Neil W. Blackmon
Caleb Porter’s U-23 side, the January camp edition, fell 4-0 to the Klinsmann Camp Cupcake edition of the USMNT this weekend, and while conceding four goals to the senior side may cause some alarm among those anxiously monitoring this group’s progress, it’s the lack of goals that was somewhat surprising to those of us at TYAC. At Akron, Caleb Porter’s program became a national powerhouse despite geographic isolation from traditional recruiting hotbeds in Southern California, northern New Jersey and Atlanta by developing a unique (for American programs at least) style of play that the fine KCKRS and Philadelphia Union writer Keith Hickey has aptly dubbed “Death by 1000 passes.” (And yes, you’ve heard that label attached to other attacks before– the point is that American collegiate soccer programs typically lacked both the personnel and tactical, technical acumen to pull it off.)
The hire of Porter was an eyebrow raiser– not because those who closely follow the American system doubted his coaching talent– but because it marked the first time in the Gulati era the USSF had decided to give the coaching reins of one of its national team positions to a man who lacked head coaching experience at the professional level. It wasn’t that Porter, the former San Jose Clash player, hadn’t received offers. It was simply that he had turned them down– most recently, deciding to stay with the Akron powerhouse he’d built rather than take the DC United coaching job that ultimately went to Ben Olsen.
At Akron, Porter’s approach was to shun the traditional defensive tactics of collegiate soccer (embodied in UNCC’s cautious approach that saw them reach the College Cup this year) in favor of high-line, attacking soccer. Porter’s 4-3-3 relies on quick passes through the midfield to positions of width, which then creates spacing that can be exploited by constantly running, diagonal cutting forward play. It would be short-sighted to say that the forwards are the essential ingredient to success in Porter’s system– that area would be the midfield– but Porter’s knack for developing high-level forward talent certainly caught the eye of Jurgen Klinsmann and almost certainly is a skill that Porter will need to exploit should the Americans have any chance to medal in London this summer. Among Porter’s notable forward alums include Teal Bunbury and Darlington Nagbe of MLS, as well as Seattle Sounders winger/hybrid support 9 Steve Zakuani. Bunbury will be at Porter’s disposal for the Olympic Games, but whether he’ll be one of the forwards ultimately selected depends on a host of factors, not the least of which is a crowded, and high-celing depth chart.
Below is a list of the forwards called into any of the three different USMNT U-23 Olympic Qualifying Camps. Players selected to more than one camp are in bold. Club or collegiate affiliations in parentheses.
US U-23 Forwards Pool: Terrence Boyd (Borussia Dortmund, Germany), Conor Doyle (Derby, England), Josh Gatt (Molde, Norway), Joe Gyau (Hoffenheim, Germany), Jerome Kiesewetter (Hertha Berlin, Germany), Tony Taylor (Atletico, Portugal), Omar Salgado (Vancouver Whitecaps), Freddy Adu (Philadelphia Union), Bobby Wood (1860 Munich, Germany), Andrew Wooten (Kaiserslautern, Germany), Jann George (Nuremburg, Germany), Jack McInerney (Philadelphia Union), Will Bruin (Houston Dynamo) and Teal Bunbury (Sporting Kansas City).
What to Make of this diverse group:
There are a couple of initial observations based on this wide array of player selections. First, the reason for diversity in the group is at least partially, if not mostly, attributable to club playing time and geography. Each camp has been in a different location, and it is no surprise that players like Gyau and Boyd have only been to the European camp. This geographic and club playing time boundary should at least cause some reservation in viewing the twice-selected players as “likely” candidates, or in viewing the three camps themselves as a “fringe-possible-likely” progression.
Second, the sheer volume of players selected is a double-edged sword. Let’s not mistake the host of options for the classic “hey, that’s a good problem to have” type situation– alla any Kentucky basketball recruiting class or the Argentine team sheet at forward. That established, it isn’t the classic “if you’ve got three quarterbacks you’ve got none” type problem either. The reality is Porter is trying out a host of options because he’ll need three front men for his system to work and he’s trying to figure out if a particular combination will best suit the system. If he can’t find that combination at any particular camp (likely the selections thus far), he’s watching the camps with an eye towards who can fill a very specific role in his starting eleven, and he’s likely also eyeing what soccer folks call “impact” players– or the guy to bring on in the 60th-75th minute to change the game. With those parameters established, it is a bit easier to analyze the group that currently comprises the pool into three groups: frontrunners for starting spots, impact players and notable players omitted from camps who may find themselves on the roster for that role, and fringe guys who’ll need to show more to walk into Wembley Stadium under the American flag this summer.
