February 2010

State of the Disunion (Part I)

Nearly two weeks ago, the President’s State of the Union Address struck a hopeful and at times confrontational tone. Informing both the ineffective Congress and an impatient country that there remained much work to be done, the President also noted with optimism that there was reason for hope and that happier days were around the corner. The “can do spirit” and centrism of the speech was half-Reagan, half-Clinton, a beckoning to lawmakers to stop saying “No” and get to work. It wasn’t exactly “Morning in America” type stuff—but there was at least cause for the audacious to hope amid a continuing climate of uncertainty, and yes, the Christmas terror scare—fear. In our little world as Yanks soccer fans, I would say the speech’s general tone recited an all-too-familiar narrative. In the world of metaphor, the President may as well have been speaking about the state of the US MNT this February, sixteen weeks before we board the plane for South Africa. There is a climate of uncertainty and to some extent fear. There is much work to be done. It’s not exactly “Morning in America” for Bobbo’s side, but it isn’t yet a Tim Burton film either.

When friends ask “Do you want the bad news first or the good news?” I’ve always been a “Give me the bad news first” guy. We’ll begin with the uncertainty and the stuff we try not to think about except in the darker corners of our mind. The American offense is in a state of disarray at worst and stasis at best. While the last three national team efforts haven’t, we hope, been sides resembling the group that will take the field in South Africa, goals have been terribly difficult to produce. Even with first-choice man Charlie Davies on a miraculous road to recovery, the situation up top can only be described with a hopeful panic. There has been nothing in any of the three previous national team efforts to suggest that the Yanks have a player that can be even remotely as effective as Chuck D. This is true even when Bradley has changed what is required of that player—deciding to deploy a hold-up player with less quickness that can wait for an advancing midfielder to make a run or play the ball to Altidore. Conor Casey has looked dreadful in that capacity, and Kenny Cooper’s time on the training table has derailed that option, for the time being. Brian Ching is a tireless worker and it is promising to see him in the Tampa match camp, but he’s not likely to score the ball with any individual creativity and of late his first touch has been lacking in national team appearances. Option B, which was to find a poor man’s Chuck D has been about as successful as the Maginot Line was in repelling the Nazis. Jeff Cunningham was Glen Beck useless in the Honduras match (against a Honduras B Team), and Robbie Findlay’s play in the same match was as inspiring as watch the New Jersey Nets run their motion offense. If you like losing, Robbie’s the ticket. As such, our best strategy at least as of February is to hope Charlie Davies is on the airplane.

Now, let’s suppose Brian Ching works. This still will require a more effective midfield, particularly in helping the attack. Here again, the state of the Union is problematic. The news that Clint Dempsey’s knee injury would not, in fact, cause him to miss the World Cup, thwarted American visions of the apocalypse, unless you live in the Northeast, and you’ve just dealt with the Snowpocalypse. That said, there are two ways of looking at the Dempsey injury. The glass half-full vision is outlined in this nice piece by Andrew Hush of ESPN three weeks ago. Hush argues that Dempsey has been worked to death by EPL Duties, a long summer with the USMNT and Fulham’s intensive, Europe-aided schedule the past year and an “enforced break provides a perfect opportunity to recharge his batteries ahead of a huge summer.” There is no doubt the importance of Dempsey, especially in a possible world without Davies, where his ability in and around the box make him a potential if not the likely candidate to play in Chuck D’s spot this summer. Perhaps a needed holiday is exactly what is needed for Dempsey to have the enormous tournament the Yanks successes will demand. The glass half-empty version is that Dempsey’s “rest” could in fact translate to “rust.” A not-match-fit Deuce could damage the potency of an American attack that features only one other player with a World Cup goal to his name (Landon Donovan).  Worse yet, an out-of-form, less confident Deuce will demand more out of the U.S. midfield in terms of help in the attack, meaning not only will Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan have to provide more on both sides of the ball to compensate, but a true attacking threat will need to emerge to even hope to threaten England and its brilliant midfield on June 13.

Who will be this “true attacking threat” from the midfield? Your guess is about as good as mine here but thus far the prognosis has been far from good. Robbie Rogers has been largely ineffective in his recent national team forays. Stu Holden seems the logical choice, but he’s got a mild knock in England already and even if he does recover quickly as expected he appears to have an uphill battle to see playing time with his new club before the World Cup. Holden’s impressive work rate, passing ability, and particularly accurate set pieces are all arguments in his favor, but a World Cup is a tough place to find your fitness. Physically, and at times technically, Sacha Kljestan is the most similar player to Deuce. His form at the end of the MLS season was outstanding and his efforts against Honduras were certainly better than average. That said, he’s running out of opportunities to regain Bradley’s trust after a horrid summer and he may be better suited to a central midfield role, which appears to be the deepest spot on the Yanks roster.

After Kljestan, the options who are legitimate threats to aid the American attack from the midfield are essentially the inconsistent but at times masterful Benny Feilhaber, and the two Glasgow Rangers, Demarcus Beasley and Maurice Edu. Beasley’s recent injury was nothing short of disheartening as his form leading up to the injury had been reminiscent of the pacy, technically efficient, attacking player that shined so brightly in Korea eight years ago. If he’s fit, and Walter Smith thinks he will be, he may get one last look in Amsterdam this March—but for a player lacking national team confidences, a final tryout against the Netherlands is a tall order.

Maurice Edu seems to be the next option, and if you earned a roster spot just by being a TYAC legend, Edu would be this roster’s Paul Bunyan. Edu has a small knock which is keeping him out temporarily in Glasgow, but his car has not recently been firebombed and both Walter Smith and temporary captain Lee McCulloch seem to believe he’s about a week away from a return. When we talk about Mo Edu, we think of a fundamentally sound player, strong in each area, not particularly brilliant in any one area. Sure, none other than the great Kenny Powers said that “Fundamentals are a crutch for the talentless”, but I’m not certain that’s applicable to Edu.

Instead, Mo is the man with the ball. He’s the man who can make the American midfield better than…nevermind.  Edu’s pace, tenacity, sharp passing and ability to position himself on both sides of the ball make him a classic box-to-box option and it is promising to hear Bradley admit he will give him a long look. How long he will wait for the training table regular is another question altogether. As such, the uncertainty surrounding even the optimal A-TEAM American attack (and I’m almost ready to give you a Joe Namath guarantee that Jermaine Jones won’t be joining his new mates in South Africa this summer) is a cause for deep-rooted concern and timidity in outlook as we draw ever closer to June. Like I said, the outlook isn’t a Friday night movie alone in a dark living room with a twelve pack of Zima bad, but I’ll get to “Morning in America” in my next post.

Neil W. Blackmon is a senior writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at neil@yanksarecoming.com.

Neil W. Blackmon