When Bob Bradley called upon a host of fresh faces to join the United States national team for their final match of the year, he wanted to see which uncapped players would rise to the occasion. After the Americans' impressive 1-0 victory over South Africa in Cape Town's Green Point Stadium, the coach has his answer: all of them.
Four players—Tim Ream, Teal Bunbury, Juan Agudelo, and Mikkel Diskerud—played significant roles in their debuts. Without their contributions, the US wouldn't be leaving the Southern hemisphere with a win. (Gale Agbossoumonde, the other debutant on the day, came on too late to make a difference.)
Ream earned his first start for the Nats, pairing with Clarence Goodson in the center of the backline. The pair kept tabs on Davide Somma, who vowed to "destroy" the Stars and Stripes before the match but was unable to do anything of the sort. A budding star with the New York Red Bulls, Ream distributed calmly and effectively when he had the ball and stayed in position throughout the match. He needs more seasoning and isn't about to displace Oguchi Onyewu or move ahead of Goodson on the depth chart. But his strong work to keep a clean sheet before giving way to Nat Borchers allowed the US to steal a victory.
Agudelo's goal will score the offensive headlines, but it was Bunbury who started the momentum. He came on for a virtually invisible Robbie Findley—could this have been his last match in a US uniform?—and nearly created a goal immediately. He won a ball in the defensive half the field and played a nice pass to Alejandro Bedoya whose chip was just ahead of Eddie Gaven.
Minutes later, the Kansas City Wizards striker received a chip from Eric Lichaj—who showed well on the flank and shut down Siphiwe Tshabalala—turned, and forced a diving save from Itumeleng Khune. Bunbury faded as the second half wore on, but his early exploits turned the match in favor of the Americans.
Agudelo's breakout performance during the Major League Soccer playoffs earned him this call from Bradley, and the youngster showed why it was well deserved. He's fast, strong, and skilled, reminiscent of Jozy Altidore—whose usual #17 Agudelo wore, in fact—a player who made his national team debut exactly three years ago in the Nelson Mandela Challenge.
The 17-year-old Agudelo doesn't need much space to make something happen, a fact that was clear on his goal. He and Diskerud worked a wonderful one-two in the South Africa area. Diskerud, crowded by three defenders, flicked a pass to the cutting Agudelo, and a touch later the ball was in the back of the net. The play showed wonderful teamwork from a pair of players who met each other less than a week ago.
While the younger players were the stars of the match, though, this was by no means a changing of the guard. Only one or two members of the 18-man roster would be in consideration for a starting spot on the full team. The late-game heroics were only made possible by a couple of excellent saves from Brad Guzan. World Cup veteran Jonathan Bornstein was solid, though far from spectacular, on the left flank, while Goodson commanded the backline and, impressively, pressed forward as well.
MLS stalwarts Logan Pause and Brian Carroll did the dirty work in the midfield to disrupt Bafana Bafana's attack with Eddie Gaven—can a 24-year-old be called a veteran?—playing in front of the duo and making nice forays into enemy territory.
But let's not get carried away. It's just one match. A friendly, at that. The future of the US did not arrive on Wednesday. Bradley's first-choice starting XI won't change because of this performance. But after 90 minutes in South Africa, it's fair to say that reinforcements are in development and progressing.
Noah Davis covers the United States national team for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @noahedavis.