If you read the reader comments on my previous piece, “US Soccer: Four Pressing Questions,” then you probably experienced heart palpitations from the all “the US will fail if’s” and the doom and gloom. Hell, fellow TYAC senior writer Jon Levy had me up until the wee hours of the morning thinking about Aaron Lennon terrorizing our left flank, and I think I created my own personal hell thinking about Lennon feeding Rooney and Oguch-knee Oneywu falling down helplessly as he tried to keep up. Not even thoughts of Timmy “Man, I’m glad we brought that guy” Howard denying Rooney as Oguch-knee writhed in agony yards away could help me sleep.
On top of all that–ever since Heath Ledger died, I’ve tried to stay away from the Ambien, so my only real choice was to pop in my ex-girlfriend’s The English Patient DVD (I borrowed it from Keith Hickey). At that point, and only at that point, did I finally fall into a deep and miserable slumber. As such, before we all fall into the Raf Crowley School of Reactionism state-of-panic that often accompanies such pieces; I thought I’d publish a retort. Here are four things you have to feel really good about as the Yanks complete training camp in Princeton and head into the “Send-off Friendlies” next week against the Czech Republic (revenge is a dish best served ice cold in non-tournament formats?) and Turkey (Dude, Nihat is really awesome).
- Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan’s Form
Seriously, even with all the minor injuries that have prevented complete training sessions this week, and with the remarkable but just-short attempted comeback of Charlie Davies, there is no question that things could have been much worse. When Dempsey went down with a knee injury in January, many USMNT supporters, myself included, thought that injury, coupled with Davies’ accident and Gooch’s knee, were simply signs from the football gods that this cycle was simply not meant to be. We sweated it out for around a week and found out that Duece was okay and we could go on living our lives. Since he has returned, he’s been spectacular, scoring perhaps the most important goal in Cottagers history against Juventus and proving to be the difference maker in the make-or-break UEFA semifinal second leg against Hamburg. Duece himself admits his confidence is at a career crescendo and he appears poised to have a monstrous World Cup after netting Bronze Ball honors in last year’s Confederations Cup
As for Landon Donovan, the doubters came out in full-force in December as talk of a midseason loan to Everton swelled and eventually came to fruition. One writer who shall remain nameless, wise old sage that he may be, predicted that Donovan would take the EPL by force, prove he could play at the highest level the world has to offer, and in fact be instrumental to turning around a season at Goodison that appeared without hope. Some folks laughed, but that dude looked like a genius thirteen weeks later, and when Landon returned to America he had not only starred in fixtures against Chelsea and Manchester City—he had injured Ashley Cole, won Player of the Month honors at Goodison and propelled Everton to a final two-thirds stretch where they saw defeat only twice in twenty-five matches. His form in MLS has showed no drop off, and he appears ready to exorcise the demons of Germany 2006.
The bottom line is that any country would be more than happy to have their top two field players in the type of form Donovan and Dempsey are in for the United States, and this should prove to be hugely advantageous to the Stars and Stripes this June.
- The return of Maurice Edu
I highlighted Bradley’s predicament in the midfield in my previous article, but the upside of the Clark-Edu debate is that there is a choice to be had at all. It is a good problem—similar to a NFL team deciding between two outstanding tailbacks. Keep in mind that the Yanks were without the services of the 2007 MLS Rookie-of-the-Year for the entire final round of World Cup qualifying—and they managed to be champions of the CONCACAF Final Hexagon regardless. Edu played well after getting his feet under him against the Netherlands a month ago, and there is little debate that he gives Bradley more tactical flexibility in the attack with his speed, size, and ability from distance.
After returning from the knee injury that had sidelined him, he was a staple in the Rangers starting eleven and helped guide them to yet another SPL title, scoring the winner in stoppage time against hated Celtic in the Old Firm match in the process. That type of match experience is invaluable, and he without question makes the Yank lineup immensely better. In fact, there is an argument that had he been able to start in place of Michael Bradley, who was suspended after a foolish red card in the Spain match, in last year’s Confederations Cup final—the U.S. might have been able to control just enough of the midfield to preserve its two-goal lead, instead of finally collapsing under relentless Brazilian pressure.
