Two years ago, Juan Agudelo and Mix Diskerud were given an opportunity, and they ran with it.
With a symphony of vuvuzelas providing the soundtrack in Cape Town, the two youngsters and relative unknowns were given a rare chance to compete with the senior U.S. national team, and they combined for a classy goal in enemy territory.
In the 85th minute, Agudelo played Diskerud forward into the box, and the Norwegian-American flicked the ball back to himself to create space from his defender before finding the return pass to the then-17-year-old Agudelo, who completed his run into the area.
Making his debut with the United States, Agudelo sent a rocket off the outside of his right foot to become the youngest American in the modern era to score a goal, burying host South Africa 1-0 and turning the hype machine into overdrive. The future of U.S. Soccer was in good hands, it certainly seemed.
Two years of mixed results on the club level later, Agudelo and Diskerud are back on the same stage, given yet another opportunity to prove they belong under the bright lights with the U.S. elite. Only this time, they have new company. Agudelo, Diskerud and speedy wingers Josh Gatt and Joe Gyau are the intriguing names on the U.S. roster this November, as an American squad made up of entrenched starters and unknown commodities heads to Russia for Wednesday's friendly.
“Calling in players like Mix Diskerud, Joe Gyau and Joshua Gatt is a clear signal to this generation of players that we are watching you, follow you, and want to help you get to the next level. This is a first taste for (some of) them and what it means to be with the senior national team," USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann told U.S. Soccer's official website on Monday.
In assembling his team for Wednesday's game, Klinsmann managed to do the unthinkable: Release a roster with few criticisms while being praised for his willingness to include some of the players whose names have become buzzwords among U.S. soccer fans. These players have earned buzz not from a litany of accomplishments, but instead the hope for the future that they represent -- the same hope on display at Green Point Stadium in November 2010.
For Klinsmann, the timing to include the likes of Agudelo, Diskerud, Gatt and Gyau makes all the sense in the world. This friendly date is rather meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but it is a time to experiment and examine some options. A road test at Russia, a team that won't necessarily have its biggest guns but is a formidable foe nevertheless, is a quality chance to have a discerning look at new attacking blood outside of the scope of World Cup qualifying in a challenging atmosphere.
If not for the United States' failure to qualify for the Olympics, the 19-year-old Agudelo, 22-year-old Diskerud, 21-year-old Gatt and 20-year-old Gyau might already have a leg up on earning regular roster spots with the senior national team. Now, they'll get their chance to show to Klinsmann that they belong with the big boys instead of perpetually being deemed players of the future and waiting their turn.
"They can train alongside guys like Timmy Howard, Jermaine Jones and Carlos Bocanegra and say, ‘I want to get to this level,’" Klinsmann said. "It’s also really an opportunity for them to come in, get accepted right away and show what they can do. Maybe they will even get some minutes in the game against Russia."
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As Agudelo and Diskerud have showed -- and, in a way, not showed -- just getting those minutes and doing something with them is important, but not as important as using that momentum and experience to succeed with regularity on the club level.
Club life was not that kind to Agudelo after his showing in South Africa, as he got caught in a rough situation in New York with a Red Bulls club that put more of a premium on high-priced stars than fostering young American talent. Agudelo plummeted from shoo-in call-up status to needing to refocus on establishing his club footing. He was part of a midseason blockbuster deal that sent him across the country to Chivas USA, where he started 11 of the team's final 14 matches and finished the 2012 campaign with a goal in the season finale, showing flashes of the potential that has yet to translate into consistent dominance.
For Diskerud, he has grown into a starting role while on loan at Norwegian club Rosenborg, scoring a pair of important goals and playing vital minutes for a team with European aspirations after being a part of floundering club Stabaek following his South Africa breakout.
Gyau and Gatt, who bring blinding speed to the flanks and are willing to take defenders on, can learn from the experience of their fellow call-ups, players who -- if things go according to plan -- will be part of dozens of lineups together in the coming decade or so.
Gyau is working his way into 2. Bundesliga side St. Pauli's lineup while on loan from parent club TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, which employs U.S. stalwarts Fabian Johnson and Danny Williams and is where Gyau signed his first professional deal last year.
Gatt finds himself in perhaps the most stable, comfortable club footing of the four. He is fresh off earning a place in next year's UEFA Champions League qualifying rounds after winning his second straight domestic championship in Norway's top flight with Molde, which is guided by former Manchester United standout Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Originally called up ahead of September's World Cup qualifiers only to withdraw with an injury, Gatt stands to have the most to gain from Wednesday, especially given the dearth of natural right wing options in the U.S. player pool.
For the crop of USA young guns, Wednesday's game and the training sessions leading into it are all about making the most of a golden opportunity, much like Agudelo and Diskerud were able to do a couple of years ago. Doing so and then building off of it, though, is the true task at hand to bring this cast of prospects from a category of "unknowns with potential" to "U.S. national team regulars" and inject a dose of youth into an aging U.S. side.
"It also means for them that they go back to their clubs with bigger expectations," Klinsmann said. "We will tell them that now we expect you to become starters in your club team, break through there and get even hungrier. So it’s important that we give these guys the opportunity to join us.”