By Neil W. Blackmon
Obviously, this was a slow news week. Fortunately, there was at least one big story: Bob Bradley expects to announce his final roster for the 2011 Gold Cup in the next two weeks, with a target release date set in a five day period, May 16-20. As most our readers know, the tournament this year serves as the qualifier for the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil. As such, the Americans will be very hungry and will send a top-flight team with one goal: win the regional championship . Doing so in 2007 proved to be an invaluable experience for the Yanks, who utilized the 2009 Confederations Cup as a dress rehearsal for the World Cup the next summer. It wasn’t just beating Spain that was invaluable—although from a confidence level that can’t be marginalized—it was the little things: training ground and travel familiarity, getting acclimated to the hotels, the food and the vuvuzelas. There won’t be any vuvezelas in Brazil (or we at least hope not), but the opportunity to again become acclimated and comfortable in another World Cup host country is invaluable and more than enough incentive to win a tournament.
Of course, beating a strong Mexico side is a pretty good reason too, and one can speculate that this is a fundamental reason Bradley is naming this unit earlier than he has in either of the two previous Gold Cup tournaments he has managed. There are two advantages to the early roster, at least in the view of this writer. First, unlike the previous two continental championships, the Americans have only one friendly before the tournament begins in just over a month in Detroit against Canada. That’s a high-profile friendly against Spain, hardly a match where you want to be tinkering with your roster choices. Even if deadlines forced a change before that friendly, there are advantages simply to training with your first-team and only your first-team for that friendly. The Americans haven’t had an extended training camp since last summer, and while the Gold Cup camp isn’t long, it is at least a bit longer than what Bradley has had to work with over the last year and he’ll want to use it to rebuild chemistry and unit cohesion that has been lacking somewhat with the mix and match sides we’ve seen take the pitch against Argentina and Paraguay. The United States would love a result against Spain, but more than that, they will want to be certain that they get ninety minutes of cohesive soccer from the first group, particularly if Bradley is indeed going to change the formation for the summer. Of paramount importance will be the back four, where a foursome that is different at least in some respects than the World Cup group will start—and Spain presents an immense challenge that extended training together can help alleviate.
Second, the early roster selection time provides ample notice to MLS managers to adjust accordingly, and a bit of space for Bradley to make necessary changes and still have a camp where those changes can be integrated. For example, if Bradley selects Teal Bunbury, Peter Vermes could either play his forward or rest him in the build-up to the competition. It is unlikely, to be honest, that Vermes will rest Bunbury, but certainly MLS understands how important the competition is to the USMNT and American managers in particular may be willing to exercise restraint to assure player health. In MLS more than the EPL, national team success is definitively good for the league, so there is at least the chance MLS managers will be accommodating if given early notice. Even if that scenario does not come to pass—Bradley still gets a camp to replace an injured player. Sticking with the Bunbury example—if Teal hurts himself in either of Kansas City’s final May matches: at Sounders and at Colorado Rapids—Bradley has time to replace him and train his replacement with the first unit. That’s a positive and another reason I commend Bob Bradley for the “week early” announcement.
The disadvantage to releasing his roster a week early, if there is one, is simply that it limits the time Bradley has to make his final roster choices. Bradley faces a few tough decisions, particularly in the back four and at forward, and by naming his roster a week early he eliminates “final looks.” That could be bad news for a “don’t know if he’s ready” guy like Charlie Davies—who could show fans something the weekend after the roster is released only to have it be irrelevant to his squad inclusion. In the end, however, this isn’t a reason to prefer waiting the extra week. After all, the tough decisions all involve “fringe players” and substitutes—even at forward—where Jozy Altidore and Juan Agudelo are the only certain inclusions and the real tough decision is who to start, not who to include. As much as it pains American fans to hear—the brutal truth is that not including one fringe player at the expense of another usually isn’t the difference between winning a tournament and losing, and most certainly will not be the difference this summer. This tournament will be decided by the performances of about fourteen Americans, at least in the view of this writer, and in fact you could argue it will be decided by the performances of what I call the “Stable Seven”: Tim Howard, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Maurice Edu, and the coach’s son, MB Not In The 18. The roster will have twenty-three players—seven or eight will mean the difference between Mexico finally defeating an American “A” team for a continental championship this century or the Americans maintaining regional primacy, at least at the national team level. With all of these factors in mind, we should applaud Bradley for making his decision a week early.
Fringe players and substitutes are certainly important too, even if it is unlikely that they will decide the Americans fate this summer. With that in mind, let’s evaluate the tough choices Bradley has to make, and speculate two weeks early on whom he will select to wear the red, white and blue this summer, with the locks denoted in bold below the position name.
