By Neil W. Blackmon
First thought on the US Gold Cup team? Bob Bradley…riverboat gambler? What happened to the guy who started Ricardo Clark in the biggest match he ever managed?
Yesterday’s media conference call was easily the most fascinating of the long-tenured USMNT manager’s career, as he fielded all manner of questions in the wake of the release of the 2011 Gold Cup Roster. A list that nearly every media outlet covering the team anticipated would be a meat and potatoes event with little to no surprises turned out to be the opposite: a 23 man list with notable exclusions, interesting additions, and at least one shocker—the inclusion of Turkish 2nd division player Freddy Adu, yes, the same guy who once did Sierra Mist commercials with Pele. The inclusion of the seemingly lost-in-the-wilderness “American Maradona” wasn’t the only surprise—but it was the largest among a group that in the end seems to be a very attack-oriented roster featuring offensive-minded players with a diverse range of skillsets, defensive liabilities included. Before we dive into deeper analysis, here are the twenty-three patriots selected by Bob Bradley who will attempt to claim a regional championship and qualify for the 2013 Confederations Cup this June.
Goalkeepers (Club, League, Caps): Tim Howard (Everton, EPL, 58), Marcus Hahnemann (Wolves, EPL, 8), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake, MLS, 4)
Defenders (Club, League, Caps, Goals): Carlos Bocanegra (Etienne, France, 87, 12), Oguchi Onyewu (Twente, Holland, 59, 6), Jonathan Spector (West Ham United, English Championship, 30, 0), Jonathan Bornstein (UANL Tigres, Mexico, 37, 2), Steve Cherundolo (Hannover 96, Bundesliga, 65, 2), Tim Ream (New York Red Bulls, MLS, 3, 0), Eric Lichaj (Leeds United, English Championship, 3,0), Clarence Goodson (Brondby, Denmark, 8,2)
Midfielders (Club, League, Caps, Goals): Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy, MLS, 130,45), Clint Dempsey (Fulham, EPL, 70,19), MB 90 (Aston Villa (loan), EPL, 52,8), Maurice Edu (Glasgow Rangers, Scottish Premier League, 21,1), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht, Belgium, 26,4), Robbie Rogers (Columbus Crew, MLS, 10,1), Benny Feilhaber (New England Revolution, MLS, 38,2), Jermaine Jones (Blackburn Rovers, EPL, 4,0), Freddy Adu (Rizespor, Turkish 2nd Division, 15,2)
Forwards (Club, League, Caps, Goals): Jozy Altidore (Bursaspor (loan), Turkish 1st Division, 34,10), Juan Agudelo (New York Red Bulls, MLS, 4,2), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes, MLS, 1,0)
Before a bullet point discussion of the surprises, we should provide a disclaimer against the “noise in the system” that is quite critical of some of Bob Bradley’s roster choices. It is difficult, of course, to not be critical when a coach takes chances. People yesterday in the Twitter universe and on various message boards where such things are discussed and rehashed until they are blue in the face were irritated with a few of the exclusions. To those folks, a simple tapping of the brakes might be necessary. Remember that fringe players and the guys Bradley “took a chance” with are just that—fringe players. With the exception of the injured Stu Holden and USMNT regular Jay DeMerit, who we correctly identified would be left off the roster this go round—Bradley’s core remains intact. We’ve written that this tournament will be won or lost by that core—a group of seven or eight players that includes Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, MB 90, Carlos Bocanegra and to a lesser extent Jermaine Jones, Maurice Edu and Oguchi Onyewu. Those are the guys who will eat up most of the minutes, and Bradley has those guys on the roster with that understanding. Stating this important point a bit differently: it isn’t as if Bradley has altered his personnel formula for winning. Those readers pining for a Jurgen Klinsmann, for example, should keep in mind that any roster the German might have picked would probably bear a striking similarity to the one Bradley released yesterday.
With that disclaimer stated, let’s discuss the surprises, starting with the goalkeepers:
Nick Rimando was a safe choice, and Real Salt Lake fans concerned about him missing time to sit on the bench should get over it. Bradley is most likely not pleased with Brad Guzan, who is unavailable due to a wedding. Either Guzan can’t read a calendar, or he is the most whipped player in the history of the US Men’s National Team. Either way, his limited availability put Bradley in a bind. Unwilling to risk having the extremely untested David Yelldell as his third option, Bradley went with someone he trusts, Nick Rimando, on the remote-as-Mars chance that both his 1 and 2 succumb to injury during the competition.