- This back four is literally “leagues” better than any we’ve ever fielded in a World Cup before.
There is no question Oneywu’s recovery from his knee injury is critical to our World Cup hopes. That said, it is a far less terrifying proposition than it would have been even four years ago. Jay DeMerit is a sound centerback and appears to have fully recovered from a horrific eye injury that nearly cost him his career (another reason the situation could have been worse). The guy we here at the TYAC offices lovingly call “Kid Rock” was a hero in the upset of Spain last summer and gives the Yanks a formidable center-back pair if Gooch is as healthy as he suggests he is. Both of those guys are unquestionable leaders on the team as well, and with Howard behind them, you have to feel better about the American center than you did in the days of Jeff “God love him, because I’m not sure I can” Agoos.
On the flanks, Jon Spector may be in questionable form—but that’s questionable EPL form. That might not seem like a huge deal to anyone—but if he starts, or even becomes the first defensive option on the bench, it will represent the first time the Yanks have more than two side backs who play (and usually start) in high-level European football. Hannover man Steve Cherundolo is another sound option, which gives the Yanks a quintet of high-level European defensive options before we even reach the Goodsons, Marshalls and Bornsteins on the American depth chart. That’s progress—and even though it doesn’t necessarily coincide with international experience—it is indicative of the growing depth and quality available in the American player pool. This “higher number of players playing in Europe’s most-quality leagues” analysis applies to the entire roster at this World Cup—and is part of the reason one feels safe asserting, as our friends across the Pond do, that this is (on paper) the “greatest side” America has ever sent to a Cup Finals.
- Intangibles/They’ve been through the battles
In addition to being most talented version of the National team yet, this is an American team that has been through the fire during this Cycle. They’ve played everyone and backed down against no one (save Brazil, round one, after the Robinho goal last summer). Frendlies against Argentina, England and the Dutch were an upgrade over the Bruce Arena scheduled friendlies, and yielded a result against Argentina and the re-emergence of DaMarcus Beasley, left for dead a summer before, against the Dutch.
The Confederations Cup performance speaks for itself—but it is even more valuable when you consider that it gave the Yanks a leg-up on most the world because it was played in South Africa. The Yanks will now arrive familiar with the lay of the land, comfortable with the stadiums and strange, South African noisemakers, and Bob Bradley and the Federation deserve full-credit for snatching Italy’s training facility after being eliminated by Brazil. Throw in the fact that unlike Arena, who had the nerve to play Morocco and Latvia before Germany 06, Bradley has scheduled three legitimate tune-up matches against top-flight opposition in the Czech Republic, EURO 08 darlings Turkey, and the punchy Socceroos in the final build-up, and this is a side that has seen the best the world has to offer and acquitted itself admirably.
Finally, perhaps forgotten in this cycle was the Americans 2007 trip to the Copa America. Bob Bradley was lambasted by fans and columnists, not to mention the South American COPA tournament director, for sending what was essentially a “B Side” to the most prestigious tournament in North or South America and finishing dead last in a group with Paraguay, Argentina and Columbia. Funny how three years later, it helps to look closer. Featuring on that “B Team” roster were two likely 2010 starters, in Jay DeMerit and Ricardo Clark, as well as Princeton camp invitees Benny Feilhaber, Sacha Kljestan, Heath Pearce, Jon Bornstein, Eddie Johnson, and Brad Guzan—and some kid named Charlie Davies, who would steal our hearts at the Confederations Cup and score at the Azteca before that fateful night last October. That’s nine players of our Final 30 who got experience against “A Teams” in an international tournament, and now might not look so deer-eyed when the bright lights turn on in three weeks. Gee, maybe Bob Bradley knew what he was doing after all? No matter what you think the answer to that (to me, rhetorical) question is—one thing is certain—this is the most prepared and talented American team ever to play in a Cup Finals.
As such, there is, as Rod Stewart suggests, a “reason… to believe.” Not all is dark clouds and creeping thunder. In fact, as Tuesday approaches and the final build-up finally becomes palatable, I think there is reason for a quiet confidence, rather than a hopeful expectation.
Neil W. Blackmon is a senior writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @nwb_USMNT.