LOCKS: Howard, Hahnemann
This is clearly the easiest selection area for Bradley, with one caveat. Obviously, this is Tim Howard’s tournament to win or lose. Brad Guzan, recently off a successful loan to Hull City, is a reliable number two, but here’s the rub: Guzan is getting married this summer. He has suggested that he would be available later in the tournament and can play—but that is up to Bob. Bradley will want three goalkeepers—and one can at least speculate that the third will be who it usually is, Marcus Hahneman. The question then becomes whether Bradley wants to risk playing with only two goalkeepers early in the tournament. If he doesn’t, the only viable MLS option is Nick Rimando, especially after the shaky start to the campaign stateside for young up and comer Sean Johnson. I think Bradley will opt out of MLS if he doesn’t bring Guzan, and bring recently capped David Yelldell. That said—I expect Guzan to be on the bench by the quarterfinal. Net result? No changes from the South African side.
LOCKS: Bocanegra (starter), Cherundolo (starter), Onyewu, Ream, Goodson
Should be eight defenders on the roster regardless of whether Bradley opts to bring three strikers or four. That’s the largest question facing the side, at least in my view—but I think one less striker will mean what it traditionally means in the international game—one more midfielder. Defense shouldn’t be affected. Here’s what we know for sure: Steve Cherundolo will start at right back, Carlos Bocanegra will start somewhere. The other two starters are probably contingent on form in the build-up. Bradley and his coaches have scouted aggressively in the past two months in anticipation of such a starter fight, and the good news is the likely candidates list for the remaining six spots that will produce two starters is small—at most eight names: Timmy Chandler, Eric Lichaj, Jonathan Spector, Oguchi Onyewu, Tim Ream, Omar Gonzalez, Jon Bornstein, Clarence Goodson. Note only Ream and Gonzo are MLS guys—and as good as Nat Borchers has been for RSL this year and last, his lack of inclusion in the last set of friendlies is a good indicator he’s not in the final cut group. My guess? Chandler is safe, Gonzalez and Lichaj are omitted in favor of Bornstein and Spector for the final two spots, with Gooch, Ream, and Clarence Goodson locks. For those of you who care about such things- I like the starters from left to right to be Bocanegra, Ream, Gooch, Cherundolo.
LOCKS: Landon Donovan, Deuce, MB 90, Maurice Edu, Jermaine Jones
Certainly may end up being nine spots if Bradley doesn’t trust his forwards as much as he trusts Clint Dempsey to play forward. In fact, I almost like that so much I want to type it again and hope someone at US Soccer is paying attention. In the end, though, expect eight midfielders and four forwards, with the five listed above most certainly on the squad. Again, a glut of holding midfielders means MLS inclusion is limited, as Kyle Beckerman of RSL will be left on the outside looking in. The bottom line is Bradley’s winger options are limited, and even though both Sacha Kljestan and Benny Feilhaber are better when they involves themselves centrally than on the wings, they are at least adequate out wide. Alejandro Bedoya is the wild card—he’s off to a hot start in Sweden and certainly presents valuable winger depth, so that selection would begrudgingly make sense. Jose Torres is playing regularly at Pachuca again, but you wonder if it is too little too late. The other interesting possibility is the revitalized Red-Cardo Clark, who is back in the starting eleven in Germany and making a strong push for inclusion. In the end, I think Bradley’s last name is Bradley and the only person he could justifiably exclude in favor of the in-form Clark is MB Not In the 18, which simply won’t happen. As such, I expect this list to be: Landon, Deuce, MB 90, Mo Edu, Jermaine Jones, Feilhaber, Kljestan and Bedoya simply because he provides an option out wide.
LOCKS: Jozy Altidore, Juan Agudelo
Before you flood the comment section in protest—understand that Jozy Altidore has been through these competitions in the past and he isn’t in dreadful form. Sure, it hasn’t been great, but no one knows that more than the 21 year old Altidore and I can’t envision a scenario where he is left off the team altogether, even if he does not start. Agudelo has earned a spot—the question is how much he will play. His best role? Probably a Chicharito early at United super sub type role.
Now, let’s discuss who people want to discuss, Charlie Davies. I wholeheartedly disagree with a Soccer By Ives assessment that “the speed is there”, and have written as to why it most certainly isn’t, at least on the “second level”, here. This doesn’t mean Davies is out of the picture- just that he still has progress to make and two weeks might not show Bradley enough to merit inclusion. He’s in the mix though, and we will certainly monitor the situation. That said, let’s correct one misconception—and here I agree with Ives–Herculez Gomez isn’t competing with CD9. He’s a different forward, and his real competition in my view is Edson Buddle. He’s scoring and playing well in Mexico and Bradley just scouted him last week—so I imagine Herc is on the roster. That leaves Teal Bunbury or Davies, and Bunbury’s rapport with Agudelo and less questions about his form give him a slight edge.
Agree? Disagree? We welcome comments and hope there is a good discussion.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder and Editor-In-Chief of The Yanks Are Coming. You can reach him at email@example.com and can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.