July 2010

US World Cup Cycle Report Cards: Midfielders Edition

This is the second of a four-part Series of Report Cards for the U.S. Men’s National Team’s Four Year World Cup Cycle, 2007-2010. While we are not issuing grades for all 92 players capped by Bob Bradley during the cycle, we will feature players not on the World Cup roster who figured prominently in the run-up to the 2010 World Cup. We will issue grades of A-F, rather than player-rankings style grades of 1-10. This edition is likely the longest, focusing on the American midfielders.

Freddy Adu, Aris Thessaloniki (Greece), D

Summary: In a word, disappointing. Adu scored in the Olympic Games and looked marvelous in that tournament as well as at the U-20 World Cup, but he never really found his feet with the senior team. Even in his largest opportunity, the 2009 Gold Cup, he missed making his mark, looking tired and uninterested before leaving the squad to train in Europe. Adu never saw the field at the Confederations Cup, and his performances in six qualifying appearances coupled with his nomadic efforts to find a club kept him off the airplane to South Africa this summer.

High Point: The Olympic performance against the Netherlands. He was simply the best player on the field for large swaths of the game. Once he left age-constrained matches, his brilliant free kick goal against Guatemala in the semifinals of qualifying.

Low Point: An ineffective stint in a disastrous defeat to Costa Rica at the Saprissa in the final round of qualifying. He was so poor that coupled with his struggle to find club time he did not feature again for the senior team in a competitive fixture.

2014 Outlook: The main thing to remember about Adu is that he is only 20 years old. He’s immensely skilled—one of the finest technical talents the USMNT has ever seen. If he finds a club that plays him regularly and allows him to find his form and regain his confidence, the hype may finally turn to reality. That would be a great thing for American soccer.

Michael Bradley, Borussia Monchengladbach, A –

Summary: Junior, or MB 90, as he’s referred to at The Yanks Are Coming home offices, was far and away the busiest Yank in the 2010 World Cup cycle. The numbers are staggering: 35 matches in competition formats, including a Gold Cup, a U-20 World Cup, an Olympic Games, a Confederations Cup, nearly all of qualifying and a World Cup. Bradley grew as a player and person during the cycle, from the Gold Cup red card against Canada in the semifinals at one end of the spectrum to being not simply one of the best U.S. players at the World Cup, but one of the best players at the World Cup period. He tallied eight goals (including two game winners) in all competitions, and at 22 years old, has established himself as one of the global game’s rising young stars and the potential anchor of the American midfield for the next two World Cups. He started fifteen times in qualifying and earned man-of-the-match on three separate occasions, and his tidy work in the midfield alongside Sacha Kljestan paced the Olympic team, particularly in a riveting 2-2 draw with Holland.

High Point: The goal against Mexico in the opening game of the Hexagon comes to mind, but that was only the winner until the World Cup. His toe-poke goal to tie the Slovenia game was a thing of brilliance, but that hardly tells the story. The easiest way to understand what a machine MB 90 was at the World Cup—a look at the numbers. MB 90 covered the 4th most distance in the tournament through the group stages, at 35.56 kilometers, finished second in tackles made to win possession (four) and 12th in distance covered while his team was in possession, a nod to his darting late runs into the box like the one setting up the famous Slovenia goal. No less than Arsene Wegner, who cares greatly about such numbers, was raving about him this summer, and a move from Germany seems imminent.

Low Point: The silly and hot-headed red cards he took, the most costly one being in the Confederations Cup semifinal against Spain. Many commentators, including your writer, think his absence mattered immensely in the final, especially once the Yanks were protecting a 2-nil lead.

2014 Outlook: The starter and heartbeat of the American center.

Ricardo Clark, Eintract Frankfurt FC, C

Summary: Allowing for a generalization, C students are either dumb and work real hard (commendable) or wildly inconsistent (frustrating). The latter is true for Ricardo Clark. His World Cup performance, which showed us Ricardo at his worst, has inspired passionate defenses of his performance in qualifiers, which often showed us Ricardo at his best. The best-written defense of Clark is here. We also saw that in the American victory over Spain at the Confederations Cup, where he helped stifle the Spanish midfield throughout the match. It is that tournament that serves as the best microcosm for his cycle—given his red card and disastrous showing a week earlier in the US loss to Brazil in the group stages. Clark’s club form has been steady, and the ball hawk stopper should continue to improve in Europe, where he’s already earned playing time with Bundesliga side Frankfurt.

