With the MLS heading to the playoffs, the U.S. friendly against Poland on Saturday (9 p.m. Ct.) at Chicago's Soldiers Field gives fans a glimpse at America's overseas players, how they're faring, and how they might help out the team during the 2014 World Cup Qualifying Cycle.
So much can change between the beginning and end of a cycle. It's difficult to gauge what's needed, what's not, and what performances may predict for the future both near and far.
Still, there's some good news. Some of the U.S. best will be playing.
Outside of Landon Donovan, many of the first team players expected to be influential over the next four years will play. Even though it's a friendly, at least the U.S. will play a European opponent.
When the final whistle blows, no matter what the final score, hopefully the U.S. will have made some strides in a few areas:
Not much has been said about Bradley's decision to call up just three forwards.
To be technical about it, there are only two "true" strikers in this selection, but Clint Dempsey's been playing up front for Fulham in recent weeks as Bobby Zamora is out with a broken leg.
After the lackluster displays by any American forward during the World Cup, it was only a matter of time before Dempsey moved into the position.
Dempsey is a natural finisher. If Dempsey finds the net in the next few friendlies and can create opportunities for his teammates, the move may be permanent.
Jozy Altidore has seen some playing time for his club, which is a good sign. But for Altidore, he needs to display some technical refinement. His touch and sophistication (be it passing, dribbling, or decision making) has failed him when he needed it the most.
Altidore needs to prove he's still evolving. There may not be any current challengers to his position, but the youngsters are out there, and a lot can change in four years.
And how many chances will Eddie Johnson have?
At this point, it would be great if he decided to go forward even once rather than dribbling backwards and playing a drop pass every time he receives the ball.
Whoever plays up front will most likely need to play by himself, or at the very least, display some of the tendencies of a solo-striker.
The U.S. is going to need the extra help in the midfield whether it's from an additional midfielder or a withdrawn attacker, so the man up top will need to handle some of the offensive responsibilities by himself.
The rest of the world may recognize the change in offensive tactics, but Bob Bradley, either through stubbornness or by being completely unaware, is loathe to move away from a 4-4-2. It will be the midfield's responsibility to force Bradley into changing his formation.
Stuart Holden and Benny Feilhaber have had great starts to their season. Michael Bradley and Maurice Edu are continuing to perform at a high level and earning more playing time as a result.
Finally, U.S. fans might see the much anticipated debut of Jermaine Jones.
These are the five most accomplished players out of the twenty called up for this game. It would be great to see all of them playing, but there's only so much room on the field.
Jones and Edu play in the same position, while Stuart Holden has been playing in the center for Bolton (rightfully so and offered a new contract for his efforts).
The U.S. isn't good enough to allow these players to sit on the bench. Bradley will need to find a way to accommodate as many of them as possible. He should try to find a way in this game.
Finally, if players will be moved around, a few midfielders will need to emerge as creative forces, especially on the wings. Dempsey and Donovan can't carry the entire offensive and creative loads.
Maybe it will be Feilhaber or Holden, or perhaps Bedoya and Shea will reward Bradley for the call-up. In any case, there needs to be some impressive flair and creativity from the midfield.
The most pressing concern for this American squad is the defensive unit.
The back line was shaky during the World Cup, and every starter, barring Jonathan Bornstein, will be well into their thirties by 2014. No one wants to see an old, injury prone, susceptible back four.
But this is all part of the process.
Bradley's aware that he needs to develop some alternatives in the defense. Frankie Hejduk is a prime example. A 35-year-old (at the time) with strong fitness and great energy, his speed and support helped an inexperienced team through qualifying, but once it was time to select the World Cup squad, his services would have been surplus.
Bradley may have his faults, but he obsesses over defensive stability; he'll be focused on finding the future across that last line of defense.
Who will step up?
The front runners are Omar Gonzalez (not selected because of club duties but played adequately against Brazil) and Clarence Goodson.
Included in the South African 23, Goodson's made tremendous strides. He's broken into Europe (granted it's in Scandinavia), and a strong showing here could thrust him into contention for a starting role in the center of the defense. Tall, smart, and displaying early leadership qualities, as well as a knack for scoring on set plays (a characteristic Bradley looks for in his defenders), if he continues to make strides with his opportunities, there may not be many questions as to who can fill the shoes of aging defenders.
What Bradley will look for is his central defenders' abilities to communicate and work well together.
U.S. defenders tend to get overwhelmed by the speed and movement of the game, and the two that eventually start will need to demonstrate both tactical and technical ability against world class strikers.
What's more pressing are the outside defenders.
The selection seems to be like a scratched record stuck on the same names. Michael Parkhurst, Heath Pearce, and Jonathan Spector have all been here before and none of them have staked a claim to a starting position. If someone doesn't soon, it may be the last call-up for all of them.
Is this the time when someone steps up? While highly unlikely, it would be a nice change of pace.
Instead though, all eyes will be on Eric Lichaj. Mostly a reserve player for Aston Villa, a few first team opportunities and strong displays have helped to enter his name in the conversation of emerging players.
With the inconsistency on the flanks, if Lichaj plays well, his name will come up again.
There may be a time in the future...the distant future...where the U.S. will struggle to place a competent athlete between the goalposts, but it's not going to be the case any time soon.
Instead, it may be time for Brad Guzan to put some pressure on Tim Howard.
While competent this summer, outside of the England game, Howard played well, but he never displayed that impossible, no-one-gets-to-that ability that separates the elite net-minders from the ranks of the mediocre.
A little goal keeper competition can only raise the play of both.
With anticipation and anxiety high (Will Bradley begin a tepid second cycle like so many international managers before him? Does the team have the players to fix its faults?), these next two friendlies will do a lot to either calm fans or raise blood pressures.
More than likely, the result will be somewhere in the middle. If even one of these two positive outcomes come to pass, then the U.S. will have started its newest World Cup cycle on a positive note, and that's the first step.
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