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U.S. gets much-needed measuring stick

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It matters little that the United States has yet to be fully gripped by the soccer bug. This month's Confederations Cup won't spark discussion in the sports bars of New York or Los Angeles, but it won't generate much more interest in soccer's traditional havens of Brazil, Italy or Spain, either.

The three big nations to take part in the Confederations Cup, the eight-team World Cup warm-up in South Africa held one year out from the tournament itself, will read little into the fortnight-long event. They have qualifying for the World Cup all but taken care of and will have plenty of meaningful opposition in their remaining continental group matches to provide an accurate barometer of progress. The event will allow the big boys to try out some new players and systems and get a feel for the South African soccer environment.

For the USA, however, this competition must, by default, take on more significance than otherwise might be expected.

The Americans have far less exposure to top-level competition than their rivals from other confederations. Facing Brazil, Italy and Egypt in Group B will be a good acid test of where Bob Bradley's men stand in the international pecking order.

"We have a tough group, we know that, but we are so excited about facing the defending World Cup champions Italy in the first game," Bradley said. "The opportunity to be here in South Africa the year before the World Cup, to experience the passion of the people here for the game, is something very special."

Going through the rather predictable process of CONCACAF qualifying does little to assist the USA in its attempt to become a world force. The Americans have proven beyond all doubt that they are capable of seeing off mediocre opposition on home soil and regularly lose to better CONCACAF rivals like Mexico and Costa Rica on the road.

But as far as any further insight goes, U.S. soccer fans must generally wait until four-year intervals to get a true gauge of the side's real ability.

"This is a chance to play three really good games a year before the World Cup in some of the same stadiums," midfielder Michael Bradley said. "At the same time for the team, it is an important measuring stick … we have a chance to see the progress we have made."

Group B is by far the tougher of the two Confederations Cup pools, with Group A comprising Spain, South Africa, Iraq and New Zealand. The Americans have their two toughest games up first, playing Italy in Pretoria on Monday and Brazil at the same venue on Thursday, before facing Egypt at Rustenburg on Sunday. The top two teams in each group qualify for the semifinals.

Bob Bradley insisted he is pleased with how the draw has turned out, preferring to match his players up against the toughest opposition possible. Brazil and Italy are both somewhat depleted, with many of their players coming off long European club campaigns, yet both games against the world soccer powers will provide a stern test for the Americans.

"We know it will be difficult," U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra said. "But we are not just coming here to make up the numbers. We want to play these big teams and see what we can do against them.

"We believe in our ability to be competitive against any team."

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