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ROODEPORT, South Africa -- As dress rehearsals go, the U.S. men's national team had plenty to be happy about following its 3-1 victory over Australia. Yet while the scoreline implies a resounding victory, it was a result that flattered the Americans to an extent, giving them plenty to ponder as they prepare for their long-awaited matchup with England next week.
Certainly there were some performances to savor. Edson Buddle made everyone forget about injured striker Jozy Altidore -- at least for a moment -- as he delivered two goals. And he and Robbie Findley gave the impression that they've been playing alongside one another for years, rather than weeks. Together they provided the kind of dynamic forward play that may yet give opponents problems, despite their modest pedigrees.
Such a development will no doubt complicate matters for U.S. manger Bob Bradley as he ponders his starting lineup against England, not that Buddle minds.
"I gave [Bradley] a bit of a headache probably, but it's a good headache," said Buddle. "I think it gives us confidence going into the first match."
Buddle opened the scoring in the fourth minute, stripping Australia midfielder Vince Grella of the ball, and while for a moment it looked like he had dawdled on the ball too long, he eventually rifled his shot past Mark Schwarzer. After Australia's Tim Cahill had equalized in the 20th minute, Buddle struck again 11 minutes later with a powerful header from Steve Cherundolo's cross.
Of course, there is more to a forward's game than goals, yet Buddle and Findley succeeded in other facets of their game.
"They helped us get out of pressure when we're under a lot of pressure," said midfielder Landon Donovan. "Their movement was good, they were active, they defended well; all of those things helped us win."
Yet Buddle and Findley were simply the final pieces of an attack that looked downright breathtaking at times going forward. Donovan and Clint Dempsey were both on their games and continually tormented the Australian defense.
The best news of the night was the fact the duo made it through the match uninjured. Given the Who's Who of soccer stars that has been laid low in the past two weeks -- a list that includes England's Rio Ferdinand, Ghana's Michael Essien and Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba -- the U.S. can count its blessings, especially given some of the robust challenges that Dempsey was on the receiving end of. On this day, the U.S. managed to walk that fine line between being too passive and too aggressive.
"On the one hand, you can't not play the game the way it's supposed to be played because you put yourself at risk that way," said Donovan. "On the other hand, you're also somewhat aware of going into a stupid challenge or chasing a ball that you would chase next weekend, and just be smart about that. I think most of our guys did a pretty good job of that."
But for all the slick combination play that the Americans showed at times, there were plenty of shaky moments on the defensive side of the ball. The U.S. managed to turn every single cross, be it from set pieces or open play, into an adventure. Clearances were rarely hit with the power and precision needed to relieve pressure and often ended up setting the table for Australia's attackers. Had Marcus Hahnemann not come up with a trio of fine saves in the second half, the result may very well have been different. At minimum, it made closing out the game harder than it needed to be.
The U.S. players and coaches placed nearly all of the blame for their aerial struggles on the altitude and the much publicized Jabulani ball, as opposed to their own foibles. Of course, this ignores the fact Buddle had no such problems, but Bradley is convinced that an additional week of practice can cure such ills.
"I think for everybody right now, judging the flight of the ball becomes an issue," said Bradley. "You see balls that are flying and getting through to dangerous areas. You see balls that aren't cleared that well. It's something that all teams are going to have to be thinking about."
One of those teams will be England, which no doubt will punish the kind of defensive miscues the U.S. made against Australia.
Questions persist about the composition of the backline as well. The fact that Oguchi Onyewu played only the last third of the match makes it highly unlikely that he'll start against England. This means that Jay DeMerit, who struggled mightily, and Clarence Goodson are in line to get the nod in the center of defense.
Then again, it wouldn't be a dress rehearsal without a few things to iron out.
Tim Howard, goalkeeper, 6 -- Typically steady performance from the Everton man.
Carlos Bocanegra, defense, 5.5 -- Not spectacular, but plenty solid. Given the rise of Goodson, it's likely that he'll stay at left back for the remainder of the World Cup.
Clarence Goodson, defense, 5.5 -- Will he start against England? He certainly hasn't hurt himself in the last three matches, delivering some composed, timely tackles. The only downside was that he looked as flummoxed as some of his teammates on crosses.
Jay DeMerit, defense, 3 -- A very underwhelming performance. His poor clearing header that went out for a corner kick set the stage for Cahill's equalizer, and a similar effort would have resulted in another goal but he was bailed out by Hahnemann. Wracked up plenty of fouls, too.
Steve Cherundolo, defense, 5 -- Probably could have done better to stop Cahill's shot from his spot on the post, as well as cut out more crosses from his side. His run and cross for Buddle's second was sublime, however.
Landon Donovan, midfield, 7 -- Looked razor sharp and consistently made excellent decisions. As he heads into this World Cup, he is clearly operating at his peak.
Ricardo Clark, midfield, 5.5 -- With Jose Torres breathing down his neck, Clark raised his game by doing what he does best: tackling and making the simple pass. He went off the boil a bit in the second half, and his day was marred by what looked like a hamstring injury.
Michael Bradley, midfield, 6 -- Did his usual amount of dirty work on defense, and while he misfired on some passes early, he was sharper in the second half.
Clint Dempsey, midfield, 6 -- Looked lively on the attacking end and with a bit more luck might have scored two goals. But he probably bore the most responsibility for losing Cahill on the equalizer. He also drew a silly yellow card for a fracas with Craig Moore. That can't happen when the games begin for real.
Edson Buddle, forward, 8 -- How can you sit a guy who is this hot? Buddle took his chances well and made dynamic runs off the ball. An interesting quandary for Bradley.
Robbie Findley, forward, 5.5 -- Combined fabulous plays with head-in-the-hands moments. Worked well with Buddle and contributed defensively, but he'll have nightmares about missing an open goal in the 15th minute. He had more good moments than bad.
Marcus Hahnemann, goalkeeper, 6 -- Made three top drawer saves in the second half to preserve the win. His aerial game was highly suspect, however, as he whiffed on two crosses.
Jonathan Bornstein, defense, 5.5 -- Started off shaky but composed himself. He also delivered some key clearances.
Oguchi Onyewu, defense, 5 -- Still looks to be showing too much rust to start against England. One sequence where he opted to let a ball go, only to see an Australia player run onto it, spoke volumes. When asked if Onyewu was ready to start, Bradley would only say, "We'll see."
DaMarcus Beasley, midfield, 5 -- His primary asset seemed to be taking abuse, although he also helped shore things up defensively.
Herculez Gomez, forward, 6 -- Could have put the game away earlier after being sprung by Donovan but played a poor pass instead. He eventually cemented things in stoppage time off another telling pass from Donovan.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.