US National Team: Looking Ahead
The 2006 World Cup was a page turner for the United States. Not only because the result didn’t fulfill the pre-tournament expectations of many, but because of a coaching change and the departure of arguably four of the United States five most skilled players. (Eddie Pope, Claudio Reyna and Brian McBride retired from international play; John O’Brien has not played a competitive match since the World Cup; Landon Donovan is the only remaining American of what I would consider the top 5 skilled players entering World Cup 2006.) 2007 was seen a rebuilding year for the United States and the team entered 2008 with as many unanswered questions as it began 2007 with. However, some of the youngsters who must be counted on in 2010 seem to be stepping into roles beyond their years with the national side, and that is obviously a good thing. But the lack of leadership, the type of leadership Pope, Reyna and McBride provided is glaring every time I watch the United States play. Carlos Bocanegra and Landon Donovan may often wear the captain’s armband, but neither has the respect nor the aura required of a captain. In this article,I will attempt to scope out the player pool and make some suggestions for the upcoming two years leading into World Cup 2010.
Tim Howard and Brad Guzan are the top two keepers in the pool right now, but with the lack of veteran leadership on the team I would not be adverse to taking Kasey Keller or Marcus Hahnehmann to a few qualifiers or perhaps even beyond. Tally Hall, Matt Pickens and Quentin Westberg provide potential young depth. As my co-host Dave Denholm stated on this past week’s American Soccer Show, no need exists to knit pick at what is always the strongest position in the American setup so let’s move on to more pressing matters.
From my vantage point the US defense is currently in its worst state since shortly after the 1990 World Cup. Perhaps I am being completely pessimistic or fatalistic, but the the number of defensive breakdowns in front of goal this past year are difficult to swallow when as fans we have seen center backs of high quality: Alexi Lalas, Marcelo Balboa, Tom Dooley (later in his career when he was moved to the back), Eddie Pope and others over the past fifteen years. I’m not someone who is gets terribly impressed because some guys play on good clubs or in good leagues. From my vantage point both Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu have difficulty with positioning, and organization on set pieces. Bocanegra is also known to play some of the most desperate and errand back passes in international football.
Jay DeMerit, Eddie Robinson and Jimmy Conrad provide potential depth on the back line. If Cory Gibbs could ever get healthy he may be able to fight his way back into this mix, because none of the current US center backs are clearly better than Gibbs was before his injury in a tune up friendly for World Cup 2006. Jonathan Spector could also potentially play inside, but is better suited to be an outside back. Michael Parkhurst shows signs that he is developing further into a top class player, but his body of work on the international level is scant thus far and he cannot be counted on just yet.
The bottom line is that the U.S. badly needs cover inside. Onyewu and Bocanegra try and play a very physical game but are both prone to mental lapses and mistakes that you just cannot have in qualifying, let alone in a World Cup. But the problem is that the rest of the inside backs are untested at the highest levels of international football. This situation, I am sure will continue to develop going forward but right now not much exists to be optimistic about.
MAN MARKERS/OUTSIDE BACKS
The outside back are an even bigger concern, if possible than the center backs. Jonathan Bornstein has looked decent at left back but something still makes me very nervous about him. Heath Pearce continues to be an enigma and Ramiro Corrales did not do a whole lot against Mexico to inspire confidence. This is where perhaps leadership comes in yet again. Bruce Arena settled on moving veteran Eddie Lewis to left back where Lewis was less comfortable than in the midfield. In the final group match of World Cup 2006 Lewis returned to left midfield and delivered a perfect cross into Brian McBride, which McBride in his final international could not finish. Lewis could be a short term band aid at left back but since he is approaching the twilight of his career and will be almost 36 when the 2010 World Cup roles around he cannot be counted on. Besides, Lewis cannot play 90 minutes even at the present time, so Bornstein has to be vetted for the position. But I would continue to select Lewis and use him as a utility player on the left side of both midfield and defense until he is no longer able or willing to play internationally. Pearce is a touch and go situation. He is flamboyant personally and on the field as well. I’m not sure he meshes well with the rest of the team. Pearce is someone I have a hard time reading and I’ll let Coach Bradley be the ultimate judge of his capability in the future.