Frontrunners: Despite being called into only one camp, Hoffenheim’s Joe Gyau was one of the most impressive playmakers in the German camp. Anyone who has watched this guy play at any level comes away impressed with two things. First, Gyau gives the Yanks perhaps their most talented player on the dribble since Landon Donovan. He’s also physical enough at this point to weather the Freddy Adu type concerns that come with being a creative attacker who can break down defenders. If he’s asked to man the Zakuani type role with the USMNT this summer, he’d at least have the skill set in the bank to cash that check. Gyau has had successful trial runs with the likes of Bayern Munich, and that’s the second thing that stands out: people simply don’t talk about American players the way they discuss Gyua (pronounced “Jow”). There can be disappointment associated with that expectation: an ESPN article three years ago said Gyau could start for a first division English side at age 18— no dice), but the Olympics is a contest between youth teams, and when Gyau plays limited to that level of competition, he’s an exceptionally rare talent.
Josh Gatt is a guy the meat and potatoes of the rank and file American fans have been clamoring for– just visit the comments section at any website. Here’s the thing with Gatt. Everyone has heard about the kid’s blistering pace. And he did indeed, as Deadspin put it as only they can, spend last summer “shattering ankles.” He also plays in the first eleven for the Norwegian champions– which means he’s played meaningful matches at a very high level. Gatt also has an inherent advantage over a couple other candidates like Teal Bunbury and Juan Agudelo in that he doesn’t beckon back to the Bob Bradley “old guard” Klinsmann seems to be afraid of– that is to say– he didn’t play with those teams and the only system he knows is the one he’s currently being asked to learn. That’s a good thing– because it suggests he could be a centerpiece in Klinsmann’s “new soccer culture.” That all sounds marvelous– so what gives? Gatt’s defense, that’s my guess. There will be games at the Olympics where the Americans simply don’t have the horses to dictate play. What happens when Gatt’s not simply asked to use his speed to get forward– but tasked with utilizing physicality or intelligence to find the game. Will he look lost and/or disinterested? Hard to say– but these are questions that certainly are worth asking before he is slotted into a starting spot.
Finally, Terrence Boyd, saving players not called into any of the camps for a different list, Terrence Boyd of Borussia Dortmund’s reserves has been the most consistent and dazzling of the forward candidates in camp. Boyd’s chalked up double-digit goals in Dortmund’s reserves this year, putting his physicality and strength to good use. He’s more than just a hold-up man though. Boyd has been praised overseas for his movement off the ball, and his consistency in the eighteen at finding the target. There are questions about his first touch, but Yanks fans shouldn’t fear a reprisal of Eddie Johnson, who had everything foreign clubs wanted except touch on the ball– Boyd’s problems are more related to his ability to take in passes and quickly transition them into accurate shots. Once Boyd does control the ball, his other attributes are tremendous, and it is almost unthinkable to see any Olympic Qualifying squad without him involved.
Impact Players/Notable Camp Omissions: Jozy Altidore will be an Olympian in 2012 if he is fit. He’s been quiet at Alkmaar of late, but he’s started Europa games, contributed mightily in league play, and has found the back of the net five times. While it is certainly true that Holland is an easier league to score in than his previous destinations, there has been one change in Altidore that has been monumental since he arrived in Holland: He’s fit, and he’s capable of sustaining energy for ninety minutes. Strikers like Altidore, who are a blend of physicality, strength and size are very much like NFL running backs, in that the best ones get stronger as the game goes on and defenses tire. There have been shades of that with Altidore this year and it is this Josmer that Klinsmann hopes to see with the Senior team come qualifying next autumn. This summer, Jozy gets to play with kids his own size– and it’s that opportunity both to showcase his still young and prodigious talent that makes the tournament essential for his future. Altidore could, with a great tournament, prove that his status as long-awaited heir to Brian McBride was not foolhardy, and that his time has come. What role he will play in qualifying, however, remains to be seen, as even Porter will have trouble getting him away from his club team for too long.
Juan Agudelo hasn’t featured in much of the most recent USMNT senior camp, which is a possible concern. There’s a chance this means he’s battling an injury, but also a chance he’s just not in favor with his new manager. Certainly his form and status in the New York Red Bulls pecking order confirms the latter possibility– he’s likely fourth among their forward pool with the signing of Kenny Cooper– so there are lingering questions despite his brilliant senior team start last year in South Africa. What does that mean for this team? It means Juan may have a chance to contribute in qualifying– after all, getting him matches would be a good idea for his senior team development. It also could mean he’ll have to fight his way onto the side– particularly if he’s not used to match speed and shows rust from either an injury or lack of playing time, or both.
Philadelphia Union bench spark and American Maradona Freddy Adu remains an enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a riddle. On the one hand, he’s a guy involved in probably two of the best five American goals of 2011, and his Gold Cup performance, particularly against Mexico, was the stuff we thought we would get from Freddy Adu far before he became the oldest 22 year old on Earth. That said, Adu is a different kid now. Bob Bradley often hinted that he wanted to see how Adu reacted to being a team kid, one who had faced adversity, been put through a grinder, and still came with his hard hat on to work. That’s the Adu we see today. And for Adu, whose newest “goal” is to be a starter in England or Spain at age 25, he still has so much time. That’s the hardest thing to remember when you talk about Freddy. If (big if) Freddy can improve his defense and remember to track back when things aren’t going his way– he can absolutely impact a second Olympiad. And if the Gold Cup Freddy shows up in London- well, a medal is a distinct possibility.
