Hosting the world's best soccer player is like staging a papal visit, and neither New Jersey nor Argentine superstar Lionel Messi disappointed last Saturday. More than 78,000 fans filled New Meadowlands Stadium for the U.S.'s 1--1 friendly draw with two-time world champion Argentina, a game that saw Messi toy playfully with the American defense for 45 minutes, while the U.S. fought hard to equalize on a second-half goal from 18-year-old striker Juan Agudelo.
The matchup was the latest example that U.S. Soccer is now willing and able to schedule more top opponents—often on home soil—than ever before. In addition to Argentina, the U.S. hosted Brazil last August and announced last week that it would meet reigning World Cup champion Spain in Foxborough, Mass., on June 4. That's a far cry from, say, 2006, when the U.S.'s last World Cup prep games came against lightweights Latvia, Venezuela and Morocco.
How does one explain the upgrade? "Because our team has gotten better, the best teams are willing to play us," says U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati. What's more, playing "hard games," as U.S. coach Bob Bradley puts it, has been a cornerstone of his strategy to acquaint players with the opposition they'll see at a World Cup. In Bradley's five years, the U.S. has set up friendlies against Brazil (twice), Spain (twice), Argentina (twice), England and the Netherlands. "Anytime you have the chance to compete against these guys, it helps," says U.S. midfielder Landon Donovan. "We've been fortunate to have a lot of experiences like this, so we're comfortable in [tough] games. We don't get rattled."
When the U.S. hosts Spain in June, it will be the Americans' fourth straight game against a team that reached at least the second round of the '10 World Cup. The days of meeting Latvia seem far removed. And that's a good thing for U.S. soccer.