Right back is somewhat more stable when Steve Cherundolo is healthy. Size is Cherundolo’s biggest weakness but he’s someone that has played at the highest level for club and country now for a long time and is about as reliable as any American field player gets. Still Cherundolo lacks the overall skill and physical play that Tony Sanneh exhibited in the 2002 World Cup, and like many other players departed from the national team, Sanneh’s contributions weren’t properly respected or appreciated at the time. Frankie Hedjuk is getting up their in years but still has to be considered an option much like Lewis to provide leadership and depth come qualifying but not for World Cup 2010. The rest of the right backs are untested: Marvell Wynne, Drew Moor, Frank Simek and Jonathan Spector. Spector can play on the left side also but isn’t reliable and has been to me one of the most unimpressive players every time he’s been called into the U.S. camp in the last year. Some critics have pointed out to me that since he plays regularly in arguably the world’s top league (the Barclays Premier League) he must be considered, but my feeling is that a stark difference exists between the club game even at the top level and internationals and some guys are better suited for one game or the other. Eddie Lewis is a player I would argue has always been a better international than club player. The same for Frankie Hedjuk. Spector, much like Taylor Twellman may be the opposite. But Spector is still only 21 and should he do something spectacular for West Ham, he warrants another look but for now I would not bother with him.
No position has the glut of potential players nor the importance of the twin holding midfielders in Bob Bradley’s “bucket” formation. The bulk of playing time in 2007 went to Michael Bradley, Benny Feilhaber and Rico Clark in this role. However towards the end of 2007 Maurice Edu, the MLS Rookie of the Year began to emerge as a legitimate threat to play regularly and other capable options such as the veteran Pablo Mastroeni, and youngsters Danny Szetela, Sacha Kljestan, Dax McCarty and Greg Dalby are available.
Feilhaber hasn’t gotten an opportunity to show his stuff with soon to be relegated Derby County in England. However, Feilhaber is too skilled a player, who is probably the American with the skill set that most resembles John O’Brien to be written off entirely. Nonetheless, Feilhaber must find himself another club preferably outside of England before he is called back into the national team. While English Football is a perfect game for some, like Brian McBride (who has quite frankly been more effective in the precision aerial based EPL than the ground slop that for years was MLS) it’s not good for others like Feilhaber who are more Latin oriented in their game.
Michael Bradley has been scoring goals at a torrid pace in Holland. We thus know Bradley is an outstanding finisher but his service and link up play with the attack is poor to say the least. Also we saw he doesn’t play off of Rico Clark particularly well against Mexico, unlike Clark and Feilhaber who seem to play off one another very well. Bradley has to be in squad going forward but he needs to develop a better understanding of the players around him and the system his father, the manager is trying to run.
Maurice Edu and Rico Clark both bring a toughness, both mental and physical to the fold. But neither has the skill nor technical ability of Bradley or Feilhaber going forward into the attack. Both should however figure in qualifying and 2010 as valuable reserves.
Bob Bradley’s bucket formation doesn’t provide for a true #10 to slide behind the attackers so distribution and service is critical from the wide midfielders. It has become apparent since last year’s Gold Cup that Bob Bradley sees Landon Donovan as a right sided player who has the freedom to come inside. Donovan continues to be the most skilled and talented American player, so it is bit disconcerting to see him pushed out wide. However, the new position may have its benefits for Donovan as his speed and crossing ability are far better than that of Clint Dempsey who seized the same position in the later Arena years. Sal Zizzo is a young option out on the right side, but Ben Olsen who seems to have been forgotten about by Bradley is once again healthy and infinitely tougher than most other American players. Olsen can play wide on right side or in the holding role. At 30, Olsen still has some good years ahead of him and Bradley needs to bring him back into the fold. Eddie Gaven is a player many in US circles have been high on for a long time, but even at just 21 it seems Gaven is not going to develop into the type of player he was regarded to potentially be. Brian Mullen is another possible option to add depth in qualifying but not a world cup quality player by any stretch of the imagination. Lee Nguyen has failed to develop the way many of us had hoped he would but his recent move from PSV to Randers FC in Denmark may get him kore playing time and another look from Bradley. Pat Noonan in my opinion isn’t good enough for international play and if we see him again that is a very bad sign as to the depth of the US player pool.
