So after a year-long hiatus, Roman holiday, whatever you like, I am back. Back and better (or worse) than ever.
Among other notable returns this summer include the United States men’s national soccer team back in South Africa. This time, the stakes are just a wee bit higher. If nothing else, last summer’s success in the Confederations Cup gave the Americans the belief they can compete with the best, and experience playing in the host country for World Cup 2010.
The release of last week’s 30-man squad generally evoked three different emotions: thrill, sadness, and curiosity.
How about the players that were notably absent from Bradley’s plans? Let’s start with thrill.
Conor Casey. Let’s face it, the Colorado Rapids striker couldn’t score in the Red Light District. He possesses zero technical ability and his “battering ram” style for which he is totally dependent, makes him no more than an above-average MLS forward.
Freddy Adu. Adu falls somewhere in between the thrill and sadness category. If you quizzed the average American to name as many American players as they could, I would bet that Adu would be more popular than stars such as Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. Amazing for a guy who is not going to South Africa, and is not even on the preliminary 30-man squad before coaches must cut them down to 23. The reasons for Adu’s lack of progress over the years are wide-ranging and debatable. The most logical conclusion one can reach is the following formula: MLS + 14-year old talent= disaster. More appropriate than disaster would be extremely disappointing. He has failed to find form in Portugal, France, and now Greece, thus effectively ending his World Cup dreams this summer.
In the current climate of U.S. soccer, the word sad is invariably tied with striker Charlie Davies. Davies was an unknown commodity to most U.S. fans when he burst on to the scene last year. We knew he had the blinding pace we’ve seen from players such as Eddie Johnson and Robbie Findley, but he proved his worth in our squad fairly quickly. Davies’ performance in the Confederations Cup (most notably a goal vs. Egypt, and a wonderfully-judged ball back to Landon Donovan who slotted the finish past world-class Brazilian keeper Julio Cesar), and at the Azteca (his early goal gave us our first ever lead at Mexico), cemented his place in the U.S. starting XI. Davies’ path to stardom was tragically deterred on October 13th, 2009, when he was involved in a deadly car crash. The accident threatened Davies career, but he made a miraculous recovery. Davies was said to be training lightly in March with his French club Sochaux, but the club ultimately could not give U.S. Coach Bob Bradley the clearance to select Davies for his World Cup squad. The news is incredibly disappointing to fans because there is simply no replacing him. It appears that Davies will make a complete recovery eventually, but it is unfortunate that it will not coincide with the World’s largest sporting event this summer. Expect to see number 9 in Brazil, 2014.
Kenny Cooper. This time last year, the big target man seemed destined for South Africa. He brings an element to our strike force that has been seriously lacking. He’s capable of playing with his back to goal, nice first touch, and had scored some wonder goals for FC Dallas. The former Manchester United trainee craved a move back to Europe, and ultimately landed with German second division side 1860 Munich. Battling knee injuries, Cooper failed to nail down a starting place in the team, and requested another move in January in hopes of getting back on Bob Bradley’s radar. He was loaned to English Championship side Plymouth Argyle, where his persistent knee problems and tougher competition prevented him from making a start for the Pilgrims. His lack of games gave him no chance to make the trip this summer.
Michael Parkhurst. I’ve been a fan of Parkhurst for since he made his acclaim in New England. He is cut from a different cloth in terms of the American-style player. He is aggressive, and his no regrets tackling made me a big fan. The former 2007 MLS defender of the year moved to Danish side FC Nordsjaelland, where he is starting to become a regular. When it came down to it, his lack of playing time over the last two campaigns likely cost any chance he had of being part of Bradley’s plans.
Other than these exclusions, there were really no big surprises in Bradley’s squad. There is, however, much to be determined in Bradley’s final 23 that he will take to South Africa. This is where the curiosity sets in. So let’s take an in depth look at those who will be in South Africa, and where they fit in with the team, assuming no more injuries.
KEEPERS: Tim Howard- he will start, no debate here. I would have argued before the season that Bradley should entertain bringing back Brad Freidel for one last hurrah, but their respective forms in England this year ended any such thought.
It gets interesting when talking about the backup situation. Rumor has it that Bradley may be inclined to bring only two keepers with him, which presents a dilemma. Ultimately though, expect all three to be part of the 23-man squad.
Brad Guzan- was almost certainly going to be the backup. Guzan is being nurtured as the guy in the future, but his lack of playing time at Aston Villa is troubling if something were to happen to Howard. This leads us to our next keeper…
Marcus Hahnemann- the 37 year-old brings a lot of club experience, but little international experience. He’s always been in the shadow of Kasey Keller, Freidel, and now Howard. He had a really good season with newly promoted side Wolves, and was vital towards their survival in the Premier League this season. Don’t be surprised if this form has won him the backup spot.
