The last time Bob Bradley's national team met Argentina in New Jersey (June 2008), it took a night of breathless, outstanding goalkeeping from Tim Howard to keep the Americans from being routed.
Howard was just establishing himself as the nation's solid No. 1 keeper back then. So that part has changed, of course; his is the first name Bradley scribbles on the lineup card nowadays.
But not much has changed around Argentina's flashy attack and the incomparable Lionel Messi. So Saturday's high-profile contest at the New Meadowlands Stadium represents the stiffest U.S. test since a 2-0 loss to Brazil at the same facility seven months ago.
"These are fun games," veteran defender Carlos Bocanegra said Wednesday. "You get to test yourself against some of the best players in the world. There's a lot of hype around the game because of Messi and all their other great players. They are expecting a huge crowd, so these are the ones you really look forward to."
Bradley has summoned most of his top talent. Howard, Bocanegra, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and 18 others are prepping not just for Saturday's showdown, but also for a match Tuesday in Nashville against Paraguay.
Next week's match will probably look a lot different, with the United States figuring to split the possession more equitably. That's unlikely to happen in New Jersey against two-time World Cup champion Argentina. Saturday's visitors may not be as mesmerizing in possession as Spain at its best, but they aren't far behind. That's how it almost got lopsided -- but didn't thanks to Howard -- when the teams met in a scoreless draw in 2008 at the old Giants Stadium.
The United States could easily find itself under similar pressure from Argentina on Saturday -- assuming the rain and snow now walloping the East Coast relents enough and doesn't reduce the match to a sloppy quagmire. U.S. Soccer officials say they already have sold more than 60,000 tickets and expect a sellout by Saturday's 7 p.m. ET kickoff (ESPN2 and Univision).
Many in the crowd will be there to see Messi, FIFA's two-time world Player of the Year and perhaps the best of his generation globally. Argentine coach Sergio Batista said this week that the Barcelona star should be available, sufficiently recovered from a recent minor knee injury. It's an important match for the Albiceleste, which has also summoned most of its top performers while prepping for this summer's Copa America.
Batista replaced the iconic Diego Maradona after last summer's disappointing World Cup, and the side looks far better organized for it.
For the home side, Saturday's lineup is sure to be less experimental than in other matches since last year's World Cup. The Americans may still need to tinker in the run-up to this summer's Gold Cup, which Bradley and U.S. Soccer has prioritized. And the coaches certainly wouldn't mind getting a look-see at two new, German-born players in their first national team camp: right-sided defender/midfielder Timothy Chandler and goalkeeper David Yelldell.
On the other hand, there's big risk in too much experimentation or unfamiliarity with roles. If Argentina can put a 4-1 beatdown on a fabulously talented Spanish side, as it did to everyone's surprise last September, the South Americans can certainly rough up Bradley's team. Messi, Gonzalo Higuaín and Carlos Tévez scored in that one for Argentina. Messi is in New Jersey this week with the rest of his team, training through the nasty weather; Higuaín is recovering from injury, while the mercurial Tevez no longer seems to be part of Batista's plan.
Still, there's plenty of talent around. U.S. players must find that sweet spot between an overly defensive approach and prudent caution.
"There's always a balance as to how far you're going to tilt things," U.S. assistant coach Mike Sorber said from North Carolina. "I think we always take the position of, What players do we have? What are our players' strengths? We want to play to our strengths, use our athleticism and mobility as we did against Spain [in 2009], where we try to put them under some pressure, run at them when we can and try to get behind them where we can."
The Americans were, in fact, surprisingly aggressive against Spain in that Confederations Cup contest two years ago in South Africa, upsetting the heavily favored Europeans in one of the U.S.' signature wins under Bradley.
Saturday's bout against a world giant is a little different, however. For one, many of Bradley's players aren't in top gear. Jonathan Spector, Michael Bradley and Sacha Kljestan are playing irregularly in Europe. Donovan, Jay DeMerit, Tim Ream, Mikkel Diskeruud, Benny Feilhaber and Juan Agudelo are just barely into their league seasons or have just returned from winter break, so they might not be at full speed just yet. Dempsey, for one, is sizzling, having just become the first U.S. player to score 10 goals in a Premier League season.
The Americans seem likely to remain in a 4-2-3-1 arrangement as Bradley strives to get his best players on the field (and to cover a soft spot in the current player pool at striker).
So, other than lineup staples Howard, Bocanegra, Dempsey and Donovan, predicting Bradley's lineup won't be easy. If Chandler gets his first U.S. cap, it would most likely be as a right back; he plays there or as a right-sided midfielder for Nurnberg in Germany. Maurice Edu and Jermaine Jones, now starting for their clubs in Scotland and England, respectively, seem likely choices. And given U.S. Soccer's desire to patiently nurse along the 18-year-old Agudelo, Jozy Altidore appears the most likely choice at striker. Directing passes into Altidore or to Donovan and Dempsey in good spots will be tricky considering how hard Bradley's men must work for their turns with the ball.
Bocanegra said a big challenge will be maintaining laser focus over 90 minutes. That's difficult against a team that moves the ball steadily, fluidly, always coiled and ready to pounce on one of those costly concentration lapses.
"They do so well at holding possession," Bocanegra said. "They are always putting you in bad positions defensively, pulling you out of shape with good runs or with those little one-twos. So you have to think about staying in good positions, defending well and not switching off for that one second. And it's hard, because you end up chasing the ball a lot, and they just keep coming at you."