Greg Lalas
Monday June 9th, 2008

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- In the end, it was just a little flick of the hand that said the most. After the final whistle had blown at Sunday's U.S.-Argentina match, Freddy Adu fed off the energy of 78,000 fans at Giants Stadium and dismissed Argentina's Fernando Gago with the simplest of gestures. For me, it was the most vivid moment on a night that had hundreds of them.

Gago, the young Real Madrid regular, had been a jerk all game. There's really no other way to put it. The 22-year-old had complained about every tackle, argued with the referee and his opponents, delivered a few punishing two-footed tackles and been dismissive in his own right, turning his back on any American who deigned to question him. He threw his own little hand flick every 10 minutes or so.

In many ways, that's his job as a holding midfielder -- to get under the skin of his opponents. For Real Madrid and Argentina, he does his job very well. On Sunday night, he disrupted many U.S. attacks, sent messages to the Americans' ball-winners, and generally played the pest like a Broadway star.

To the U.S. players' credit, they never reacted. They kept their cool, didn't go after Gago, or, for that matter, any of the other Argentine players. They also didn't go berserk when Salvadoran referee Joel Aguilar Chicas began handing out yellows and reds like they were business cards. Seriously, I'm still trying to figure out what Pablo Mastroeni did to deserve that second yellow for "unsporting behavior."

Team discipline is always a reflection of the coach. Bob Bradley never seems to allow himself to get too thrilled, too worked up, too upset. It can sometimes seem passive, but, trust me, Bradley is anything but passive. It's a quietly intense paradigm his players are picking up on.

"I think we're getting stronger," Bradley said after the game. "We are understanding what it takes to play in the better games."

He was discussing tactics, but the larger subtext is there: We are understanding what it takes mentally not to let the world's best teams beat us on reputation alone. (Read: We learned something from the England and Spain losses.) Bradley knows that soccer's big boys, unlike, say, Barbados, expect to win against the U.S. They respect us, but they still assume that we should fear them.

Which was Gago's big problem. And it burned me up as I watched him on Sunday night, flippant and arrogant enough to think the U.S. should still kowtow to the mighty Albiceleste. Maybe Gago thought he was playing a home match. Considering the overwhelmingly sky-blue-clad crowd at Giants Stadium, I can understand Gago's confusion. As former U.S. international Jeff Agoos said to me before the game, "It's like we're in Buenos Aires."

But as the evening went on, it became apparent that we were not in Buenos Aires. In fact, the U.S. fans, particularly the red-clad Sam's Army in the curva nord, often drowned out their South American counterparts -- and they were such gracious hosts that at one point they actually did a chant in Spanish: Est-AD-os Un-I-dos!

As the game wore on, and Bradley's boys picked up some steam, the American fans became more vociferous. They were quickly joined by all the Americans who had come to see Lionel Messi & Co. but were now dreaming of being present for an historic U.S. result. When Oguchi Onyewu's header slammed off the crossbar, the stadium shook more than at any other point in the match.

That shot unnerved the Argentines. You know your team is having a good performance against Argentina in a friendly when the Argentines start whining to the referee every two minutes and putting a little more oomph in their tackles. Gago was the worst offender of this. He was right there in the middle of the melee when Mastroeni was sent off, and he went headhunting a few times, though, to his credit, he never destroyed anyone even when he had the chance.

When Adu entered the game with 30 minutes to go, he gave the U.S. a lift. I've got to say, the kid is not intimidated by anything. He has the skill to beat a player off the dribble, creating space for himself and his teammates, and the Messi-like mind set that says he must do this. The U.S. hasn't scored in three games, but if Freddy continues to get PT, and continues to develop chemistry with the likes of Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and DaMarcus Beasley, he could spark an offensive explosion.

When the final whistle blew, Adu was near the ball. So was Gago. They became entangled after the game, as Gago decided to give Freddy a piece of his mind about something or other. Freddy indulged him for a minute or so, then turned his back and started walking toward the locker room.

Gago kept yelling, like some after-school special teacher demanding that his student respect him. That's when Freddy flicked his hand over his shoulder, as if to shoo Gago away. I don't know how many other people saw that moment, but it made me cheer one last time before heading for the exits. The future of the U.S. national team looks very bright, indeed.

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