tools to potentially be ideal partners for or alternatives to Jozy Altidore. At the very least, Agudelo’s speed, skill and fearlessness could lead to him being fast-tracked into a more prominent role in 2011.
Center back is another area that looked to have serious question marks after the World Cup, what with Oguchi Onyewu’s balky knee and the advancing ages of Jay DeMerit and Carlos Bocanegra. On Wednesday, Ream (23) and Agbossoumonde gave a glimpse of the type of center backs on the way up the pipeline. In short, central defense doesn’t have nearly as dire a future as left back continues to.
As much as the result wasn’t supposed to mean much, it was a sorely needed win for Bradley, who had watched his team go 0-1-2 in the three friendlies since the World Cup. More troubling than those results was the fact that there were so few bright spots to emerge from them. He saw more promise in 90 minutes in Cape Town than he saw in the previous 270 minutes.
The victory, and the inspired performances of so many young players, should help rejuvenate a fan base that had started to lose faith in the next World Cup cycle being any better than the last.
It may only be one friendly but it was a sorely-needed turning point, an encouraging beginning to a new World Cup cycle and an exciting debut of a new generation of American players.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the U.S. national team and Major League Soccer.