Now here we are again: On Saturday the U.S. will face Messi and Argentina in a friendly at the Meadowlands before what may well be a sold-out crowd (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2, Univision). Here are five things to watch for:
1.How will the U.S. try to contain Messi? These days La Pulga (The Flea) wears the uncontested mantle of World's Best Player, and Messi is now playing in a 4-3-3 system that resembles his club formation at Barcelona under new Argentine coach Sergio Batista. Messi will have the freedom to roam where he pleases, which will require a teamwide effort by the Americans to keep him from breaking them down on the dribble or darting into space in the center (where the U.S. has been traditionally vulnerable). Look for U.S. holding midfielder Jermaine Jones to play an important role trying to slow down Messi, while the U.S.' center backs (my guess is Oguchi Onyewu and Jay DeMerit) seek to keep things tight in the middle. It won't be easy: Messi combines well with his front-line mates (Ángel Di María and Ezequiel Lavezzi), as well as mobile midfielder Ever Banega (or perhaps Javier Pastore in his place).
2. Can the U.S.' two biggest stars create some magic? Due to the cancellation of the Egypt game in February, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey haven't played much for the national team lately. Donovan hasn't worn the U.S. uniform since a 2-0 loss to Brazil almost eight months ago, while Dempsey hasn't played for the U.S. in nearly six months. Dempsey is in form, having scored a U.S.-record 10 goals in the Premier League this season, while Donovan is fully rested for the first time in years. It will be interesting to compare this game to the one against Brazil in New Jersey last August. Donovan was dangerous early in that game, but the U.S. was overmatched as time went on. The colder temperatures in this game should prevent players from tiring out, though.
Steve Davis: U.S. faces huge test from Argentina
3.Here are my expected lineups:
GK: Tim Howard
The U.S. will likely need another big game from its longtime No. 1 keeper to get a result.
D: Timothy Chandler, Jay DeMerit, Oguchi Onyewu, Carlos Bocanegra
Steve Cherundolo's injury leaves a spot open at right back, which could give Chandler a chance to make his debut after a quick rise at Germany's Nurnberg. (Another option here is Jonathan Spector.) If Chandler starts, I could see U.S. coach Bob Bradley going with veterans along the rest of the back line, although Tim Ream might have a chance to start in place of DeMerit. Bradley could also opt to use Bocanegra in the center and Jonathan Bornstein on the left.
M: Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones
Bradley hasn't been playing much at Aston Villa, but it's hard to imagine him not starting, not least because he brings the coach's vision and game plan to the field more than any other player. The U.S. could go with a 4-3-2-1 and use Maurice Edu alongside Bradley and Jones, but that would be a departure for the Americans, so I'm expecting Jones to get the nod ahead of Edu in a two-man holding midfield.
M: Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Benny Feilhaber
Stuart Holden's injury opens the door for a player like Feilhaber, especially if Bob Bradley continues going with the lone-forward formation that he has been using lately. Dempsey could play as a withdrawn forward, or he and Donovan could reprise their wide roles from the World Cup if Bradley goes with two forwards. Whatever Bradley decides, the U.S. will use Donovan and Dempsey to try to strike on the counterattack against an Argentine team that might be vulnerable to it.
F: Jozy Altidore
Altidore only arrived in camp late Tuesday night, but that should be enough time for him to be ready for this game. If not, Edson Buddle is another option, as is Juan Agudelo. If Bradley starts the 18-year-old Agudelo, though, it will be confirmation that we're seeing a bolder U.S. coach these days.
GK: Mariano Andujar
Regular starter Sergio Romero is injured, which gives Andujar a chance.
D: Javier Zanetti, Nicolás Otamendi, Nicolás Burdisso, Marcus Rojo
The ageless Zanetti can still be a threat going forward. Rojo got the start on the left in Argentina's last game, while Batista is still trying to find the right combination in the center.
M: Ever Banega, Javier Mascherano, Esteban Cambiasso
There is much more balance in Batista's midfield than there was under Diego Maradona, and it's no coincidence that Batista has rehabilitated Cambiasso, Zanetti and Banega, who were left off last year's World Cup team by El Diego. Javier Pastore, a rising star at Palermo, could get the nod ahead of Valencia's Banega.
F: Ángel Di María, Lionel Messi, Ezequiel Lavezzi
It must nice if you can leave Carlos Tévez and Sergio Agüero off your squad, as Batista has done, but the point is clear: The coach feels that Di María and Lavezzi are better complements for Messi. The U.S. back line is going to get a big test here, obviously.
Tim Vickery: Argentina still seeking defensive answers
4. This game matters more than you might think. Sure, it's a friendly at the start of a four-year World Cup cycle, but both the U.S. and Argentina are preparing for meaningful tournaments this summer. The U.S. has the CONCACAF Gold Cup, with the winner punching a ticket to the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup, which was so important to the U.S. in 2009. And Argentina is hosting the Copa America in July, where nothing less than a championship trophy will be acceptable. Keep in mind, though, for all its talent Argentina has not won a significant trophy in 18 years and could genuinely be called the most underachieving national team in world soccer over that time period. The Argentines have to find a way to get as much out of Messi as Barcelona does, and as everyone knows that hasn't happened yet.
5. Which of the U.S.' new guys could make a move this week? With another game coming against Paraguay on Tuesday in Nashville, it's likely that we'll see a few new faces getting playing time this week, including Chandler, Ream, Agudelo and Mixx Diskerud. Agudelo is the one who has been generating the most excitement, having scored in his debut against South Africa and drawn a penalty against Chile in January. He looked sharp scoring his first MLS goal last week for New York, and if he strikes again this week the buzz meter surrounding the youngster will get a definite uptick.