Greg Lalas
Monday August 18th, 2008

The U.S. national team's quest for a berth in the 2010 World Cup begins on Wednesday with a match against Guatemala, and I, for one, can't wait. Finally -- finally! -- we all get to see where this team really is, learn how far it's come since beating Mexico in last summer's Gold Cup final.

Plus, this game will hopefully help us all turn the page from last week's Olympic disappointment. I admit it, I've been melancholic these past few days. Sappy, isn't it? "Get a life," you're probably thinking.

But this Olympic team insinuated itself into my life. For one thing, they disrupted my sleep (and my girlfriend's sleep, when I started hollering after the U.S. took the lead on the Netherlands). For another, they made me think about medals. This side was talented, brash, experienced, complete. Still, some people think they overachieved by earning four points in a very tough group. Whatever. Call me overly bullish, but I think they underachieved by not advancing.

So I'm looking to the big boys to pull me out of my funk.

This is a good U.S. team. Head coach Bob Bradley has auditioned players for six months, distilling the team to its purest form. At least that's the idea. It remains to be seen how pure they really are.

The Guatemala game should give us a good indication. Qualifying is a long process and you want to set a tone early. The U.S. would love to wrap up qualification to the Hexagonal round by the fourth game. Which explains why Bradley isn't messing around with his roster. He's brought all his big guns and they're headed to a knife fight.

The team is made up his guys, players he trusts, players he has previously brought into the national team fold. They've competed together many times, have an understanding of each other and believe in each other. This is important for a team in qualifying.

But it's been interesting to check the pulse of U.S. fans and learn how much they are craving something different. I've received tons of emails and read comments on various websites from fans who call out for other players, namely Jozy Altidore and Freddy Adu.

Now Jozy's not 100 percent healthy right now, which showed in his performance in Beijing. Plus these are early days with a new club, Villarreal, so Bradley is right to let the $10 million man-child stay in Spain to heal and prove himself. As the first eight-digit-transfer-fee American player, Jozy is not only carrying the hopes of American fans, but also slapping the faces of the Eurosnobs who still scoff at American soccer -- and he needs every opportunity to get it right.

Freddy, too, is with a new club. His loan move to Monaco after an up-and-down first season with Benfica means he needs to show his new bosses that he can consistently reproduce the jump-up-and-bother-your-girlfriend form he showed in Beijing.

But to be honest, I doubt Adu would've been called in anyway. He doesn't seem to fit into Bradley's scheme. Freddy likes to run with the ball through the middle, drawing defenders to him, opening space for others. It's exciting, original, individual. It's also sometimes foolish, but, hey, even Lionel Messi goes off on mazy runs that end up in exactly nada now and then.

Games are won and lost in the center midfield, which I suppose is one of those "duh" statements, like saying the singer is important to a rock band. (How many bands other than Van Halen have changed frontmen successfully?) Sometimes it's frustrating that Bradley adheres to a defensive look in the central midfield with his twin-holding midfielders formation. Against any competition stiffer than Barbados, there needs to be more inventiveness in the middle.

Which brings me to Michael Bradley. Obviously, the Heerenveen midfielder is trusted by his father and has come to own one of the holding midfielder positions. But at the same time, Michael doesn't seem to be playing up to his abilities with the national team. It's not my place to analyze a father-son relationship from afar, but Michael seems restrained when he's with the national team. Bolted down in the midfield's defensive posture as he is, Michael is unable to express himself with those beautiful late runs into the area that he executes with his club.

It's odd that a player who scored 15 league goals for his club -- that's nearly one every other game -- has so few strikes for the national team (two in 20 caps). Either the defenses are tighter and more sophisticated at the international level. Or Michael has shackles on. Probably it's a combination of both, but I would guess if the latter issue were solved, Michael would solve the former issue himself.

Michael is looking for a move to a bigger club, with Bundesliga side Hamburg and Ligue 1 side Monaco mentioned as possible suiters this summer. His vague performance in Beijing didn't help his cause. A definitive one against Guatemala would.

Actually, a definitive performance from the whole team is a must. It would give them a vital road win and put them in the driver's seat in the group. It would give them further understanding of each other and begin to build that camaraderie that every good side needs. And most importantly, it would keep us freaks from waking up our significant others in the middle of the night.

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