The US Men's National Team is going back to South Africa today to face South Africa's Bafana Bafana in a friendly. U.S. coach, Bob Bradley, is taking a very inexperienced team to South Africa as it looks like several young players will be given their national team debuts.
For the United States, the team they took to South Africa in this summer's World Cup is beginning to get old. Coach Bob Bradley knows they must start getting some younger players involved in preparations for the 2014 World Cup.
Fans may look at it like the US is on the right track and will simply improve in 2014 from their 2010 result. But a lot can happen in four years and it is time to ask if the United States is constantly facing a major uphill climb to stay on the same level as the rest of the world simply because we are from the United States.
Being from North America puts the US in FIFA's CONCACAF region. The problem with CONCACAF is a lack of competitive games for the national teams.
CONCACAF holds the Gold Cup every two years, during odd numbered years, with the winner of the competition during years when the FIFA Confederations Cup is not being held automatically qualifying for the next Confederations Cup. That's it.
Compare the United States to England for a moment. Both teams need to rebuild their rosters for the next World Cup, so the U.S. national team schedules friendlies against teams from around the world, has the Gold Cup in the summer, and could possibly participate in the Confederations Cup during 2013.
England, meanwhile, begins qualification for Euro 2012 right after exiting the World Cup. This process takes a year and half until the tournament is played two years after the previous major tournament. Then, following Euro 2012, England will immediately begin trying to qualify for the 2014 World Cup.
Meanwhile, other than the Gold Cup, the U.S. does not play consistent competitive matches until about a year and a half before the World Cup. This period of time could be possibly longer since the first rounds of CONCACAF qualifying barely test the US.
The difference is England, as well as every other team from Europe, gets a chance to give their young players competitive experience. It is great that young players get the chance to play for the national team in friendlies against the best in the world, but you can't simulate the competitiveness that comes from games that actually mean something.
While England is busy qualifying for Euro 2012, they also have friendlies sprinkled in. This allows England to give a bunch of youngsters experience in friendlies, and then they can mix the young players in with the established ones during competitive games. This is a double bonus, not only do the players get international experience, but they get to play in competitive games alongside the players that they will be playing with in the big tournaments.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is stuck playing meaningless friendlies for two and a half years before their competitive games. Since all three North American teams automatically qualify for the Gold Cup, the U.S. will jump straight from a year of friendlies right into a major tournament.
But who will be playing in the Gold Cup for the U.S.? Another major problem for the U.S. is Bob Bradley's respect for the MLS and the knowledge of how meaningful a friendly really is.
There is no doubt that the MLS has been a major contributor to the development of American soccer and the U.S. national team. But now the MLS is getting to the point where it can start hurting the development of the national team.
The MLS season runs from March through November, as opposed to most leagues around the world who run from August until May. More importantly, MLS does not take breaks for FIFA fixture dates, which are designated by FIFA for international matches.
When the US played their last two friendlies, despite them being on FIFA fixture dates, the MLS was still holding matches,and the season was down to the wire in playoff battles.
Out of respect to the MLS, coach Bob Bradley selected only players who play their club football in Europe, a testament to how far U.S. soccer has come if we can field an entire team of European based players for the friendlies.
For the South Africa friendly, Bradley has gone the other way, picking mostly players out of the MLS and a few fringe European players. This is because it is just one midweek international fixture, with the clubs being back in action Saturday and Bradley does not want to hurt his players' clubs by making them travel.
If these games were important, or rather a qualifying match for a major tournament, Bradley would no doubt be selecting his best side regardless of club schedules like he did for last years World Cup qualifying.
Instead, a long list of friendlies allows Bradley to be respectful and hand out debuts to several young players. While it gives them great experience, we still are not learning how they will perform when the games really matter. More importantly, by keeping the clubs in mind, Bradley has yet to have his full team available to him for friendlies.
While Bradley keeps selecting different teams, the U.S. is not getting the chance to mix their youngsters in with the already established players. It is important for the young guys to get experience, but at the same time they also need to develop chemistry with the players such as Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore.
At the rate the U.S. is going right now, they might not have all those players on the field at the same time until the Gold Cup. That alone could be enough to cost the United States the Gold Cup and a place in the FIFA Confederations Cup.