DEFENDERS: Carlos Bocanegra (C): Since we are healthy at the CB position, Boca is all but certain to play left back for us this summer. The versatile captain gives us experience, and is better served at fullback given our general weakness at the two positions. He’s had a recent injury setback with French club Rennes, but it should not cost him any time with the U.S.
Oguchi Onyewu: There was much excitement surrounding Guch’s transfer to AC Milan last summer. All of which has been blighted by poor form and a season-long injury. Guch went down in the last WC qualifier vs. Costa Rica, but his form at AC Milan resulted in no competitive starts for the American, and it really showed in the Costa Rica game before he was injured. He must regain his Confederations Cup form for us to have a chance this summer. If healthy, he will start at CB.
Jay Demerit: Demerit has battled an abdominal strain for much of this season at Watford, but appears to be healthy enough to go this summer. Demerit was one of the few bright spots for the relegation strugglers this season, and played really well for the U.S. last summer. The Watford captain has a lot to prove this summer, as it appears his club can’t afford to keep him, meaning he has the biggest stage to prove he is capable of playing for a bigger club. If healthy, he will partner with Guch at the back.
Jonathan Spector: Spector is still likely going to start at the right back position, but has been in abysmal form with West Ham of late. To be fair, England’s Scott Parker was the only player at Upton Park who wasn’t piss-poor this season. Spector has proved his worth on the squad. He is versatile, and has successfully deputized at the centre-halve position for the U.S. Spector is our best fullback going forward, and it will be interesting to see how Bradley judges his recent form with the relegation strugglers.
Steve Cherundolo: Plighted by injuries in 2008-2009, Dolo has played well for Hannover 96 of the Bundesliga. His form, along with Spector’s declining form, have him back in the fold for a starting job. Dolo is solid, and he brings a wealth of experience at the club and international level. While not as capable as Spector going forward, he has an outside shot to start at right back.
Jonathan Bornstein: A natural left back, who has shown some flashes over the last two years. Like Spector, Bornstein gives up more options in attack. Fair or not, he shouldered a lot of the blame for our performance against the Dutch back in March. Bornstein is a Bradley favorite, and should be safely on the 23-man squad. He would likely start if an injury at CB forces Bocanegra to move over.
Expect two of the following three to get the axe:
Clarence Goodson/ Chad Marshall/ Heath Pearce: My choice is Clarence Goodson. Despite being largely unheralded, Goodson has been one of America’s most successful European exports. Each defender has about the same amount of international experience, but Goodson’s success at a higher level at Norwegian Club IK Start makes him more dependable than Marshall in my eyes. They are similar centre-halves, big and physical, but vulnerable to getting beat directly. Heath Pearce is a long shot to make it, with injuries at full back his only real shot of going to South Africa. He does have a better shot than the odd-man out between Goodson and Marshall though.
MIDFIELDERS: Landon Donovan: No longer can you call him “Landy Cakes”, nor can you ridicule him for not testing himself (successfully) in Europe. His loan spell with Everton sparked a remarkable run of results for the Merseyside club, and you can’t help but wonder where the Toffees would have finished had they not gotten off to such a terrible start. Over the last two years Donovan has proved to be a facilitator, and the U.S. squad goes as he goes. He is a markedly improved passer. His performance in the Confederations Cup last summer had him labeled as “unmarkable” by both the Italian and Spanish press. Our hopes rest on his performance, and he has a real shot to cement himself as the greatest American player of all-time. In a perfect world, he would play in the hole behind our two strikers. Given our weakness on the left flank, Donovan almost surely will continue that role for the U.S. this summer.
Clint Dempsey: While Donovan is our best all-around player, I would argue Dempsey is our most technically gifted player. He has come on leaps and bounds the last two seasons with Fulham, and played a huge part in their run to the Europa League final. His goals against Stoke and Juventus this season were two of the finest strikes produced in England this past season. While I have him in the midfielder category, I am of the opinion that he should start up front with Jozy Altidore. As I mentioned earlier, there is no replacing Charlie Davies with our other out and out strikers. Dempsey gives us more up front than any other option available. His biggest shortcoming is his tendency to get lazy out wide, and his inability to track runs could well cost us against the likes of England.
Michael Bradley: Yeah, he’s the coach’s son. Nonetheless, he is one our best XI. Bradley is a versatile central midfielder, having been employed as an attacking midfielder and a defensive midfielder for both club and country. He has been a success overseas, impressing in Holland, and now for his current German club Monchengladbach. He is a box to box midfielder, and arguably the hardest working player on the team. His enthusiasm for the game is quite obvious in the way he plays. His biggest flaw might be his emotions out there, and we’ve seen him make some rash challenges. Bradley will be tested big time from the get go, and breaking up the attacks from the likes of Lampard and starting them the other way will be a stiff test. He’s got the experience, and an impressive showing could land him with a bigger club in England or Germany.
