I was off from work at The Press on Friday afternoon, and I happened to make the mistake of turning on ESPN's SportsCenter at exactly the wrong time when it comes to analysis of the U.S. men's soccer. I always respected Alexi Lalas as a player, but when it comes to insights into the game, the Ginger One falls  a bit short.

The guy loves to rant and rave, but his time there was a surreal aspect to his criticisms. Lalas, with an absolute straight face, said that U.S. coach Bob Bradley had ... in the last week ... fashioned the most accomplished management in the history of the U.S. soccer team. That's quite a statement, and we'll examine it a bit. Taken on face value, the statement is laughable.

First of all, manager Bradley is receiving kudos for letting Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan attend their sisters' weddings ahead of the CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinal against Jamiaca ... which the U.S. happened to win 2-0. OK, fair play, but here's a memo to Bradley and his bosses at U.S. Soccer in Chicago. These dudes were going to the weddings anyway.

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Welcome to the era of player power. There's never been a time period like this before, where guys who know how to play the game and give their all during training ... read that for Dempsey, Donovan, Howard, et al ... still are guaranteed to be picked for the starting 11. For these guys, it doesn't matter how you perform.

But when it comes to 18-year-old U.S. striker Juan Agudelo and his role in Sunday's Gold Cup final (9 p.m., Fox Soccer, Univision), North Carolina-based author Paul Cuadros has a solid perspective. I love how there's a real history of the game in his analysis, especially a viewpoint coming from his Latino background. We need more voices like this in the conversation.

Cuadros wrote "A Home on the Field -- How One Championship Team Inspires Hope for the Revival of Small-Town America," which chronicled how students who hailed from Mexico helped establish a soccer team at the local high school in Siler City, N.C., for the first time in the early 2000s.

"It's important that both the U.S. men's and women's national teams begin to recognize the talent and passion for the game in the Latino community in the U.S.," Cuadros told The Press. "Latinos already have a passion for soccer. So, being able to see their faces reflected in the men's national team -- like we see with Agudelo -- can only be an encouraging thing. The U.S. teams will be rewarded with excellent talent and loyal fans.

"But, in order for this to happen, U.S. soccer has look beyond the club system for players and consider other leagues and places where talent is out there playing," Cuadros continued. "Agudelo represents an opening of the door to other young Latino players. Hispanic players who feature in the starting 11 are crucial. That's critical for the sport to grow."

But although young players like Agudelo have made a difference, the nuts and bolts of tonight's game will be borne by the usual suspects ... Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan and Tim Howard. Mexico has played well in this tournament, but the Americans' physicality still can determine the outcome of this important regional match.

The wild-card in all this is Chicharito ... Javier Hernandez, the "Little Pea." He's the Mexican striker who scored 20 goals in all competitions for Manchester United last season. If the U.S. can find a way for central defenders Clarence Goodson and Carlos Bocanegra to shut him down, the advantage switches to the Americans. One can only hope.





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