International soccer friendlies are all about learning lessons and the United States’ pair of matches over the past three days has given head coach Bob Bradley plenty of food for thought.
Yet while Tuesday night's 1-0 defeat to Paraguay in Nashville, Tenn., allowed Bradley to discover plenty of useful information about his squad and its depth, he was also given a stark reminder that he has some difficult, and potentially painful, choices ahead.
As a fearless crew of young defenders continues to stake a claim for more playing time, Bradley will likely be faced with the quandary of loyalty versus foresight in the not-too-distant future. Stalwarts such as Oguchi Onyewu, Jay DeMerit, Steve Cherundolo and even regular captain Carlos Bocanegra are finding their positions coming under an ever-greater threat from a youth movement that is still unproven but offers exciting potential.
Losing to Paraguay was neither particularly impressive nor an unmitigated disaster. Of the two exhibitions it was always going to be the first, Saturday's 1-1 draw against Argentina, which attracted the most attention.
Bradley made a series of changes for his side’s trip to Nashville, with the headline act being 18-year-old striker Juan Agudelo’s first appearance in the starting lineup for the national team. However, it is in the backline where a revolution is truly poised to take place.
After a second-half cameo against Argentina, Timmy Chandler was given his first start on Tuesday, in the right-back position. Chandler was unknown to most American fans until recently, having been born in Germany to an American military father and a German mother. He has played all of his professional career in Germany but is now a valuable addition to the USA talent pool and, at 21, is only going to improve.
Chandler was one of the real bright spots against Paraguay, unafraid to move forward and linking up well with Landon Donovan on the right flank. Cherundolo, now 32 and for so long a mainstay, could find his days as first choice are numbered.
The central defensive positions are in an equal state of flux. With three more years until the next World Cup it is hard to see Bocanegra, Onyewu and DeMerit in their same positions. The heart of the defense could have a brand new look very soon.
Tim Ream of the New York Red Bulls was strong, smart and rarely flustered when given his chance against Paraguay and must be given strong consideration when Bradley chooses his preferred men for this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Ream and Omar Gonzalez, who was absent for this game, look very much like the way forward. However, Bradley may be loath to make wholesale changes and turn his back on men like Bocanegra, Onyewu and DeMerit who have given such passionate and loyal service dating back many years.
Onyewu was magnificent during the Confederations Cup in 2009 but has never been the same since a knee injury later that year and was unable to break into the first team after signing with AC Milan.
Ream and Gonzalez will both be in line for moves to Europe over the next couple of years while DeMerit is now happily in place with the Vancouver Whitecaps, which will probably be the last club of his career.
Change needs to happen, but where, when and how gradually is in danger of becoming a major headache for Bradley.