Eric Lichaj’s selection is striking because it is a bit of out-of-the-box thinking for Bob Bradley. Lichaj is a young Steve Cherundolo “lite” type player, one who is technically gifted as a passer and offensive-minded. Lichaj, mostly through lack of experience, lacks Cherundolo’s understanding of risk, and as such is sometimes caught too far forward. He sometimes seems lackadaisical in his defense-first obligations—which is a Bradley mantra, and part of the reason his selection is an example of Bradley thinking “outside the box.” Bradley mentioned Lichaj as a potential candidate at left back, which proves Bornstein isn’t a lock to start, and also indicates that Bradley is as aware as we all are that the position continues to be the most troublesome in the US player pool. His youth, coupled with the selection of NYRB stud Tim Ream indicates the United States is serious about revamping a backline that will look drastically different very soon, perhaps even in World Cup qualifying.
Timothy Chandler’s omission was odd, even with Bradley’s stated reason—“fatigue”, and Jeff Carlisle is right to write that it is the most disappointing choice. Yes, Chandler just completed his first season abroad with Nuremburg. But he only played about half the slate—so fatigue probably shouldn’t be a great issue. What is more likely, and has been pointed out on other sites, is that Nuremburg didn’t want to part with Chandler because they value him as a young talent and thought he should have an extended summer. Bradley didn’t win the war with them for a regional championship, and perhaps to store some goodwill in the bank, didn’t call the dynamic, speedy side back in. It is a blow, no question—this is not a team with a great deal of pace and Chandler proved in his brief cameos that he is capable of changing the dynamics of a game on the flanks. Jen Chang wrote that had Chandler been on this roster, he, along with Juan Agudelo, would have been the most coveted young talent the roster possessed—and that’s true. But he isn’t and given that Cherundolo was guaranteed to start anyway—we should move on. The good news is there seems to be little reason, if you believe Bradley’s comments, to think Chandler is rethinking his USMNT allegiances, and even if he were, he’s not yet eligible to play for Germany at this point in his career. If Chandler were to wait out Germany, even with his prodigious talents it is probably a “wrong place, wrong time” situation—as the German fullbacks Phillip Lahm and Jerome Boateng aren’t exactly aging relics, and Stuttgart defender Sedar Tasci is even younger and has the advantage of having played in the German youth system, which is something that is highly valued in that country’s soccer federation.
Alejandro Bedoya’s exclusion is more of a statement about Bradley’s perception of Major League Soccer than anything else. Bedoya’s exclusion most certainly came at the expense of Columbus Crew winger Robbie Rogers, and while you could argue that Rogers isn’t the best left wing option from Major League Soccer (probably Brad Davis), his inclusion does certainly speak to Bradley’s opinion of the league. Bedoya is playing well in Sweden, but a compelling argument can be made that MLS at this point is markedly better competition, and as such Rogers, whose form isn’t as good, gets the benefit of the doubt. Rogers, like Bedoya, is only a fringe player, so I’m not certain people should be overreacting, but as that is the nature of the business it is worth noting that like Alejandro, Rogers is capable of providing the US speed and width, two things it certainly lacks. Bradley is desperate for speed, and Rogers is a track star compared to his other options, including the aforementioned Brad Davis. The Yanks Are Coming’s guess? Rogers’ selection becomes an afterthought as he doesn’t feature for more than ten minutes in the competition. In the end, it has been suggested that Bradley has simply had a long-time love affair with the immense “on paper talent” of Robbie Rogers, and that’s why he’s included. We at TYAC don’t think so. First, Bedoya hasn’t been any more productive than RR in an American shirt. That’s a harsh reality. Second, as stated, Bradley seems to value Rogers’ competition more than Bedoya’s—and that was probably a tiebreaker. Bradley’s statement on the matter bears this out: “In some cases you have to make tough decisions on guys who fit in the same category, and in this particular case decisions went in favor of some other players.” What does that mean? Well, when you think about all factors (form, league, etc)—it means certain things are valued—in this case, Rogers playing against better players here in the States than Bedoya does in Sweden.
Freddy Adu. Wow. Here’s where Bob gets his “riverboat gambler” merit badge. The move is shocking. Yes, TYAC did officially put Adu back on the USMNT radar a month or so ago given a run of good form in Turkey. But we certainly didn’t put him on the “Gold Cup consideration” list. It was more of a “We wouldn’t be shocked if he were called into a friendly this autumn” type gesture. After all, the Turkish 2nd division is a far cry from soccer in Sweden or in MLS. Yet, here Adu is, back on the senior national team for a critical tournament. Why? Two reasons, we think.