High Point: His stunner from distance gave the Americans a critical road victory against Trinidad and Tobago—a win that a side struggling at the time needed to help secure qualification. As a whole, his performance in qualifying was steady and at times outstanding, notably in the Americans 2-nil defeat of Mexico in Columbus to kick-off the Hexagon.

Low Point: The World Cup. Gave up too much space on the England goal, but to some extent that goal was well-executed. Losing the ball in the midfield five minutes into the Ghana game, however, was inexcusable and Clark, sadly, knows it.

2014 Outlook: At 27, Clark will be 31 when the Yanks reach Brazil. It isn’t that Clark is not a good player—on his best days he is. The problem is that he is limited, that he plays the position of most depth for the United States, and that the players he’ll compete with for a spot in Brazil, outside of Jermaine Jones, are all far less long in the tooth. He’ll see time in qualifying, but I don’t see him on the team in four years.

Clint Dempsey, Fulham, A

Summary: Dempsey battled questions about the disparity between his club performances at Craven Cottage and his national team performances early in the cycle. I’ve always felt these questions were a bit unfair, and Dempsey has surely answered them by now with two immense international tournaments in succession. At the Confederations Cup, he was among the American leaders in distance covered, was the leading US goal scorer, and became the first American field player to win an award at an international competition. At the World Cup, Dempsey scored a goal, led the team in shots on frame, covered a massive amount of distance and drew countless fouls. His massive performance against Ghana in the Round of 16 was nearly enough to weather disappointing performances by many of his teammates. All told, he tallied eight goals in all international competitions, including his breathtaking strike against Brazil in the Confederations Cup final. His club form improved throughout the cycle, and last year he was perhaps the integral cog in Fulham’s run to the Europa final.

High Point: Picking Sergio Ramos’ pocket against Spain and slotting the ball past Iker Casillas to give the Americans a 2-0 lead they would keep against the eventual World Champions. Performance in that tournament won him the Bronze Ball. Because the stage was bigger- his tremendous game against Ghana in the Round of 16 would be the winner had the Yanks won.

Low Point: A long stretch of scoreless performances in the final round of qualifying that didn’t end until he leveled a home qualifier against El Salvador last September. Fatigue from the long EPL season may have factored in, but Duece certainly had a few performances where he seemed to disappear early in the Hexagon.

2014 Outlook: At 31, Dempsey may still be at the tail-end of his prime. A great deal of course depends on his health. He’s been fortunate thus far, even after the scare this winter at Fulham—but the physical style of play in the EPL makes you concerned about player longevity. Dempsey will have a role if fit in 2014—and a chance to start.

Landon Donovan, LA Galaxy, A +

Summary: What a difference a cycle makes. Donovan’s woeful performance in Germany 2006 is well-documented. Those documents will now collect dust as his performance in this cycle coupled consistency, leadership and heroism. I had thought about simply awarding Donovan an “A”—after all he wasn’t always dominant in qualifying and he had a pair of quiet halves at the World Cup. The reason I didn’t change the grade is the difference between old Donovan and new Donovan. Old Donovan might not have mustered a moment of brilliance or a composed, tying penalty in those matches. At the World Cup, Donovan did. He turned a quiet half against Slovenia around in an instant, and converted a critical Round of 16 PK. Leadership and confidence, some generated from his successful run at Everton, some from maturity—were the difference in this cycle and it showed in both the Confederations Cup and above all, in South Africa. How much does he matter? How about this statistic—Donovan contributed on twelve of nineteen American goals in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying.

High Point: You could not write…a script like this.

Low Point: Days later, when the United States lost to Ghana in the Round of 16. Part of leadership, from the head coach to the most experienced players, is avoiding emotional letdowns. The loss was certainly partly caused by that, like it or not.

2014 Outlook: Let’s see how his health holds up. I’m not certain he’ll be a midfielder, at least not for whole games. He may be slotted to forward more often, to save his legs. He’s certainly the likely captain in Brazil.

