Nearly four years ago, when Oguchi Oneywu took what can only be fairly called a “soft penalty” after appearing to win a clean header against Ghana’s Razak Pimpong in the waning moments of extra time of the first half, the United States faced a spot kick that had the most honest of USMNT followers turning away. Moments later, Stephen Appiah fired the ball past a diving Kasey Keller and the Yanks were faced with the difficult position of needing two goals in the second half to get out of their group. While the Stars and Stripes had the lion’s share of possession in that half, they failed to even equalize (a Brian McBride header hit the post late, and John Mensah was mystifyingly only shown yellow for a vicious foul early in the second against Bobby Convey) and before Eric Wynalda could blame Bruce Arena’s fascinating lineup choices most Yanks were turning the channel and the page, looking ahead to South Africa.
After 60 matches featuring 91 different players, the Yanks final push for World Cup 2010 started this week in Princeton, New Jersey, just minutes from Coach Bob Bradley’s home. It has been, at the very least, a memorable four years. From Benny Feilhaber’s maestro to defeat Mexico in the 2007 Gold Cup Final at Soldier Field to last month’s 2-1 dogfight at the Amsterdam Arena and the grind of qualifying and brilliant Confederations Cup that came between, each move by Bradley and the Federation has been a build-up to this camp. For this blog, it started after a fateful red card by Michael Orozco in Beijing, a heartbreaking Olympics exit, sleeplessness and an early morning Starbucks trip that followed. A true fan’s idea, born in rudimentary form on blog-spot, pre-dated this site and began tracking the qualifying process in earnest on a hot, humid night in Guatemala City, 20 months ago. That night we lamented the choice of Eddie Johnson in the starting 11 over Brian Ching, and we did so with an eye for this camp. Well, that camp is finally here. And so is Eddie Johnson, but that will be addressed in a moment.
There is plenty to be excited about, and that will be discussed on this blog and on other tremendous sites today, tomorrow and in the three weeks to come. Today, however, we focus on the part of the glass that is empty, or at least the most pressing concerns facing the team as they gather this week in New Jersey. Bob Bradley has suggested already that he would like to make final roster choices shortly after the first pre-Cup friendly, which is next Tuesday in Connecticut against the Czech Republic. That means we’re down to about a week for Bradley to choose which seven players will be disappointed, and we’re about a week and a half from getting (for a half, at least) a good look at the eleven men likely to begin the game on the field against the Three Lions June 12 in Rustenburg. In essence, this gives Bradley Thursday, the weekend, and perhaps Monday to host the final tryout. Here are four of the most critical questions facing the Yanks as they take to the pitch in Princeton, and as always, your comments are welcome:
— Who is starting in the center of the midfield with MB 90?
This is the most obvious question, and the one most often written about. Certainly the American midfield is the area of this team (outside of goalkeeper) with the most depth and the most class. It is a nice luxury to have four solid options to pair alongside the coach’s son.
That said, it is likely that both Feilhaber (a creative, change-of-pace player who brings great skill from distance and better-than-most attacking vision and understanding) and Jose Francisco Torres (a pacy but patient player who can slow down a complicated game and help the US hold the ball, not simply get the ball, in the midfield) will start games on the bench. The battle is between the qualifying mainstay, Ricardo Clark, whose stunner from distance against Trinidad & Tobago guided the Yanks to their only CONCACAF road qualifying victory, and the great, athletic hype, Maurice Edu, the former Terrapin All-American who has shined at Rangers after finally recovering from a vicious knee injury suffered a year ago.
With regard to those two, one mistake has been made that is worth at least attempting to correct. They are not “very similar players,” as has been suggested on other blogs and sites with four-letters I’m not too quick to name. Clark is more of a pure “defensive mid,” an excellent tackler who though a smaller and a bit slower than Edu is probably a better passer and distributor of the ball. He makes sense, especially against the Three Lions, as the option when Bradley decides to play cautious and defensively. Given the gaffer’s tendency to emphasize defense, I may be in a small minority of folks who genuinely believe Clark is the leader in the clubhouse.
Edu is a fine defender in his own right; though put a pedestal above his actual skill level by many Yanks supporters after his strong cameo at right back in the Olympic Games. Edu has vastly improved his defensive positioning and tackling choices in Scotland, but really what he brings that is most intriguing is a box-to-box compliment to MB 90. Edu allows Bradley to be a bit more flexible in his midfield attacking choices, and he allows MB 90 to rest a bit or come back to aid in building possession from the back if the game so dictates. This battle is likely the last to be resolved before June 12.
— How healthy is Gooch?
