The United States went into Wednesday's Nelson Mandela Challenge against South Africa expecting to be happy with a draw.
With the MLS Cup Playoffs and several big name Americans featuring frequently recently for their European club teams, a lot of regulars were unavailable, giving Bob Bradley an opportunity to introduce several new players to the world of international football.
Average age: 25
Average caps: 8
Of the 18 players in the squad, only two (Jonathan Bornstein and Clarence Goodson) had ever scored for the team. Six have earned ten or more caps. 7 play outside of MLS. Only five played made the World Cup roster. Three played.
Two of the players are under the age of 20, but it was the youngest of these 18 players who stole the show in the end.
17-year old Juan Agudelo had hardly been heard of outside of the New York Red Bull fan base a couple weeks ago. He made his debut on April 27th for the Red Bull against Philadelphia in the US Open Cup. His full MLS debut came against Real Salt Lake on October 9th. Despite his lack of appearances this year, Hans Backe started him in both MLS Cup Playoff matches against San Jose.
Funny how fast things happen.
Bob Bradley has been impressed with Agudelo, so impressed in fact that he added the Colombian-born teenager to his roster for the match in Cape Town.
He probably had no idea, that Agudelo would make this the second-greatest win for the United States this year.
The United States got strong performances from the majority of its starters. Of the 11, only Robbie Findley seemed unable to produce.
Brad Guzan got a rare start with Tim Howard busy at Everton. Named the captain for the match, the Aston Villa backup was a brick wall in the goal, allowing nothing to pass him with his aggressive play coming out and taking attackers head on.
Eric Lichaj, the young Aston Villa defender, played solid in the back on his 22nd birthday. In his first start, Lichaj made life difficult for the South African attack. Fellow defenders Jonathan Bornstein and Clarence Goodson, both World Cup defenders, played strong in the back as well.
Red Bulls defender Tim Reim made his much anticipated debut in the back. The MLS Rookie of the Year seemed nervous at times, but overall it was a solid performance for the young center back.
Alejandro Bedoya continues to show why he belongs in the national team. The midfielder, who is a star with Swedish club Orebro SK, provided the spark down the wing Wednesday night. He has been one of the most consistent players for Bob Bradley since World Cup warm-ups started, though he did not make the World Cup team.
Robbie Rogers, Logan Pause, and Brian Carrol were also successful in the midfield. Rogers, especially, was dangerous against Bafana Bafana, getting up on the attack regularly and very nearly scoring.
The long-awaited debut of Kansas City Wizards front man Teal Bunbury game at halftime when he entered for Rogers. Bunbury did well in the 55th minute to turn his defender and get a shot off, but it was a simple save for Bafana Bafana goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune.
Agudelo entered in the 61st for Robbie Rogers after the Columbus Crew star performed very well in an hour of play, nearly scoring after an Eric Lichaj hustle play ended with him on the end of a set-up from Eddie Gaven in the first half.
The Yanks were the more dangerous team in the second half, with more of the attacking opportunities falling to the men in blue.
The build-up of the attack over the last 25 minutes was excellent for the Americans. In the 85th minute, Bob Bradley's side finally got its historic breakthrough.
Mikkel Diskerud came in in the 79th minute to mark his first cap for the team as well. Right off the bat he showed some excellent skill on the ball and excellent play through the midfield.
Six minutes into his debut, Diskerud made a deep run into the box, where Agudelo found him to set up an incredible one-two. Diskerud was able to keep the ball away from three defenders before tapping it through to Agudelo who had made a run into the area. All the 17-year old had to do was play the ball down off his chest and smash it in top shelf off the crossbar to become the youngest player to ever score for the United States.
The Yanks were able to hold on to win the Mandela Challenge Cup in a 1-0 triumph.
“I thought that both teams were able to pressure and make it difficult for each other, and South Africa put the pressure on us more in the first half,” Bradley said following the game. "We weren’t able to connect a lot of passes, but we did a solid job of holding together defensively. I thought Brad Guzan played very well. As the game went on, we found a little bit of ability to connect. It was exciting for us to see some of our young players get an opportunity to play for the national team.”
"I thought we were organized. It was obviously a difficult game for us," Guzan said. "There were a lot of young guys and it was the first time they were in with the national team. Any time you have that, especially with the short amount of time we were together, it's going to be a little bit difficult. We dealt well with it. I thought we were organized. The guys put in a tremendous amount of work for 90 minutes and that was the difference."
“I'm not sure if I'm going to be able to process it tonight but I can't believe I scored the goal," Agudelo said of his first cap and goal. "It's definitely the best feeling I've ever had in my life and I'm glad we got the win.”
"At first I thought it didn't go in. I saw it go in but thought it was going to be called off. I was like no, please, please call it a goal. I was like, oh man, I think I just scored and then I ran and blacked out when I was celebrating. They said I pushed them out of the way when I was celebrating but I don't remember that. It's a great feeling."
Diskerud had probably the best quote of the post-game interviews.
"Winning a trophy in your first game is a special feeling," he said.
"I’m very proud to be an American right now."
After this performance by a young, inexperienced national team for the United States, so am I, and so should all the US soccer fans out there.
The Americans will not hold camp again until January. The camp will consist mostly of MLS players as many regulars will be busy with their European clubs. After Wednesday's performance, I wouldn't be overly concerned about the development of these inexperienced players and watching them get more time.
The next match for the United States is on January 22nd, 2011, when the Yanks close January camp by hosting Chile at the Home Depot Center in Carson, California.