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The final dress rehearsal before a World Cup is always about getting a team to peak at the right time. While an opportunity to introduce a tactical wrinkle or two remains, the time for a huge amount of experimentation has largely passed. Cohesion on the field, as well as avoiding injuries, is the order of the day. For the U.S., Saturday's final pre-World Cup tuneup against Australia should prove no different.
Without question, the Americans took a step in the right direction in last Saturday's 2-1 win over Turkey. Granted, much of this was due to having more of the first-choice lineup on the field, but the overall level of sharpness was much better than in the 4-2 loss to the Czech Republic four days earlier.
Yet plenty of room for improvement remains. The team's habit of starting slowly raised its head once again, as the Turks had things largely their own way in the first half. And while the U.S. did well to stage a second-half comeback, it's more than likely that group stage opponent England won't be as forgiving as the Turks were.
But for Bradley, his team's struggles weren't that much of a surprise. In the camp's early days, the U.S. staff went to great lengths to build the kind of physical foundation that will get a team through a World Cup. That took a toll on the U.S. players.
"Whenever you do that amount of running [that we did in camp], there's no doubt that in terms of pure sharpness with the ball, at times, that won't be at its best," said Bradley following the win over Turkey. "But then eventually as you have some time to taper off, and do some different things, that's when you want the sharpness part to come back. It's always been that way. You can't get around it. But all things considered, I think the players handled it very well."
|Jose Torres could play a key role in the midfield.|
Among those handling it the best was midfielder Jose Torres, who since the start of training camp has done plenty to stake his claim to the starting center midfield spot alongside Michael Bradley. His calmness on the ball has been evident per usual, but he's also shown an increased attentiveness to defensive duties. If he can continue to deliver such displays, it will make the life of midfield cohorts Bradley, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey much easier.
Should Bob Bradley see fit to have Torres on from the start, it will amount to a stern test given Australia's physicality and organization. Holding midfielders Jason Culina and Vince Grella provide plenty of steel for the Socceroos, and attacking midfielder Tim Cahill should pose a different kind of offensive threat than the one the U.S. saw last Saturday from Turkey's Tuncay Sanli. While Sanli is primarily a setup man, Cahill is all about surprise, popping into the box and getting on the end of things. The U.S. will need to be aware of where the Evertonian is at all times.
"He's a pain in the neck to play with, let alone against," said U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard about his club teammate.
Bradley added, "Cahill's not a big guy but he's scoring goals with his head. That doesn't make him exactly like [England's] Wayne Rooney, but certainly, in his own right, he had a great year, and those are the kinds of things that sharpen us up as we prepare for June 12."
Whether the Americans will face the likes of Harry Kewell is another question entirely. The Galatasaray forward has been hobbled with a groin injury, and just recently returned to full training, meaning a cameo appearance is the most likely scenario. That should clear the way for Josh Kennedy, scorer of the only goal in the Socceroos' 1-0 friendly win over Denmark last Tuesday, to resume his role as a lone striker.
Either way, the form of the U.S. back line will continue to bear watching, especially that of Oguchi Onyewu. The AC Milan defender took a significant step forward last Saturday, logging 45 incident-free minutes, and if he can make similar progress this weekend that will give Bradley the confidence to start Onyewu against England and allow Carlos Bocanegra to remain at left back.
It was thought that the audition for Jozy Altidore's strike partner would also be one of the subplots, but the news that the forward sustained a mild ankle sprain in training has complicated matters. Altidore has been listed as day-to-day by U.S. Soccer officials, and if he is unable to go on Saturday, that will open the door for Edson Buddle to get some playing time with the first team.
The impulse is to think that this development cements Dempsey's spot up top. It may, given the lack of experience among the remaining candidates. But asking him to assume the target man responsibilities isn't the best use of his talents. The physical attributes of L.A. Galaxy forward Buddle make him a better fit to replace Altidore.
Robbie Findley also looks poised to garner more minutes, either as a starter or off the bench. He was one of the sparks behind the team's second-half revival last Saturday with his speed causing the Turks particular concern. If he makes the same kind of diagonal runs against Australia, that could be enough to prevent outside backs Luke Wilkshire and Scott Chipperfield from venturing too far forward.
Such upheaval along the forward line is the last thing the U.S. needs, but Bradley will still be hoping that Saturday's exercise will succeed in getting the team closer to top form.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Additional reporting by Leander Schaerlaeckens and Luke Cyphers.