The left side is more muddled but contains some excellent good options. DaMarcus Beasley is the clear front runner but his recent very serious injury while playing for Rangers has brought the rawness of the rest of the options at this position forward. Bobby Convey was a prodigy who at 16 began playing for DC United. But Convey’s club performances with DC United and Reading haven’t been matched by his national team work. He is a hustler but seems to have lost his way lately with poor positioning at times and also the tendency to drift in and out of games. Brad Davis showed a great ability on set pieces against Sweden and then promptly got hurt. Young options on the left side include Stuart Holden and Arturo Alvarez, both of whom are high class players going forward with some questions marks defensively. Then of course we return to the subject of Eddie Lewis. Lewis cannot play 90 minutes any longer at this level. But his crossing ability and sense of positioning probably continue to make him a better option in critical qualifiers late in matches than anyone else save Beasley at this position. Freddy Adu is another option out here but it is difficult to place a player in a position he doesn’t fully embrace. Steve Sampson learned this the hard way with John Harkes many years ago. However, Adu needs to be willing to play out wide on the left side or risk not being part of the US setup under Bradley. Adu is too small and too cute in his habits quite frankly at this point to play up front in my opinion. Justin Mapp could also be in the mix come qualifying if he can stay healthy.
Jozy Altidore proved in his last two senior national team appearances (vs Sweden and Mexico) that he is miles ahead of the opposition at forward. In Bob Bradley’s 4-4-2 bucket formation, two attacking players are required. Altidore is comfortable with the ball at his feet and is a lethal target in the air. Until Eddie Johnson proves he is durable and willing to run at guys using his natural speed I wouldn’t bother including him in any qualifiers. Charlie Davies, while still raw and Brain Ching who can play with his back to goal and is good in the air are better option. Taylor Twellman is worth another look because I have hunch he’ll play very well off of Altidore. Josh Wolff is getting upwards in age but I would keep an eye on his play for 1860 Munich. Wolff has in the past proven he can both set up and score goals in big games, something else no other eligible US forward has proven. Still a Wolff call up would be a sign that we are in long term trouble in the attack. Kenny Cooper’s injuries and lack of development from the time that Manchester United signed him at 18 have me concerned he like Gaven, Specter and several other young Americans who began their careers with high hopes will never develop into a capable international.
This brings me to subject of Clint Dempsey. No player gives more for the national team or paints American soccer in a better light abroad than Clint Dempsey. He has to be part of any and all US setups going forward. But what exactly is his role? I don’t like where Bradley plays him because for all his heart and desire he isn’t as skilled as Landon Donovan and should not be the focal point of the US attack instead of Donovan. Dempsey can never be a #10 and isn’t a forward either. So where should he play?
I don’t like Dempsey as an attacker up top, but I will admit finding a solution for his position as well as Donovan’s is very tricky. If Dempsey slides back to the right side, it is possible Freddy Adu could play right behind Altidore and Donovan in a 4-3-1-2, but that would require Bradley to shelve one of the two holding midfielders and play down the spine of the field something he doesn’t seem to prone to entertaining. Coach Bradley’s style seems to rely on flank play, something that any American team should stress. This is why Bradley’s approach I believe is much more likely to succeed than Arena’s that relied on the skill of John O’Brien and Claudio Reyna in the midfield and used the wide mid fielders as supporting players more often than not.
I think a solution to the glut of midfielders and some of the US’ other tactical awkwardness is to go back to a three man back line as Bruce Arena often used in the 1999 to 2002 time period. In this backline I would slide Carlos Bocanegra out wide anchor the middle with Oguchi Onyewu and then place Steve Cherundolo on the right side. This re-alignment would rely heavily on the two holding midfielders keeping their position and allowing the side to keep its shape throughout the match. Truthfully I am not terribly comfortable with this suggestion, but if Bradley insists on playing two holding midfielders, the only way to put Dempsey, Donovan and Adu together in an attacking formation would be to add an attacking central midfielder and to take Donovan off the right flank.
No easy decision exist for Bradley going forward. Our talent pool is deeper than ever, but we lack the experienced class internationals like the Eddie Pope’s and Claudio Reyna’s that have continued to move the national team forward. We also lack the natural leaders like Paul Caligiuri, Earnie Stewart and John Harkes that were the lynchpin of the development of the national team in the 1990s. Bradley’s job is made more difficult by heightened expectations and interest in the national team. I for one believe he is up to doing this job but must take a view towards qualifying first and then figuring 2010 out later.