Tough matches will prepare U.S. soccer team for qualifying

If these teams were thrown together during a World Cup, it would be called a "Group of Death."

Argentina, England, Spain and the United States.

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U.S. coach Bob Bradley

But it's not a World Cup; it's not even a four-team tournament.

It is the U.S. national soccer team's killer schedule over the next 12 days: England today at London's Wembley Stadium (3 p.m., ESPN2); Spain next Wednesday at Santander, Spain; and Argentina on June 8 at Giants Stadium.

This is in preparation for the United States' first qualifying games for the 2010 World Cup, against Barbados on June 15 and 22.

Yeah, this schedule should get the Americans ready for Barbados.

Coach Bob Bradley has a 33-man pool of players from which to choose his squads for each game. For today's game, his 23-man roster includes 14 players who have just completed seasons with European teams, including three players, Carlos Bocanegra, Clint Dempsey and Eddie Johnson, who helped Fulham (London) avoid relegation on the last day of the Premiere League season.

"This is an excellent opportunity to continue to evaluate our player pool and at the same time balance the workload," Bradley said in a statement from the U.S. Soccer Federation. "Many of our players have just completed seasons in Europe and the MLS is in full swing, so it is important that we manage the time wisely to give ourselves the best chance to be successful in the important matches this summer."

Which translates to: Everybody will play.

England's roster for the game includes nine players who played in last week's Champions League final between Manchester United (four players) and Chelsea (five). It also includes one player from the MLS: David Beckham of the Los Angeles Galaxy, who already has been named MLS player of the week twice this season.

England is preparing for its European World Cup qualifying campaign, which begins in September, and coach Fabio Capello has a veteran squad, but he must find the next generation of players to follow the current group of aging stars.

Spain plays the U.S. 6 days before its first game of the European championships (for which England failed to qualify), while Argentina has a South American World Cup qualifying game with Brazil 10 days after playing the United States. Both of those teams will be loaded with talent, including Argentina's Lionel Messi, the latest "next Maradona."

This is the first time the United States will go into a World Cup campaign with the majority of its players based in Europe. Which means the United States has legitimately arrived as a major soccer power.

Forget the oddball FIFA world rankings, which has overrated the Americans, ranking them as high as fourth or fifth. What matters is the professional experience of your players. That's why African nations, with almost all of their key players now in Europe, have started doing so well in World Cups.

And 2010 in South Africa could mark a breakthrough World Cup for the United States.

Landon's time

Landon Donovan, currently leading the MLS in scoring in goals (nine) and assists (six), should earn his 100th international cap today, the 11th American to do so. He's also the all-time American leading scorer for the national team with 35 goals.

Welcome back

Of those 14 European-based players on today's roster, three play for teams that earned spots in next season's Champions League: DaMarcus Beasley (Rangers, Scotland), Michael Bradley (Heerenveen, Holland) and Oguchi Onyewu (Standard Liege, Belgium).

Goalkeeper Tim Howard, today's probable starter, is set for the UEFA Cup competition in the fall with Everton (England), as is Freddy Adu (Benfica, Portugal).

Beasley seems to be fully recovered from the knee injury that sidelined him for most of the Scottish season. He scored a goal in the Rangers' 3-2 Scottish FA Cup win over Queen of the South last Saturday in Glasgow. *