U.S. begins another CONCACAF cakewalk

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

While the best teams in Europe do battle at Euro 2008 this weekend and the world's top two sides, Argentina and Brazil, prepare to square off in Belo Horizonte on Wednesday, the United States' World Cup campaign gets underway.

Don't feel too bad about it if you haven't noticed that Bob Bradley's side is due to embark upon its journey towards – barring any major mishaps – South Africa in 2010. And don't be too concerned either when I tell you that the U.S. could be, in theory, only 180 minutes from elimination from the tournament, even with the finals a full two years away.

Sunday's clash with Barbados at the Home Depot Center in Carson is a fairly pointless exercise, and it serves only the purpose of weeding out one of CONCACAF's weaker nations before the stronger combatants do battle for the final three spots.

Yet while the U.S. benefits from playing in a limited region, with the payoff being a virtually assured place in every World Cup along with Mexico, the low standard of CONCACAF is as much of a curse as a blessing.

Bradley cannot realistically hope to learn anything significant from seeing his team take on FIFA's 121st-ranked nation, even if he does make good use of his bench and gives some of his younger players extra experience.

"The excitement about beginning World Cup qualifying is in place," Bradley said. "We are fortunate that we have some experienced players who have been through World Cup qualifying and they set a good tone in helping other players realize that we must never take anything lightly."

Barbados's limitations are made clear by the fact that their "superstar," Mark McCammon, is a London-born journeyman who has bounced around the lower divisions of the English league and was recently promoted to the second-tier Championship with Doncaster Rovers. He has occasionally become a minor media celebrity in the British press, mainly because of his involvement in some bizarre off-field incidents.

In 2004, McCammon was reportedly threatened with a knife by young teammate Moses Ashikodi following a disagreement, and the news made the front page of several newspapers.

A year later, while at Brighton and Hove Albion, McCammon was again in the tabloids after manager Mark McGhee refused to allow him to return to the team bus following a match against Burnley, meaning he had to make the 240-mile trip back home on his own. So when suggests that "anything can happen," he means it.

"Anything can happen on the day, even though the U.S. is a good and experienced team," McCammon said. "We just have to go out there for the 90 minutes, not give up a goal, and see what takes place."

What should take place is a big victory for the United States and a comfortable margin to take to Bridgetown for the second leg on June 22.

This game is part of a process that needs to be negotiated, but that's about it. When Bradley's players step out on to the field in Carson, it must be with mixed and slightly strange emotions. The last three friendlies the team played were against England, Spain and Argentina – all rated in the top 10 in the world and a world apart from the Barbadian group.

Despite defeats in England and Spain and a 0-0 draw with Argentina at Giants Stadium, Bradley took plenty of positives from the experience.

"It sharpens us in every way," he said. "It helps us to react quickly to see players quickly and see the kind of movement that is needed on the field. But we can switch gears as well. The onus will be on us as the home team to attack and we want to take advantage of how we can spread the play.

"The players are motivated to get to the World Cup and this is the first step along the way. No one is underestimating anybody."

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