Sporting Kansas City’s Teal Bunbury is the classic “Bob Bradley guy” in the Klinsmann era– the guy who can’t get much of a look now and you wonder if it’s because Bob had identified him as a classic fit for his 4-4-2. Bunbury looked rusty in his camp experience, having missed the Generation Adidas tour and the European camps– but his Akron experience and rapport with Caleb Porter means he could play an essential role on this team and is almost a lock to make the roster. Improved club form early in the MLS season would be a nice thing from the Canadian-American.
Jack McInerney gets a nod in this group because he’s been involved in multiple camps. The Atlanta native and 2010 Generation Adidas product had a disappointing second year in Philadelphia, and there are definitive questions about where his role on the pitch with this team would be, but he found the back of the net in yesterday’s scrimmage against the Camp Klinscake senior team and his promising rookie campaign is not yet a distant memory. My guess on McInerney’s inconsistency: it’s a product of his age. He’s a massive talent, more fast than he looks and especially effective at finding gaps in defenses on diagonal runs that he starts late and off the ball. Chris Wondolowski has made a living in MLS moving effectively without the ball– and while the players aren’t identical– there is a bit of that strength in Union Jack’s game. A brilliant game against Houston last summer demonstrated these strengths better than I’ve described them. The bad news is that McInerney could be crowded out by more proven commodities, and the overage possibilities nearly push him out to the fringe. Carlos Ruiz’s arrival in Philadelphia bumped him off the Union depth chart– it is possible an overage forward could do the same to Jack Mac’s Olympic hopes.
Fringe Elements: Tony Taylor has seen multiple camps but the Atletico Portugal man is still on the outside looking in when it comes to Porter’s pecking order. There is a reason Porter has called him on multiple occasions, and that has to do with familiarity with the 4-3-3 system and the level at which he’s played it. He’s also garnered invaluable experience with the U-20’s– where he scored against Cameroon in the 2009 FIFA U-20 World Cup effort. The reality is, however, that his deployment at Atletico CP in Portugal is on the wing, and his talent isn’t quite on the level with the Gyau’s or Adu’s who may be tasked to play wide positions in the Porter system. A roster inclusion is not unlikely: playing time, however, is another story.
Andrew Wooten (Clan)– sorry, had to do it– has impressed in training camps and has found the net in scrimmages on a couple of occasions. The Kaiserslautern man plays in Germany, which is a critical Klinsmann “consideration requirement”— and there is certainly room for a player with his hustle and work-rate on Porter’s teams, at least through the qualifying stages. Making the actual side that takes to the pitch in London, however, remains a stretch. German counterparts Bobby Wood, Jann George and Jerome Kiesewetter are likely in the same category, but below Wooten in the pecking order.
Whitecaps talent Omar Salgado is a salivating player for the USMNT faithful. He did experience some growing pains in MLS last season, but he also obtained a Spanish passport, and that achievement may be the key to getting out of MLS where he spent most of his 18th year of life on the bench and into a European league, where at least he could train with a big club and show a new manager why he’s a fan and foreign scouts dream. At 6’4, Salgado has the feel of a target and header forward but the speed and skill on the ball of a 10. The knock on Salgado has always been his willingness to work– it is part and parcel why he was dismissed from the US U-17 residency program and certainly contributed to his frustrations in Vancouver last year– but in a national team shirt, he’s impressed: both at the Milk Cup and with the U-20 group that failed to qualify for the World Cup but played an exciting, attacking brand of soccer not typically seen by American youth sides. He’s not on our list of likely team members– but his “combine feel”, to borrow an NFL term- is enticing. Fellow MLS product Will Bruin of the Houston Dynamo is almost the anti-Salgado. He’s a Generation Adidas kid sure, but what he lacks in “eye opening” stuff for scouts he makes up for with work rate, hustle and want to. That’s the stuff of training camps, not Olympiads.
Derby forward Conor Doyle is a TYAC favorite. The Texas native, like another Texas native, received more or less no attention from US development experts only to find himself signing a professional contract in England and making a myriad of first-team performances right off the bat with Derby County. Doyle’s had some growing pains, and his playing time has been erratic, but he’s a hold up player with the versatility to feature elsewhere, a jack-of-all-trades dynamic that may prove useful in the qualifying campaign. You need a target man at the center of Porter’s 4-3-3, and while the thrust of that work will go to Jozy Altidore, there’s no harm in allowing a player with the top-flight experience of Doyle to serve as able deputy. We think his chances of making this team are pretty reasonable.
Overage Possibilities will be discussed at length in a later piece, but we at TYAC are confident a forward will be one of the three overage selections.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at email@example.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.