EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Fortunately for the United States men's national team, the competition in its next game won't be anywhere near the quality of its last three opponents.

Barbados is lovely with many beautiful beaches.

But if we are talking soccer, comparing the tiny island nation to England, Spain and Argentina is like putting the Jersey shore up against the French Riviera.

So it's a good thing for Team USA that while next Sunday's game against Barbados is its first match of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, its last three were just high-level exhibitions in preparation.

Last night's 0-0 tie against No. 1-ranked Argentina again showed the gap between the United States and the super-elite soccer nations is closing, but there is still a ways to go.

Facing England in England, Spain in Spain and Argentina last night in front of a pro-Argentinean crowd of 78,682 at Giants Stadium wasn't going to produce many favorable results.

The draw with Argentina was about as much as the United States could have anticipated after shutout losses in England and Spain.

The United States is a quality second-tier nation that is sometimes capable of posting a high-quality result, but the consistent game-to-game results produced by the top nations cannot be counted on.

After totaling seven goals in wins over Sweden and Poland and a tie with Mexico to start 2008, the United States got blanked as the competition escalated.

If the United States wants to be a serious contender for a World Cup, the top countries in Europe and South America are the ones it is ultimately going to have to run down.

In its history, the United States has played 54 games against the seven nations that have won World Cups (Argentina, Brazil, England, France, Germany, Italy and Uruguay).

Its record is 9-38-6. It's been outscored by a combined 133-44.

Goal differential tells it all.

The United States does not score with any kind of consistency - at least not against World Cup competition.

Since ending its 40-year absence from the World Cup in 1990, the United States is 3-13-2 in World Cup games. It has 15 goals, with three coming from own goals by Colombia, Portugal and Italy.

The USA has scored two or more goals just three times in those World Cup games while being shut out seven times, five by the score of 1-0.

It's simple: The United States has yet to develop offensive players capable of carrying it at the highest level.

The USA roster against Argentina featured just three players - Landon Donovan (35), DaMarcus Beasley (15) and Eddie Johnson (11) - who had double-digit statistics in international goals for the senior national team.

Donovan (two goals in 2002) and Clint Dempsey (one goal in 2006) were the only players who had scored in World Cups.

That's why last week's transfer of 18-year-old striker Jozy Altidore from Red Bull New York of Major League Soccer to Villarreal of the Spanish Primera league was important.

It was the latest sign of a growing international intrigue with the potential of young attacking players from the United States.

In addition to Altidore, 19-year-old Freddy Adu of Benfica in Portugal; Beasley (26) of Rangers in the Scottish Premier League; Dempsey (25) and Johnson (24) of Fulham in the English Premier League are Americans in top international leagues who would be considered goal- scorers.

Their experience playing against the best on the professional level can only help the entire United States program in international play. And if more American strikers can reach that level, the playing field could change dramatically.

"This country has come a long way in producing talent," said Adu, the one-time prodigy who has regained his focus since joining Benfica. "We have players in the top leagues but we need more players getting on to Champions League teams. That's how we as a nation are going to get better.

"Being in Portugal has done wonders for me, just getting a taste of what it's like day in and day out - where it doesn't matter who you are or how much money you make. You have to bust it every day.

"I've become more confident from playing at that level every day. Now when we have an international, the level is not as big a difference. It's not so bad that you look out of place."

Goalkeepers were the first Americans to make an impact in Europe, and from Brad Freidel to Kasey Keller to current current national team No. 1 Tim Howard, the United States has held its own in the net.

Now with forwards and attacking midfielders getting opportunities in Europe, the other end may start showing the necessary improvement.

"I think it's good for all position of players to play against the best competition," Dempsey said. "It makes you aware of what's out there and what level you need to get to.''

Considering the United States has outscored Barbados 11-0 in their only two meetings, its recent goal drought should end. But to become a true world power, it's going to have to be able to score goals against great teams, not just OK or bad ones. *

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