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Young U.S. soccer players face Chile

Game at Home Depot Center is a chance to be noticed by Coach Bob Bradley as team prepares for Gold Cup this summer.

January 21, 2011|By Grahame L. Jones
  • United States Coach Bob Bradley will be on the lookout for promising individual performances when his young team takes the field against Chile on Saturday.
United States Coach Bob Bradley will be on the lookout for promising individual… (Michael Perez / Associated…)

Eighteen days in the middle of the Major League Soccer off-season is hardly enough time to turn a group of virtual strangers into a team, much less one that can challenge the likes of Chile.

But that's what U.S. national team Coach Bob Bradley and his assistants have been trying to accomplish for the past three weeks. On Saturday night in Carson, the U.S. team that they have pieced together will play the South Americans at the Home Depot Center.

It is the opening game of 2011 for the U.S. in what should be a challenging year, dominated by this summer's Gold Cup.

"I think they'll test us, because Chile comes out and presses," Bradley said. "It's a team that really can fly [going forward in attack and coming back to defend], so our ability to handle that kind of tempo and that kind of pressure will be very important."

The U.S. should not be judged as a team — this is, after all, essentially a "C" squad — but rather on the performance of individual players who are trying to make the step up to the full national team.

In other words, this is a game to see where such promising players as Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez, D.C. United midfielder Dax McCarty and New York Red Bulls forward Juan Agudelo, to name three, fit into the bigger picture.

Others to keep an eye on include Norway-based midfielder Mikkel Diskerud, Russia-based forward Eugene Starikov and defenders Tim Ream of New York and Zach Lloyd of FC Dallas.

Of the 23 players who have been in camp since Jan. 4, 12 have never played for the U.S. Those who have done so have a combined 26 national team games between them, led by midfielder Alejandro Bedoya with six. In other words, it's a wet-behind-the-ears group, internationally speaking.

Still, Bradley praised the players' "eagerness every day to compete and to learn" and said the focus had been on "getting them to understand a little bit more technically and tactically what happens when games get better and faster."

The Chile game will tell how much was learned.

Agudelo, 18, is the youngest player in camp and is coming off a memorable debut when he scored the winning goal in a 1-0 U.S. victory over South Africa in Cape Town in November.

"He's a talented young player," Bradley said. "He has some very good starting points physically in terms of his power, and he's got an easy way of moving, he's got an ability and a confidence on the ball."

Chile is also fielding a less-than-full-strength team, and Coach Marcelo Bielsa has only one of his 2010 World Cup players on the roster, forward Esteban Paredes. The countries have played eight times over the past 60 years and Chile holds a 4-3-1 edge.

The top U.S. players, almost all of them based in Europe or Mexico, will return for upcoming games.

The Americans will play Egypt in Cairo on Feb. 9, followed by games against Argentina at New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., on March 26 and against Paraguay in Nashville on March 29.

The focus for the first part of the year will be preparing or the June 5-25 Gold Cup, with Bradley regarding victory in the championship game at the Rose Bowl, possibly over Mexico, as his main priority for 2011.

A win that day would qualify the U.S. for the FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil in 2013 and set in motion preparations for the 2014 World Cup, also in Brazil.

For the novice U.S. players, Saturday's game is a key step in that direction.

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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