Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Scouting Report: Paraguay

By Clemente Lisi -- Three days after drawing Argentina at The New Meadowlands Stadium, the USA will face another South American test Tuesday when it takes on Paraguay. The game at LP Field in Nashville will be the final time this Spring that Bob Bradley will get a chance to look at his European-based players ahead of the Gold Cup.

While the National Team had a solid showing versus Argentina, Paraguay had a disappointing outing in Oakland. Paraguay did very little offensively in its 3-1 loss to Mexico, with the team’s lone goal coming three minutes from the end. That goal came from a corner kick that midfielder Cristian Riveros was able to tap in off a deflection in front of the Mexican net.

“What’s worrisome is the Paraguay we had in the first half wasn’t the team I want," Paraguay coach Gerardo Martino told reporters after the game about going down 2-0 at halftime.

The loss stood in stark contrast to just nine months ago when Paraguay turned out to be one of the World Cup’s surprise sides in South Africa, winning its group ahead of Italy, Slovakia and New Zealand. Paraguay lost 1-0 in the quarterfinals to eventual champions Spain.

Paraguay hopes to take that experience and turn it into continental success when it competes in the Copa America this summer. Coached by the Argentine-born Martino since 2007, Paraguay has evolved into one of South America’s most competitive teams. The Copa America, however, will be Martino’s last chance to win something after he confirmed that he would not renewing his contract at the end of July.

With more Paraguayans playing abroad, the team has benefited from those who have left the country’s relatively weak domestic league over the past few years. For the US game, Martino has 21 players at his disposal, including striker Lucas Barrios, the leading scorer for German side Borussia Dortmund and one of 17 players who ply their trade in Europe, South America or Mexico.

The Albirroja are without forwards Roque Santa Cruz (Blackburn) and Nelson Haedo Valdez (Hercules) because Martino allowed them to rest given their ongoing club commitments. The decision turned out to be a poor one given Paraguay’s inability to generate any quality scoring chances against Mexico. Nonetheless, this Paraguay side is made up of seasoned players. Seven members of the team played in the last meeting against the USA, a 3-1 win for Paraguay at the 2007 Copa America. Goalkeeper and team captain Justo Villar was in the lineup for that game, while striker Oscar Cardozo scored four years ago in Venezuela.

Martino, who cites former Argentina and Chile coach Marcelo Bielsa as his mentor, generally favors offense. At times, he can employ a defensive 5-3-2 formation that relies on the counterattack, but also likes a 3-5-2 with a midfield that pushes the ball forward along the flanks. No matter what style Martino settles on against the USA, Paraguay doesn’t always score lots of goals. At the World Cup, they won Group F after scoring just three times in as many games and scored no goals in regulation in its two knockout round matches against Japan and Spain.

Offensively, the Paraguayan player to watch against the USA will be Barrios, a 26-year-old forward who has propelled Borussia Dortmund to the top of the Bundesliga this year. The Argentine-born Barrios, who holds dual citizenship because his mother hails from Paraguay, finished as the German league’s top scorer in 2010 with 19 goals in 33 games. This season, Barrios - nicknamed “The Panther” - leads his club in scoring with 11 goals in 23 matches despite having to deal with a nagging calf injury over the past few weeks.

Defensively, Antolin Alcaraz is having a stellar season at English club Wigan, playing in 23 games and scoring a goal. Alcaraz played at the 2010 World Cup, netting the go-ahead goal – his first and only for Paraguay – in a 1-1 draw against Italy in the group stage. He gives Paraguay’s usually disciplined defense experience and likes to push forward on corner kicks and set pieces. His heading abilities are strong. His goal at the World Cup and lone Premier League strike were both headers.

As for the USA, Bradley is expected to experiment with his midfield options after Stuart Holden was ruled out for as much as six months with a knee injury just a week ago. Against Argentina, Stuart’s absence was notable, particularly in the opening half. Bradley has many holding midfielders to choose from - including Maurice Edu – who he may want to try in a more creative role.

With Lionel Messi making runs all night, the Americans spent most of the first half fending off chances. Once again, Tim Howard had another spectacular night. While Argentina employed a Barcelona style predicated on one-touch passing and Messi runs, the USA used the counterattack in the second half to generate offense.

Howard said he was pleased with the draw, but hoped the team could muster more offense.

“Hopefully, against Paraguay we can attack more,” he said. “It won’t be easy.”

Howard said he and his teammates have “watched a lot of film this past week and weekend” and are ready for Paraguay. “Not as good as Argentina, but they are a good team. It will be another challenge for us,” he said.

Super-sub Juan Agudelo, who came in at the start of the second half, scored the tying goal, his second in three National Team appearances. Against Paraguay, Agudelo could get the start as Bradley continues to experiment with his offensive options. The New York Red Bulls striker worked well with Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, while defender Timmy Chandler showed promise when he came on in the second half to earn his first cap.

Asked if he thought he could extend his run of form against Paraguay, Agudelo said, “If I get to play, I’ll do my best once again.”


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