Maurice Edu: The Rangers centre-mid has been in fine form this season. Known for his defensive prowess, Edu is a masher with excellent tackling and work rate. There is more to his game than though, and he has the ability to play as a deep-lying midfielder given both his ability to dictate tempo. He is a good passer, and scored some big goals for Rangers this year, most notably in February’s Old Firm winner. Edu has almost certainly snatched the other CM job from Ricardo Clark, and I expect a big showing which could see him move south of Scotland, to play in the best league in world next season.
Stuart Holden: Very interesting case here. As I mentioned earlier, I think we would be best served with Clint Dempsey up front with Jozy. If this is the case, Stuart Holden will start wide right. Holden was actually signed by English club Sunderland out of college in 2005, but never made an appearance as he was attacked at a bar by a fan of rival club Newcastle. He had a fantastic season with the Houston Dynamo in 2009, and was signed by Premier League club Bolton Wanderers back in January. He started two games, and was one of the best players on the pitch in both contests, before he was unnecessarily injured in a friendly an international friendly at Holland. Sorry to break away from the professional nature of this piece, but I hope Dutch midfielder Nigel De Jong shatters both legs this summer, rendering him incapable of playing for the Oranje or Manchester City ever again after the way he played against us (wasn’t booked for a number of outrageous challenges). Holden has an outstanding right foot, and is easily the best crosser of the ball for the Americans. He doesn’t have a whole lot of pace out there, but his technical ability is enough to warrant a starting spot in my opinion. His game is similar to that of England’s David Bentley, and his threat from set pieces could be the difference in a game for us. He will either start at RM, or be a key substitute this summer.
Jose Francisco Torres: One of the brightest young American talents, but Bradley has yet to figure out where he is best suited for the Stars and Stripes. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll see the best from him until Bradley is ousted. His biggest challenge is that he is not a “Bradley player”. The Pachuca man has been one of the best players in the Mexican Primera for the last couple of seasons. When he made his first start for the U.S. at Costa Rica in an embarrassing WC qualifier, he was by far our best in the first half. On an awful pitch, Torres was our only composed player on the ball playing out of his natural position. In a bizarre move, Torres was off at half-time. Torres is one our most technically gifted players, right now, but is probably a World Cup away from really making a difference. Torres is an attacking midfielder, and was the only player who looked like scoring in Amsterdam back in March. Torres should be safe to make the final 23, and should get some playing time in the World Cup off of the bench.
Ricardo Clark: Clark is a defensive midfielder, who has exceeded expectations for the national side. Another Dynamo export, his performance landed him a contract with Bundesliga side Eintracht Frankfurt last summer. Clark was a fixture in the U.S. XI in last summer’s Confederations Cup, and really did a nice job breaking up play against the likes of Spain and Brazil. Clark’s passing is horrible at times to put it nicely, and he will have to improve if he is to make a career at the top level in Europe. He scored an important goal at Trinidad& Tobago, which ultimately was the difference in the U.S. finishing first in CONCACAF. He was injured much of his debut season in Germany, but is safe to make the squad. Expect him to play, particularly coming on late for a striker if we’re trying to hold on to a result. He has almost no shot to start over Edu now, but will have a role this summer for the U.S.
Benny Feilhaber: Benny plays as a centre-mid with club AGF in Denmark, but is truly more of an attacking midfielder. He seems to make things happen when he gets his chances, but injuries have not allowed him to do s a consistent basis. He is most memorable for his exquisite volley that sunk the Mexicans in the 2007 Gold Cup Final. Benny is a skillful player, who shows great composure on the ball, and he has been on the verge of being a regular starter for the U.S. The best display of his skill was his creation of the second goal in the monumental upset of Spain. Benny and Torres will likely duke it out for playing time off the bench in South Africa, with the two upcoming friendlies to be the best measure of their respective forms.
Of the remaining four midfielders on the 30-man roster, expect at least 3 to get cut.
