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Big Games Before Big Games


On paper, the U.S. schedule this summer is daunting. Opening with a game against one of the rising teams in Europe in Belgium, taking on No. 2-ranked Germany and then focusing on the three critical World Cup qualifiers. With so much on the line, could it seem a bit too much?

According to the players, it’s precisely what they need.

“It’s great,” said DaMarcus Beasley, who earned his 100th cap Wednesday night against Belgium. “Players want to play these types of games. We want to test ourselves against the best in the world and we have no fear going into these games. Obviously we want the result to go our way more times than not, but we learn from it.”

While clearly the focus has to be on getting results in World Cup qualifying, scheduling opponents also has to be about the bigger picture. In order to be ready to compete with the best teams in the world when Brazil rolls around, you have to test yourself.

It was done last year when the U.S. beat four-time World Cup champion Italy in Genoa, tied Mexico in Azteca and then drew with the ninth-ranked Russians on their home soil. U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard sees the value and the potential reward.

“I think that’s the design, to kind of keep challenging ourselves,” Howard said. “When you challenge yourself at this level, you run the risk of doing things you wish you didn’t do a few times. I think it is better than playing a team that we can dominate and is kind of a cakewalk for us. I think these games are probably better, and will serve us better in the long run.”

It’s not the first time the U.S. has faced big opponents in advance of World Cup qualifiers. In 2005, the U.S. hosted England on May 28 in Chicago and lost 2-1, then went on to post consecutive 3-0 wins against Costa Rica and Panama.

The 2008 campaign was even more outsized, the U.S. losing on the road against England (2-0) and Spain (1-0) before drawing 0-0 against Argentina and then kicking off qualifying for South Africa.

And of course in 2012, the U.S. had another five-game set that included a 4-1 loss to Brazil. From there, the U.S. took four points from a home win and then a 1-1 draw in Guatemala.

For U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, the games offer a big opportunity to learn, revealing areas where a team needs to improve, something you might not get from games against weaker opponents.

“There’s a lot we can learn from these opponents,” he said. “This is why we play teams like Belgium, like Germany, like Russia or like Italy because there’s so much that you can read from those games. Obviously you want to win them and when you lose them it’s not such a big pleasure, but I’d rather play Belgium 10 more times than El Salvador 100 times because that’s where you learn.”

While playing against top competition also comes with the risk of bad results, Klinsmann believes the players are well equipped to handle the lessons and move forward, and to keep their eye on the bigger prize.

“Those are games that you need to play. There is no player that is going to have sleepless nights over the next couple days [after a friendly loss]. They understand why certain things happen and then you can correct it. I don’t think that confidence comes into play there. Every day’s work on the training field, going through certain elements and principles, help us build toward Jamaica. We want to make sure there is a better flow and a better understanding on the field and better communication for when the games come that we badly need to win.”

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