The big fella trained with the team today for the first time since his injury in the final qualifying fixture. He’s played as many minutes for AC Milan since the injury as I have, which is not a good thing, and without question he is probably the fourth-most critical figure to our World Cup fortunes. I won’t sugarcoat this situation at all—Gooch has at times struggled with faster, diminutive forwards against elite competition even at full-strength. He also is prone to fouls, sometimes perception-based due to his size but other times due to positioning concerns. That said, at his best he’s a world-class defender and that is why the Rossoneri signed him in the first place. He can lock down the middle on his best day, and it concerning that as camp opens we simply have no idea if a “best day,” or an “average day,” for that matter, is even possible. Gooch’s inclusion or exclusion will dictate what happens with the rest of the backline as well, so you can be certain Bradley will be monitoring his big fella intensely over the next few days.
— How many forwards, and which forwards?
With Charlie Davies gone from the picture, Bradley will have to determine who joins Jozy Altidore on the frontline. This much you already know. What you might not know is how tricky that choice truly is—which is probably what Bradley is battling the most mentally. If you slot Dempsey to forward, where he seemed so at home at Fulham and where he can immediately add the much-needed “moment of brilliance” to the American attack, you simply move the problem backwards—creating questions on the American wing that are answered only by hoping that Stu Holden is ready for this large a moment as a starter. Brian Ching is likely safe on the plane—secure as the backup target player for Altidore, but who Bradley takes beyond Ching is anyone’s guess. I think Edson Buddle, who has a report with Donovan from the LA Galaxy and has been in marvelous form stateside, is likely the leader in the clubhouse, simply because of his pace and the fact that he is a better passer than Puebla goal-machine Herculez Gomez. That said, neither has played international soccer during the qualifying cycle, and as such the door has to be open for Eddie Johnson, who has found himself again with Aris in Greece, and yes—even Robbie Findley, who is the most similar player to Charlie Davies from a purely physical standpoint. These cuts will likely be the last cuts, but I expect Bradley to depart the States with only three forwards on the roster, creating space for one final midfield spot.
— Where do you play the Captain? And what of Jon Spector?
Not knowing where to play your Captain is an odd predicament, but Bocanegra is the captain and will be on the field. The only question is where. This question interacts a great deal with question two—but assuming Gooch is ready to go, it is likely Bocanegra will begin the tournament on the left. He’s proven to be a bit of a liability there against speedier wings, which creates immediate concerns against the Three Lions. That concern certainly could cause a snowball effect on Bradley’s June 12 lineup choices as well—if he needs to aid Boca on the left flank, does he play Dempsey at forward, start Holden (who is more capable of tracking back defensively than Duece), and leave Donovan to fight with the other two mids to build the attack. Or does he choose Clark-Bradley and allow one to drift to help Bocanegra when necessary. Your guess is as good as mine but I know if the Captain does start on the left, he’ll certainly be given license to drift to the center if the game so dictates, effectively shutting down passing lines in the middle of the field—which is exactly what he did in the Spain game last summer.
Beyond the Captain, Jon Spector’s form at West Ham to close the season was troubling, and his struggles may open the door for Honduran hero Jon Bornstein to solidify a starting position on the right flank. Steve Cherundolo is the more likely, and more obvious, alternative option, but Bradley has a great deal of faith (too much, some think) in Bornstein, and I wouldn’t rule that move out. Either way, I’d be surprised if Spector starts, especially if he performs below-average against the technically proficient Czechs next Tuesday.
What do ya’ll think? We’d love to hear your comments below.
Finally, on a sadder note. Anyone who is in the final 30 should be immensely proud and of course honored to wear the American crest and play for the flag. It is a tremendous achievement and privilege. Alejandro Bedoya perhaps summed it up the best with this tweet, after learning of his selection (on Twitter, of all places). This is an honor but before we get caught up in the enormity of it, at least pause for a moment and think about our men and women, fighting for us and freedom and keeping us safe overseas. Certainly Bob Bradley understands that, as he has opened camp with the heartbreaking news that a family friend has been killed in action in Afghanistan. Colonel John McHugh, a former goalkeeper for the Cadets at West Point and a longtime family friend of the Bradley’s, lost his life in service this week, killed by a roadside bomb. Bradley put it best—as huge a deal as the Cup Finals are, and as honored as they are to wear the American shirt—let’s remember who they wear it for:
“You hear things like that, when you think about what it means to represent your country, you think about obviously how important soccer is, but how it’s not even close to what it means to be somewhere else in the world defending everything.”
We’re with you, Coach. And God Bless John McHugh and his family, and all our men and women abroad.
Neil W. Blackmon is a senior writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at email@example.com or @nwb_USMNT.