Demarcus Beasley, Alejandro Bedoya, Sacha Kljestan, and Robbie Rogers will fight for MAYBE one spot on the final roster. Rogers and Bedoya really have no shot of making the team, but were merely rewarded for their efforts both club and country in the past year. Bedoya is still a few years away, but his form with Swedish club Orebro seems to indicate he has a nice future ahead of him. Rogers has loads of pace as left winger, but hasn’t really progressed at Columbus Crew as some had hoped for the WC. When he has had his chances at the top level on international football, he has failed to impress. Maybe one for the future, but virtually no chance to make it to South Africa. Kljestan is similar to Rogers in that he hasn’t been as dominant in MLS as American fans had hoped. His hat trick against Sweden last year raised many eyebrows, but he has followed that up with a string of disappointing appearances. Good on the ball, but that’s all I can say for Kljestan at the moment. He has a very slim shot of making it, but will have a chance to impress vs. Czech Republic and Turkey next week. This leaves veteran Demarcus Beasley. Four years ago, it would have been unfathomable to imagine Beasley not even part of this squad. As a result of injuries, Beasley has had little playing time for Rangers the past season two seasons, leaving doubts as to what he has left in the tank. It wasn’t long ago, 2007, where Beasley was influential in some great victories for Rangers in Europe, including a 3-0 romp over French Champions Lyon. Bob Bradley’s famed Beasley at LB experiment last year could only end in disaster. It did. This, combined with injuries, and crimes against him in Scotland (had his BMW set on fire among others), have done nothing to help his chances. In the end, I think Beasley will make it because of his experience, and his versatility. I think ultimately it could be down to him and Heath Pearce for the last spot on the team, with Beasley getting the nod (if he’s in shape).
FORWARDS: Jozy Altidore: Altidore had a forgetful season at Hull City this season, but still remains a lock to start for the U.S. His experience in Europe so far has been a humbling one, scoring just two goals over the last two seasons in England and Spain. It’s no secret that he is supremely talented, and clearly has chemistry with his American teammates that seem to be nonexistent for the Jersey native overseas. By now, everyone has seen his goal against Spain that exhibited just how strong the youngster is. He abused Barcelona and Spain star Gerard Pique; shielded him off wonderfully, and sent a rocket that Iker Casillas could only push into goal. This summer will be a strong indicator as to whether or not Jozy’s performance this past season was due to dire circumstances at the Northeast England club, or if his training efforts are as a lackadaisical as the clubs portray. He will start, and he must produce for this summer to be a success.
Brian Ching: A solid bet to make the team, despite being injured of late in the MLS. The Dynamo forward brings the most experience (sadly) to our frontline, but we know exactly what we’re going to get from him, and it’s not enough in the World Cup. If Dempsey doesn’t start up front, it will either be Ching or the in-form Edson Buddle. He will have a role with this team, and expect to see him off the bench.
Edson Buddle: Really? I know, it’s shocking. I can’t help but laugh every time I hear some U.S. fan of late say, “We need to bring in young guys like Edson Buddle”. Edson Buddle is 29. To put it in perspective, he’s older than both Landon Donovan and Demarcus Beasley who have featured in the last two World Cups. Buddle is absolutely “en fuego” with the L.A. Galaxy at the moment, and seems to be a good bet to make the final 23. Buddle has almost no experience internationally, with his only cap coming back in 2003. Even before this season, he had a good scoring record in the MLS. He has developed great chemistry with Donovan in L.A., which really boosts his chances not only to make the final 23, but possibly even start. His form might have boosted him ahead of Brian Ching in Bradley’s man, and it will be most interesting to see how they are prioritizeds in next week’s friendlies. Buddle is very strong in the air, and has improved immensely with his touch and finishing. He should at least play in the WC, with the possibility of starting if Bradley decides Dempsey must stay at RM.
Expect one of the following three to make it to South Africa, in the crapshoot of all crapshoots.
Eddie Johnson has the best shot of making it, just because of his experience. The guy scored bucket loads of goals at the youth level for the U.S., but has been lost since making the move from MLS to England. He has played well since his loan move to Greece, and actually scored two goals against the Greek giants Olympiacos. He has electric pace, but not much else. Robbie Findley is a very similar player, lot of pace, little ability. He has far less experience at the international level, and has failed to impress in his three caps. He is a bit faster than Johnson, which is his only real advantage. Herculez Gomez is the final player in question. He currently holds the distinction of being the first American to lead a foreign league in goals with Mexican Club Puebla. Gomez failed to impress in the MLS (awful sign), but he is probably the best finisher of these three. Gomez’s little international experience, comparable to Findley, leaves him almost no shot to make it. Next week’s friendlies will likely decide who makes it of the three, but given his recent form and experience, it should be Eddie Johnson.
So, if you didn’t know much about our squad, now you do. The U.S. can realistically expect to advance out of their group, but probably not any further. However, Algeria and Slovenia both like to pack it in, and breaking them down will not be near as easy as some are suggesting. There are no easy games in the World Cup, but I think this squad has the firepower to live up to the expectation of getting to the round of 16, maybe even the quarters with some luck.
We are the U.S., the mighty fucking U.S.