Wednesday March 3rd, 2010

AMSTERDAM -- Hard games. That has been the mantra for the U.S. national team under coach Bob Bradley, and Wednesday's test against world No. 3 the Netherlands (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2, Galavisión) is the latest big challenge in a four-year World Cup preparation cycle that has been far more difficult than the one before World Cup 2006.

This game -- the final A-squad friendly before pre-World Cup camps start in mid-May -- will mark the 10th time in Bradley's tenure that the U.S. has met a team in the top 10 of the latest FIFA rankings after going head-to-head against heavyweights Brazil (three games), Spain (twice), Italy, Argentina (twice) and England.

And while the U.S. is a combined 1-7-1 in those games, those losses won't matter much if the seasoning and confidence that come from playing in hard games results in success starting June 12 against England at the World Cup.

The Dutch clinched a berth in South Africa with ease, winning all eight of their World Cup qualifiers, and barring any surprises the U.S. will face all but one of Holland's first-team starters (injured forward Robin van Persie) in a festive but intimidating atmosphere at the Amsterdam Arena.

"You only get so many opportunities like this," U.S. left midfielder Landon Donovan said. "You don't want to go into a World Cup not having had recent experiences against top teams along the way. ... Having this opportunity is really big, and we hope that it helps build confidence and that it gets us prepared for our first game [against England]."

The U.S. has been hit by the injury bug in recent months, and four regular starters will be missing as a result: right midfielder Clint Dempsey, center back Oguchi Onyewu, forward Charlie Davies and central midfielder Ricardo Clark. But the Americans have been healing at the right time. Dempsey, Onyewu and Clark should be fully recovered this month and available for the World Cup, while midfielder Maurice Edu is likely to make his first start for the U.S. since October 2008 after healing from a serious knee injury. (Edu figures to have a close battle with Clark for a spot in the World Cup lineup if both are healthy.)

Under coach Bert van Marwijk, the Netherlands will be dangerous all over the field. "They have a really talented team, some great individuals," Bradley said. "Technically they're very good. They play at a high speed, they do a good job pressing, they close you down fast. When they get the ball, they play quickly. So it means that you're challenged to think and execute at a real top speed."

It's that Dutch speed that gives opposing defenses fits, particularly Arjen Robben, the crafty Bayern Munich winger who should start on the left flank and provide a big test for U.S. right back Jonathan Spector. Liverpool's Dirk Kuyt could also be a handful on the right side for U.S. left back Jonathan Bornstein, though in a slightly different way than Robben.

"I've played against both of them previously," Spector said. "Robben is in really good form for Bayern Munich right now, so it's a tough time to come up against him. He's obviously very quick, and he cuts inside quite a bit depending on where he's playing. From the right I've seen him cut inside a lot onto his left foot. He's got a really good strike on him. He's a quick and crafty player, so he likes to go at you 1-v-1.

"I think Kuyt is a little different. He's got a really good work rate, so he's more of a nuisance than anything else. He's a tough person to play against because of how hard he works, both when they have the ball and when he's defending."

The Netherlands will be dangerous up the middle, too. Inter Milan star midfielder Wesley Sneijder is healthy now after starting only two of the Oranje's eight World Cup qualifiers, and he will attract plenty of attention, as will AC Milan forward Klaas Jan Huntelaar. You get a sense of how dangerous the Dutch are when their usual first-team lineup doesn't include Rafael van der Vaart, Ryan Babel, Clarence Seedorf and Ruud van Nistelrooy (the last two of whom weren't even selected for this roster).

Will the U.S. defenders, including likely center backs Carlos Bocanegra and Jay DeMerit, be fast enough to keep up? "We're going to need to show a lot of patience and discipline," Bocanegra said. "We know the Dutch are good on the ball and they'll probably have a bit more possession than us. So we need to be patient in defending, but we also need to get after them in a smart way."

For that to happen a lot will be asked of the U.S.'s central midfielders, Michael Bradley and probably Edu, to clog up passing lanes and be judicious in starting attacks by linking with Donovan and probably Stuart Holden. The Dutch midfield has plenty of bite in Mark van Bommel (the coach's son-in-law) and Nigel de Jong, but if the Netherlands has a slight weakness it's on the back line. Center backs Joris Mathijsen and Andre Ooijer started every World Cup qualifier, but they were hardly impenetrable, and goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg won't make anyone forget Edwin van der Sar, who has retired from international play.

The U.S. player who may have the most on the line today is Eddie Johnson, a probable starter on the front line next to Jozy Altidore. The absence of Davies because of injuries from a serious auto accident in October has created a strategic headache for Bob Bradley. The coach has often said that the U.S. plays much better in a 4-4-2 than in a lone forward setup (Altidore tends to struggle in that role), but the options for Altidore's partner these days are scarce.

If Davies isn't healed for South Africa, the most effective second forward would probably be Dempsey, who lacks Davies' speed, as do Brian Ching and Conor Casey. Johnson and Robbie Findley are the top candidates with pace, but are they good enough at this level? If Johnson and Findley can produce here, they would probably earn a ticket to South Africa. If they can't, they may not even make the 23-man roster.

There are also a number of potential substitutes who could bolster their credentials for making the World Cup roster, including Findley, midfielders José Torres and DaMarcus Beasley and perhaps even left back Heath Pearce. Keep an eye, too, on likely Dutch subs Van der Vaart, Babel and left winger Eljero Elia, a 23-year-old rising star for Hamburg.

Ultimately, it won't matter much if the U.S. picks up loss No. 8 to a top 10 team in the Bradley era, but the U.S. does need to show well and compete. You learn the most about your team in hard games. And this most definitely qualifies as a hard game.

• German-American midfielder Jermaine Jones met his new U.S. teammates for the first time on this trip after driving to Amsterdam from Germany, where he has been unable to play this season for Schalke because of a shin injury. Jones announced he was switching national teams from Germany to the U.S. last summer, a move that was possible because he had not played in an official competition for Germany. It remains unclear whether Jones will recover in time for the World Cup, but if he's healthy he would be in the running to start alongside Michael Bradley in the central midfield.

• Bob Bradley is often almost pathologically cautious in his on-the-record comments, but he let his guard down for a moment here on Tuesday after being asked by some English media about the U.S.-England game on June 12. "Occasionally there are some managers in England who subtly let me know that they're rooting for us that day," Bradley said. "You can guess that they're not actually born in England, but it's all part of it, I guess."

Premiership coaches whom Bradley might have been referring to included Everton's David Moyes, West Ham's Gianfranco Zola, Aston Villa's Martin O'Neill, Bolton's Owen Coyle and perhaps even Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson, who has allowed Bradley to watch practices over the years even though no U.S. players are currently playing at Old Trafford.

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