Maurice Edu, Glasgow Rangers FC, C +

Summary: In excellent form in the run up to the final round of qualifying, a horrific knee injury suffered on a dirty tackle in the Old Firm match cost Edu most the critical matches in the cycle. When he finally returned, he had only a short window to make a statement that he could contribute on the field, and he made the most of that opportunity. A jack-of-all-trades, Edu played center back alongside Michael Parkhurst in the Olympic Games and did so admirably, and filled in there in the Olympics after injuries threatened the U.S. depth. Edu is a box-to-box midfielder at heart though, and we saw how much poise he brings to the American center in two critical World Cup matches. His entry against Slovenia calmed the American center, and the same was true in his lone start, the 1-0 victory over Algeria. Exacted a perfect measure of revenge with a brilliant stoppage time winner against Celtic this spring, a goal that meant everything to Rangers season, according to their Director, Dave King.

High Point: Being a difference maker and restoring calm to the overrun American center against Slovenia in the second-match of group play. His presence in the midfield was one of the main reasons the Americans salvaged a point.

Low Point: The injury that cost him the entire final round of qualifying. Had to be a tough blow, especially given the fact that MB 90 used the time to lock down his starting position. Edu certainly would have felt he’d have done the same.

2014 Outlook: Edu needs to improve his dribbling and to some extent his field vision. His distribution is technically sound—it is a matter of pass-selection more often than not that troubles the former Maryland star. A healthy Maurice Edu will certainly be the top candidate to start alongside MB 90 in the American center in Brazil.

Benny Feilhaber, AGF Aarhus, B –

Summary: Feilhaber was a spark plug and a catalyst for a much more complex and dangerous American attack at his best (see substitution against Algeria which unlocked the Algerian center, constant menace against Ghana), and a warm body who made little impact at his worst (various mediocre performances in qualifying). To some extent, this is partly because Bob Bradley didn’t seem comfortable with how to deploy Feilhaber until late in the cycle. That can’t account for all of it, however, as Feilhaber was a hero of the first tournament the Yanks played in the four year stretch. Some of the blame has to fall on Feilhaber, who hit a rut in form while languishing at Derby before experiencing a renaissance with a fine run of form at AGF Aarhus. Interestingly, Feilhaber did not score in an international tournament or a qualifier, but he did make six qualifying appearances and started the Confederations Cup Final against Brazil, playing well.

High Point: GOLAZO to win the Gold Cup!! Impact player in South Africa.

Low Point: Poor run of form that saw him not called or given no playing time in the first half of Hexagonal qualifying.

2014 Outlook: Another in a long line of young American mids, Feilhaber will have a chance to continue his advancement by moving to a bigger club in the near future, and he’ll certainly be an impact player, as a starter or first option off the bench, in Brazil.

Stuart Holden, Bolton Wanderers FC, B –

Summary: Holden was late arriving onto the scene during the cycle but did so impressively, making a large impression on fans and commentators with a fine performance and a goal in Beijing in 2008, and parlaying Olympic success to a Senior Team Gold Cup debut. Bob Bradley was rewarded for this choice as Holden made the All-Tournament Team, scoring a goal in his first game for country at the senior level. Holden made two starts in the second half of CONCACAF qualifying, and his performance in those matches along with fine club form with the Houston Dynamo caught the eye of Bolton Wanderers in England, where he will compete for a starting job this autumn. Pure class on set pieces and a hard-working and underrated defender, Holden appeared in one World Cup match this summer, and likely would have made more appearances had the US not constantly been chasing the game.

High Point: All-tournament performance in the Gold Cup. At times he was the only US attacker with any ideas, especially deeper in the tournament when the fatigue of a long summer caught up with the Yanks.

Low Point: Off the pitch, wondering if he could recover from a leg break after a vicious tackle by Nigel de Jong threatened his World Cup roster spot. On the pitch, the Nigeria match at the Olympics, where Holden and his teammates were unable to overcome an early deficit playing with only ten men. The Gold Cup Final, a 5-nil defeat on home soil to Mexico.

2014 Outlook: Holden’s fate, at least at this point, seems to rest less on him and more on what the US coaches do with Dempsey and Donovan, and attendant to that point, the fitness and form of the two American stars come Brazil. One thing is certain—if healthy, Holden’s on the plane.

Sacha Kljestan, Anderlecht FC, C

Summary: An up and down cycle, both for club and country, for the 24 year old Californian. His two goal performance at the Olympic Tournament turned a great deal of heads—and alongside Freddy Adu he was the star of a game the young Americans should have won against Holland in Beijing. Kljestan was afforded many opportunities in qualifying, appearing in ten qualifiers and starting seven. He was up and down in those, and his timing couldn’t have been worse—as a dip in form at club carried over to the national team. After a string of mediocre performances, Kljestan was removed as a regular following the Yanks 3-1 defeat to Costa Rica at the Saprissa. He did make two appearances at the Confederations Cup, but a red card in the Americans 3-0 defeat to Brazil put him too far behind the eight ball to climb back on the plane, despite positive performances in early 2010 and a run of fine form at Chivas USA.

