U.S. coach Bob Bradley has taken his national team halfway around the world for a friendly in Cape Town, South Africa, where the Americans conclude a busy, eventful year Wednesday against the vuvuzela-mad nation that hosted a World Cup just five months ago.
What happens over 90 minutes in the Nelson Mandela Challenge at Green Point Stadium (2 p.m. ET on ESPN2 and Galavision) probably matters less than what happens in the days around the event, as Bradley and his staff get acquainted with several promising newcomers.
This long trip is all about getting familiar at a very personal level with these new, impressionable faces as the next World Cup cycle commences. Five members of the 18-man squad, which arrived in South Africa over the weekend, are getting their initial national team inspection. All hope to debut Wednesday, and considering that the team traveled just 18 players and each team is allowed six subs, several probably will.
Obviously, Bradley has seen these guys perform. He's seen Red Bulls center back Tim Ream, who played every minute for his MLS side this year and only occasionally actually looked like a rookie. He's also seen Mikkel Diskerud, the Norwegian born-and-raised midfielder who has an American mother. He's certainly seen Kansas City pacey attacker Teal Bunbury, promising Red Bulls forward Juan Agudelo and big center back Gale Agbossoumonde.
What Bradley and the staff haven't done yet is size them up face-to-face. They haven't had extended conversations or seen the players interacting within a group. In some cases, Bradley met these guys for the first time as they arrived in South Africa, which surely is an important moment for young men looking to advance along the food chain.
All of which is why matches like Wednesday's are important in the big picture -- not for a result on a random Wednesday night in November that no one will remember by next week, but for what the staff learns about the players and for what players gather about expectations at a higher level.
"When we see them play, we get an idea of their tendencies and qualities as a player," U.S. assistant Jesse Marsch said Tuesday from South Africa. "But now we bring them into camp and put them through certain training methods, certain habit-forming training sessions and see how they respond, so we get a better fixture on who they are, what they are about and what they need to work on."
The exposure also provides Bradley with an early opportunity to communicate a critical message. Essentially, Bradley wants to convey that the newcomers have certainly achieved something worthwhile in earning a national team call, but that it's just a starting point. They have not arrived at their final destination -- far from it. Bradley likes to keep these conversations positive, but he needs these players to understand that there's still an important process.
It is still about hard work, about awareness of place and the big picture and, perhaps most important, about the merit of constant improvement.
Some of that process is built in, Marsch said, as advancing from a club environment to national team standard can be humbling even for the most skillful and savvy young talent. And there are always guys around, even in a young assembly like the one in South Africa, happy to remind newbies that they've just jumped on a faster merry-go-round. The International game is faster, more technical, more thoughtful and more demanding all at once.
Five players from the 2010 World Cup roster made the trip, including starters Robbie Findley and Jonathan Bornstein. Center back Clarence Goodson, goalkeeper Brad Guzan and utility defender Jonathan Spector are also in South Africa for a second time this year.
That's another value to this trip. A guy like Bornstein, who was one of the less-experienced players during the World Cup, is now the "senior" member with 35 international appearances. So he, Goodson and Guzan are now among the wise old hands, getting an opportunity to lead the flock rather than just be part of it. The squad's average age is 24. Nat Borchers and Brian Carroll, both 29, are the oldest members.
As for dropping off messages about the need for improvement, some players seem to get it ... and others may not. The last such stopover in South Africa was a 1-0 win on Steve Cherundolo's goal three years ago (three years to the day of Wednesday's match, in fact). Jozy Altidore earned his first cap that evening, replacing striker Clint Dempsey in the 65th minute.
Altidore did enough over those few days to get called into the U.S. team's January camp -- like the one coming up two months from now, when the team will face Chile. That was hardly a given considering that he was barely 18 at the time. But he got into another match, this time against Sweden, earning a U.S. penalty kick. (Landon Donovan converted that particular spot shot, in fact, to break Eric Wynalda's all-time U.S. goal scoring mark.) Two weeks after that, Altidore started and scored in a frenzied friendly against Mexico.
Altidore, of course, was Bradley's first-choice striker in the World Cup. So, while he's far from a finished product, he has generally maintained a course of improvement since debuting.
Also on that night three years ago in South Africa, Freddy Adu got his first international start -- and we all know which way that one has gone.
So, is this year's Altidore out there?
Four members of the team, including three yet to be capped internationally, are eligible to play for other nations. Bunbury has lived about half his life in the United States. His mother is American but his father is Canadian (a former Canadian international, in fact). Diskerud has lived in Norway all his life. He has already played for the U.S. under-20 team, although he remains eligible for Norway. Agudelo (Colombia) and Agbossoumonde (Togo) are also eligible elsewhere.
U.S. Soccer officials say an appearance in Wednesday's friendly will not bind them to the United States; they would still have to play in an official FIFA competition at the senior level.
Diskerud (who goes by the first name "Mix") is an active, technical midfielder who likes to get lots of touches and is adept at linking play. The imposing Agbossoumonde, a recent graduate of U.S. Soccer's Developmental Academy, has impressed coaches with technical ability.
"His technical areas still need improving, but he's further along in that area than we expected," Marsch said. "He's better with his feet than we expected."
MLS fans recently got a sampling of Agudelo's skill set as he started a playoff game for the Red Bulls. Like a lot of players his age (he's still a few days short of his 18th birthday), Agudelo remains overly dependent on his one-on-one abilities. In this camp, Bradley and the staff are beginning to introduce ideas and concepts that will allow him to fit into the game in more ways.
South Africa's squad for Wednesday's game has bit more experience, with 11 holdovers from the World Cup. That list includes star midfielder Steven Pienaar and attacker Siphiwe Tshabalala, who lifted a nation momentarily as he scored against Mexico to open the World Cup. Overall, however, 11 South African players have 10 caps or fewer, and captain Aaron Moekena is not among the group.
Goalkeepers: Dominic Cervi (Glasgow Celtic, Scotland), Brad Guzan (Aston Villa, England)
Defenders: Gale Agbossoumonde (Estoril Praia, Portugal), Nat Borchers (Salt Lake), Jonathan Bornstein (Tigres, Mexico), Clarence Goodson (Brondby, Denmark), Eric Lichaj (Aston Villa, England), Tim Ream (New York), Jonathan Spector (West Ham, England)
Midfielders: Alejandro Bedoya (Orebro, Sweden), Brian Carroll (Columbus), Mikkel Diskerud (Stabaek, Norway), Eddie Gaven (Columbus), Logan Pause (Chicago), Robbie Rogers (Columbus)
Forwards: Juan Agudelo (New York), Teal Bunbury (Kansas City), Robbie Findley (Salt Lake)