First, Bradley seems to finally respect more than Adu’s talent (which, by the way, is still immense). His comments reflect a new-found respect for Adu’s willingness to put in the work to become a more complete player and more mature person. Freddy didn’t give up—and Bradley was waiting to see what happened when a young player with so much promise found his back against the wall. “Freddy is a player that certainly we all know, at different times, has shown some soccer abilities that are special,” Bradley said. “He hasn’t always been able to make them count in different situations at different levels. But we respect the fact that he made this move to go to a smaller club because he had to show people he was willing to do whatever to keep going.” That’s a ringing endorsement of Freddy’s character that he’s never received before—and probably one that is earned.
Second, there is a tactical justification, especially given the other midfielder reserves chosen: Robbie Rogers, Sacha Kljestan, Benny Feilhaber. Adu provides a fourth attacking option with a diverse and creative skillset on the goal-scoring side of the ball. All of these attacking options indicate Bradley’s experimentation with the 4-3-2-1 or some variation may not be over (rightly so, we might add), and Adu can be utilized to exploit space on the flanks if the US decides to go in that direction. This could be particularly effective late in matches when opposing teams are tired, as Adu has reasonably good pace and could do well taking advantage of space created by Clint Dempsey, whose propensity to make flank-to-center diagonal runs is especially high late in matches. This is certainly a possible use for Adu, and so is his ability to score from distance or on a spot kick, which could come in handy should the Yanks be chasing a goal late against Mexico or Costa Rica, the only two sides capable of pushing them to the brink in this tournament.
Before we move to forwards, a brief note on Sacha Kljestan. This was another pick lamented by large portions of the fan base. That’s a shame. Kljestan has a diverse offensive skillset, has proven he is willing to defend at the club level, and most of all, is versatile—Anderlecht utilized him in a variety of different ways this year depending on opponent and situation. That’s a hallmark of a solid substitute and a reason more than anything for his unpredictable playing time—and it is exactly what he brings to the USMNT. Kljestan played two or three poor matches for the States two years ago, but for whatever reason—the moustache, the hot girlfriend, the whining after the failed Celtic trial—has become a popular scapegoat whose skills are often belittled (ignorantly) by a large spread of the fan base. This is a player who has multiple goals in a US shirt and has been a team leader at all stages leading to his senior team inclusion—it is time to give him another chance.
Really, the CD 9 injury is a nice cover for what most of us thought: he isn’t ready and Bob knew it. Chris Wondolowski called his inclusion a “dream come true”, and it makes a decent amount of sense. Sure, there are fans clamoring for Teal Bunbury to be fully integrated into the US squad. To them, we suggest waiting for World Cup qualifying. Bunbury will be an important piece. But purely based on form, Wondolowski deserves this opportunity, perhaps especially because he has been one of the most-marked men in MLS this year, and although San Jose has struggled, most its opportunities to score have come through him. Yes, Wondo isn’t a particularly great player if he plays alone up to—but Agudelo or Altidore will likely be present to help him, so that deficiency shouldn’t matter that much.
In addition, Wondo is terrific moving off the ball—better, for example, than the excluded (somewhat harshly, given his form, Herculez Gomez), which actually plays well with the strength of USMNT sideback Steve Cherundolo. Remember that part of the reason for Wondo’s monstrous year last year was the reemergence of Bobby Convey as a legitimate, marauding threat on the flank—one capable of providing a good off-the-ball mover with the service they need to flourish after earning good position. That’s exactly what players like Steve Cherundolo and to an extent Jon Spector provide, and it is a reason to get excited about Wondo’s inclusion, instead of lamenting the use of another MLS forward not suited for the international level (read: Conor Casey). Our friends at The Shin Guardian have more on Wondo’s strengths here, and while they are right to point out that Convey is deployed on the left, there is no real reason to think he can’t be effective on crosses from the right, as we’ve mentioned above.
Lastly, Bob Bradley’s defense of Jozy Altidore will be rewarded, and that’s TYAC’s first bold Gold Cup prediction. Call it a hunch—but we think Altidore is about to have a break out tournament. Bradley certainly has all the faith in the world in the 21 year old, noting that he is an important part of the United States’ future and has played a big role in various USMNT campaigns—the Confed Cup, World Cup qualifying, the World Cup. Altidore has been through the wars. He has faced adversity and he’s been honest about it. Yes, his play with his back to the goal has been suspect, particularly of late—but he’ll have help, likely from Clint Dempsey or even Juan Agudelo, and he’s strong enough against the smaller CONCACAF defenders to exploit his speed and strength on the ball. We think that spells a big tournament.