High Point: An excellent run of form from the Olympic Games into the early qualifying stages that saw Kljestan start several matches in the Semifinal round, playing well in those appearances.

Low Point: The red card he took for a frustration foul against Brazil in the Confederations Cup. At a time when the Americans as a collective lacked poise, Kljestan showed his youth and was sent off. At a time when commentators and fans were looking for scapegoats, Kljestan received a great deal of negative attention, and fair or unfair, he struggled to change perceptions.

2014 Outlook: Kljestan gave an interview after his move to Anderlecht indicating he would prove the failure to take him to South Africa would be motivating. Anderlecht is a fine club and Europe will make the talented, attack-minded midfielder more complete, giving him a chance for extensive minutes in Brazil.

Robbie Rogers, Columbus Crew, D +

Summary: Rogers made his senior team debut in 2009, scoring on July 4 for the States in the Gold Cup, where he played a prominent role on a team that reached the final. Prior to that, he started all three games for the Yanks at the 2008 Olympics, where his performances were mixed. He can dazzle you with his pace and movements at times, but he sometimes seems to miss the game developing around him, instead relying on ball tricks and stopovers when a simple pass would do the trick. Called into the final USMNT camp prior to the World Cup, Rogers showed more of the same, but his form with the Crew and his technical gifts mean the 23 year old will factor prominently into the Americans future plans.

High Point: A splendid ball to Jonathan Bornstein that sent Honduras to the World Cup and made Jon Bornstein a hero, leveling the final qualifier against Costa Rica on what was a very emotional night for an American side rocked by Charie Davies car accident the day before.

Low Point: Sloppy play in the Gold Cup final, where he was turnover prone and ineffective as a focal point of the American attack in a 5-0 defeat.

2014 Outlook: Rogers has a great deal of technical ability and pace, and his development will be monitored closely. To have a decent chance at a roster spot, he’ll need to improve and show he’s capable of playing at the international level on a consistent basis, rather than just in spots. There’s too much depth for anything to be guaranteed for him at this point.

Jose Francisco Torres, Pachuca, C

Summary: Without question one of the most technically gifted players ever to don a US Shirt, Torres at 22 seems to have a tremendous future. That said, his cycle was largely hamstrung by the system the United States deploys, and Torres didn’t seem to quite understand that system until a fine performance in a send-off friendly against Turkey. Torres parlayed that performance into a start at the World Cup, but he was removed after forty-five largely unimpressive minutes, and seemed a bit overwhelmed by the moment. The good news is that he has time to grow, and there’s no guarantee the US won’t change and adapt its system to his talents in the future. His free kicks are magical, his long passing ability is nearly unparalleled in the American system, and he is a regular for his club side. From an experience standpoint, Torres was a member of the Confederations Cup finalist team, featured in seven qualifying matches, and has now seen a World Cup. He’s also played in a FIFA Club World Cup and all of this at a young age. This can only help him going forward. The next step is consistency.

High Point: The marvelous second-half he played in the send-off Series against Turkey. Torres unlocked the stingy Turkish center with his passing, which helped the Yanks achieve rare width they then used to make their patented diagonal runs to the center. He also showed in this match how much he’s improved defensively, an area that needs improvement and an area where willingness to track back goes a long way.

Low Point: His ineffective display in a half against Costa Rica at the Saprissa. Bradley deployed a 4-3-3 that match, which is a formation that should help a creative mid like Torres, who gets better as the game goes on and his touches increase. Instead, he was hesitant with his distribution (just as he was in the Slovenia match in South Africa), and he didn’t track back effectively, creating a deficit for the Yanks.

2014 Outlook: On the plane. The type of system the Americans play, coupled with the development of other young players in comparison to JFT will dictate his role. Starter is not out of the question, given his talent.

Those are the report cards for the prominent qualifying figures and World Cup team members of the midfield. Later today, we will post a follow-up feature with our “Way Too Early” look at players on the radar for the American midfield, 2014 edition.

Neil W. Blackmon is a senior writer for the Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at neil@yanksarecoming.com or on twitter @nwb_usmnt.

Neil W. Blackmon