PRETORIA, South Africa -- The U.S. meets World Cup champion Italy here Monday in the Americans' opening game of the Confederations Cup (2:25 p.m. ET, ESPN), and here's what's on my mind heading into the game:
• It's time for the U.S. to take the next step. Qualifying for the World Cup is no simple task, but with the Yanks on track to reach their sixth straight World Cup, the team has to start being measured by how it performs against the best teams in the world when it counts. By that measure, World Cup 2006 was a heavy dose of reality for the United States. While the Confed Cup isn't the World Cup, it is a rare opportunity for the U.S. to play competitive games (and not friendlies) against Italy today and Brazil on Thursday.
U.S. forward Landon Donovan, for one, seems to understand that merely qualifying for the World Cup isn't what matters most anymore. "We should qualify every time from now on. There's no excuses," he told me. "What we haven't been the best at in the past is we haven't played teams outside of our region well. I think Bob [Bradley]'s objective from the beginning was to play more hard games against hard team that we're not used to playing. We understand what Concacaf is about and how to play in those games. Having these experiences [at Confederations Cup] is very important for us when we get to a World Cup."
• What would define "success" for the U.S. in this tournament? For me, it would be playing well in all three first-round games against Italy, Brazil and Egypt. If the U.S. can get a point from Italy or Brazil and three points against Egypt, I think most U.S. fans would be satisfied, even if those four points didn't get the Americans out of the group. "I can't imagine our group will be harder than this in the World Cup, if we qualify," Donovan said. "But the goal is just to play three good games and see how it goes. These are teams, if we played them 10 times they would probably win more times than we would. But we want to play a good game, and we feel like these are teams that we can still compete with."
Bradley indicated that his main goal was to enter the final group game against Egypt with a chance to survive the group -- hence, with at least a point from the Italy or Brazil games. "Whenever you go to a tournament, the idea is: How do you advance?" Bradley said. "So that's a three-game deal. A lot of times, teams come out of the first game with a point, and they feel like that's still solid. But nonetheless if you look at the two games, to have a realistic chance of playing Egypt and having a chance to advance, you need at least a point out of two games."
• Playing against Italy and Brazil isn't like playing against, say, Honduras. "Little mistakes that you can make in Concacaf will get punished on a bigger level here," said defender Carlos Bocanegra, who is questionable for the Italy game with a hamstring strain. "We just need to be more consistent. In the first part of qualifying, our defense was kind of our strength. We didn't give up many goals. Now we're given up quite a few goals in the last few games. That's something we need to change and get back to the basics."
On the attacking end, the U.S. needs to show more than just heart. It needs to show that it has enough technical ability to be threatening on more than just counterattacks. What's more, playing in this tournament against three of the top teams from Europe, South America and Africa will expose the U.S. to a range of styles that it doesn't see in Concacaf.
"The styles that we're going to be playing are completely different," said Donovan. "Dealing with the pure emotion of qualifying is a big deal. In these games there's not so much emotion involved -- in a World Cup there is -- but in a tournament like this most of the European players are coming in off the end of their seasons, so it's not as passionate in that way. But they're just better players, more talented, better professionals. So it makes it difficult from a different perspective."
Through-balls: Italian defender Fabio Cannavaro has been ruled out of the game to injury ... If Bocanegra doesn't play, look for Jay DeMerit (or, less likely, Dan Califf) to take his place in the central defense. Califf seems less suited than DeMerit to deal with the speed of an attacker like Giuseppe Rossi ...
What do you think of what Donovan, Bradley and Bocanegra had to say? How do you think the U.S. will play against Italy? Do you think Rossi will score against his birth country? Will Bradley have the cojones to start Benny Feilhaber as an attacking midfielder? And which U.S. players do you think are most under pressure to perform well in this tournament? Post your thoughts below, and check back after the game for reactions.
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