Neil W. Blackmon
With the failure in Honduras for the Senior team only a week and a half in the rearview, another US national team will take the field in a CONCACAF qualifying effort tonight in Puebla, Mexico, when the US Men’s U-20’s face off against Haiti (6:30 PM, Fox Soccer Network). Head Coach Tab Ramos’ side will be tasked with reversing a string of unsuccessful youth team endeavors for the US Soccer Federation this week, including but not limited to of course the failure of the U-23 side to qualify for the London Olympics. That was a failure Senior team manager Jurgen Klinsmann called “entirely inexcusable” last summer, and it was a failure that occurred with what on paper was a stronger side than Ramos has at his disposal. Nonetheless, the Americans will play a two-game qualifying group beginning tonight, and if they manage a top-two finish, will play in the all-important quarterfinals, where the winner qualifies for the Finals in Turkey this summer. In a group that also includes a talented Costa Rica team, tonight’s match against Haiti is nearly a must-win right out of the gate. Let’s take a closer look at Ramos’ roster, which includes 13 professionals, six collegiate players and one (current) USSF Development academy player.
The midfield is probably the team’s strength, featuring Luis Gil (Real Salt Lake), Jose Villareal (LA Galaxy) and Benji Joya (Santos Laguna). Gil is either the top or second-best U-20 prospect in the US player pool, depending on your opinion of Junior Flores, and he’ll be tasked with orchestrating Tab Ramos’ attack as a traditional # 10. Gil has played a good deal for Real Salt Lake across all competitions, was a standout performer at the 2009 U-17 World Cup, and he’ll need to harness that experience as a leader on Ramos’ team.
Villareal is as dynamic an attacking talent as the US have in the U-20 player pool, and his development and rise with the LA Galaxy has been nothing short of meteoric, considering he was off the development radar until two years ago. He’ll give Ramos a commodity Jurgen Klinsmann’s side is starving for– width, and he’ll likely line up wide in Ramos’ preferred 4-3-3, offering some of the creativity on the ball his manager used to display for the senior national team.
Joya is a wild-card in this bunch. Like Villareal, he wasn’t really on the US development team radar until this team presented him an opportunity, and he offers technical skills that aren’t typical of young American midfielders. He’s battling at Santos to see the field at this young stage in his career (4 appearances), but with 5 appearances for Ramos’ side, he’s clearly a player Ramos believes he can rely on at this stage.
Defensively, this team frightens you. There is no depth and the center backs are largely unproven commodities. Colorado Rapids defender Shane O’Neill is expected to marshall the back line through the qualifying stages, and while he’s still relatively new to the position, he’s the anchor of the group, which should give you an idea of what Ramos has to work with.
At forward, the most talented player is also one of the last to make the roster. Jerome Kiesewetter, a tall, physical specimen who plays with Stuttgart in Germany, gives the Americans a target forward with terrific poaching upside. Villareal can also play up front, and will add depth to a group that also includes Kaiserlautern prospect Mario Rodriguez and another Santos Laguna youngster, Daniel Cuevas. Given the questions in the back, the Americans will need to score goals, and the final friendlies, where the Americans conceded multiple goals to both Panama on two occasions, bear this out.
For two great reads on the US U-20 qualifying tournament, please check out Travis Clark’s outstanding preview piece at Top Drawer Soccer here and Brian Sciaretta’s piece for the New York Times here. We were tweeting with Clark this morning, and he suggested it’s about 50/50 whether this US development side qualifies. Given the recent run of failures, and the issues on the backline, that seems about right to us. Make sure to check out his preview, and to watch tonight.
According to the LA Galaxy and numerous other sources, Landon Donovan will rejoin the LA Galaxy in late March, ending months of speculation over whether he’d play the game again, at any level. This means, of course, that he will be unavailable for the United States in the next section of its World Cup Hexagonal qualifying campaign, a home match against Costa Rica and a trip to the Azteca.
Reacton to this news has been more interesting than the news itself. Some have expressed relief, but the more prevalent response has been criticism of Donovan for taking this long and snarky barbs about him “making his own schedule” and “not making soccer a priority.” It is the latter of these sentiments that I was afraid of when I wrote this piece asking fans to understand and let Landon have time and space about a month ago. It’s worth remembering that Donovan, like any human, is entitled to make decisions about his own life and future and he doesn’t owe anyone anything, outside of perhaps an explanation. What’s more- Landon Donovan has given his heart, soul and body to US Soccer and MLS for a decade. Burnout was natural and given his inclination to return, perhaps he has found what it is he was looking for, or at least has a formula in mind to strike a good balance between soccer and his personal life as he approaches his 31st birthday. That’s promising, and the criticisms seem to ignore most those facts.
What’s more, the reality is that Donovan would still be extremely useful to the United States in qualifying, if and when he returns to the national team fold. The team desperately needs a creative force to allow Clint Dempsey to do what he’s best at– move opportunistically and score goals. Donovan can also supply at least the idea/threat of width to a side starved for it, and his experience could be useful in the dogfight the US now faces to qualify without a playoff late next autumn. US fans would do well to acknowledge that reality and cast aside their bitterness.
Speaking of width, DaMarcus Beasley continues his fine run of form at Puebla, where he has inserted himself as a fixture in the Mexican club’s lineup and is even scoring goals with his notoriously poor right foot. Jason Davis wrote a fine piece here about how Beasley, who is only 30, would seem to be a very good option for Jurgen Klinsmann in the next qualifying matches, and it’s true- Run DMB’s inclusion seems merited for a manager who emphasizes club form, and it’s a zero-risk add given the performance the US is getting from its “wide” players at present. Beasley can’t be any worse than what’s available at present.
In Europe, Jozy Altidore scored again for AZ Alkmaar this weekend and now trails Wilfried Bony by only two goals for the league lead in Holland. Meanwhile, Franco Panizo notes that Timothy Chandler rescued FC Nurnberg from defeat by delivering a picture perfect cross from the right flank that was finished superbly by Sebastian Polter this weekend, as Nurnberg drew Hannover 96 2-2.
Fabian Johnson and Danny Williams also started in Bundesliga action this weekend, with Johnson playing 90 minutes in Hoffenheim’s 1-0 loss. Williams was turnover prone, completed only 60 percent of his passes, picked up a yellow card and was removed due to ineffectiveness after playing less than an hour in the same match, which ended a losing streak for Stuttgart.
Meanwhile, in England, Tim Howard made ten saves for Everton against Oldham Athletic in the FA Cup, but was beaten late by Mark Smith on a goal where he could have done better and looked a step slow on a devastating counter that put Oldham ahead early in the match. Howard is still an elite goalkeeper, one of the finest in the Barclay’s Premier League, but he’s had a bit of an up and down year, both for Everton and the national team, and you can bet Jurgen Klinsmann would like his form to stabilize as qualifying continues.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder and Co-Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.