U.S. youth on deck against Chile
One look at the Chilean national team roster that has made the trip to America for Saturday’s friendly against the U.S. national team and you might think it’s a cushy match for the home team.
There will be no Alexis Sanchez or Humberto Suazo, nor most of the key players in the exciting Chile team that won over so many fans at last summer’s World Cup. While that may be the case, one person who will be with Chile is head coach Marcelo Bielsa, a coach who loves to attack, and who will go right at a young American defense with plenty to prove.
Saturday’s friendly is as much an audition as it is a soccer match. Bob Bradley has called in a team of national team rookies and the ones who step up and deliver against Chile have the chance to move on and join the first team when it takes on the likes of Egypt, Argentina and Paraguay in the coming months.
For many of the youngsters, the past two weeks in U.S. training camp have been the real chance to impress Bradley, but Saturday will show us just how ready for primetime they are, even if Saturday’s friendly is far from a primetime event.
If Chile plays the way it did in the World Cup, then the U.S. defense will be attacked in waves. You can bet Bradley likes the fact that young defenders such as Tim Ream and Omar Gonzalez will face tough challenges.
Ream and Gonzalez are sure to face the most scrutiny in Saturday’s match. They are the two most promising central defense options in the MLS pipeline and could earn more caps and minutes in the coming year given the age of some of the other center backs in the pool.
Center back isn’t the only area for concern. Left back remains a position with no outright first choice option. Carlos Bocanegra looks to be the mainstay there even though the national team would probably be better served with him playing in central defense. That position isn’t likely to be addressed in this camp, what with only one natural left back in camp (Anthony Wallace). Some other players have been given looks at left back, such as Sean Franklin and Zach Loyd, but chances are Bocanegra will have to stay at left back for the foreseeable future, even if someone impresses against Chile.
As much as Chile will offer stern tests to the entire U.S. back line, the American attack will also be facing some serious questions. The young forward combo of Juan Agudelo and Teal Bunbury both impressed in their national team debuts against South Africa and could be given starting nods against the South Americans. Newcomer Eugene Starikov will also be one to watch, assuming he’s in uniform and gets minutes after being a late addition to the camp.
When it comes to forwards, Bradley could also turn to one of the older players in camp, San Jose forward Chris Wondolowski. One of the real success stories of the 2010 MLS season, Wondolowski emerged from relative obscurity to lead MLS in goals with 18. His clutch finishing and versatility helped the Earthquakes reach the MLS Conference finals and his form was impressive enough to lead to a well-earned call-up from Bradley.
Wondolowski, 27, is one of 12 players looking for their first national team cap on Saturday, though he is the second-oldest (Colorado goalkeeper Matt Pickens is older by a year) in the squad. The U.S. roster is one of the youngest ever assembled and the team Bradley puts on the field is going to be loaded with first-timers.
One player who isn’t a first-timer, but who will be worth watching closely is midfielder Alejandro Bedoya. He came close to making the 2010 World Cup team, but fell short. He is coming off a strong season in Sweden with Orebro and a good outing against Chile could propel him one step closer to a regular role with the full first team, even if he is still probably not ready to challenge for a first-team starting role.
The reality is that this camp, and Saturday’s match, aren’t about finding starters for the full squad, but rather finding some depth to replenish what has been lost, and what will be lost to age in the coming months and years. The U.S. defense is aging fast and Bradley needs some young defenders to emerge quickly.
The need isn’t quite as pressing in midfield, though players like Bedoya and Mikkel Diskerud offer promising leads for depth behind the likes of Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Stuart Holden.
As much as the match should test new faces, it should also provide a good challenge for Bradley, who is in the midst of trying out new systems. Bielsa is a sharp tactician and he will provide a worthy challenge to Bradley in a match that should played in a pretty wide-open fashion.
No, this isn’t the Chile you’re used to seeing, but it isn’t the United States you will be seeing this year either. What these teams are is a glimpse at the future, and we’ll have a better idea after Saturday just how bright the future is for the next generation of American talent.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the U.S. national team and Major League Soccer.