USMNT World Cup Cycle Report Cards: Defenders Edition

This is the fourth 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 focuses on the American defenders. For prior entries– See Part I, Goalkeepers. See Part II, Midfielders, Part III Forwards.

DaMarcus Beasley, MF/LB, Hannover 96 C -

Summary: The diminutive one was injury-plagued throughout the cycle and constantly battling for club time. During the one consistent run of good form, Beasley was one of the early Bob Bradley experiments in the (failed, mostly) search for an American left back. Given his pace and fine passing ability, the thought was that Beasley would an attacking element to a back four that lacked much offensive firepower. Beasley played an up and down ninety minutes in Nashville against Trinidad and Tobago in a three-nil win, looking uncomfortable defensively but threatening along with Frankie Hejduk offensively. It was probably the qualifier that saw the most offensive intent from the American defense. Beasley parlayed this into an opportunity in a similar role in the Confederations Cup, but after passing the ball directly to Andres Santos, who doesn’t play for the United States, and setting up one of the more embarrassing goals in the history of US Soccer, Beasley fell out of favor. He didn’t return to action until a friendly months before the World Cup, but he played well enough against the Netherlands in particular to earn a spot on the World Cup team, his third such selection.

High Point: Playing his way back onto the team in the Send-Off matches and the friendly against the Netherlands, where his free kick found Carlos Bocanegra and gave the Yanks a shot in a frenetic final ten minutes. Making a cameo in the World Cup, it was his third straight Cup with an appearance for the red white and blue.

Low Point: The Brazil match in the group stages of the Confederations Cup, and the subsequent year in the abyss that is Bob Bradley’s doghouse.

2014 Outlook: He’ll be 32 come Brazil, and while I’m certain playing in a fourth World Cup is a goal for DaMarcus—I don’t see it. He’s not a natural defender and he’s not young enough to hold off the stable Bob Bradley has of talented and young midfielders. In a world where Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan didn’t factor in, he might have a shot, but you and I both don’t want any part of that world.

Carlos Bocanegra, Stade Rennes, France B

Summary: The Captain has a great deal to be proud of, and I’m sure in a few years when the sting from what might have been against Ghana wears off and Boca assumes a role as an ambassador of the game in the States somewhere, he will be. First captain to lead an American team to a World Cup group stage win. First captain to guide an American side to a FIFA international tournament final. And of course, his trademark durability and his willingness to play anywhere he was asked whenever he was asked—the type of characteristics that earned him the armband in the first place.

High Point: The upset of Spain at the Confederations Cup. Quite simply one of the finest performances Bocanegra has ever had in an American shirt. Slotted out wide, Boca covered responsibly and only moved forward (should say inched) when it was not dangerous to do so. He missed no tackles in the match and took no unrewarding risks. Most of all, his ability to recognize when to drift to the center and push the short passing Spaniards out wide was the key to the game tactically. The Americans frustrated the Spanish center throughout, and once the second goal was scored, there was simply no way back, even for Spain.

2014 Outlook: The Captain will likely turn in his armband at some point in the next two years. He’ll likely wear it one final time next summer, at the Gold Cup, but a stable of young and talented American center backs makes a Jeff Agoos-esque ageless 2014 Brazil appearance unlikely.

Jon Bornstein, Chivas USA C-

Summary: The hero of Honduras, Bornstein is as close to an American soccer antihero as there is in supporter circles. It was mystifying how many times Bradley called on Bornstein, despite repeated performances suggesting he wasn’t capable of playing against top international sides. Some of it is attributable to the lack of any depth or promise at left back, and some is attributable to Bornstein’s splendid ability to put on dominating performances against the Panamas and El Salvadors of the world. Despite all the criticism, Bornstein rewarded Bradley’s confidence in the World Cup, playing a steely match against Algeria in the 1-0 group winning victory, and playing reasonably well against Ghana in the round of sixteen. Bornstein will move to Mexico in a few weeks, leaving MLS behind. Once again, Yanks fans are left shaking their head at the pacy left back. Why would a player whose primary problem is marking and physical defense go play in a league where he will improve exactly zero of his weaknesses? Let the debating continue.

High Point: The goal in the emotional Costa Rica match that won the qualifying group is too obvious. Instead, it is either his marvelous performance in the 2007 Copa America against Argentina’s Leo Messi, where he held the Flea at bay for an hour before tiring, and in so doing earned Bob Bradley’s undying and to some extend “unrelenting in the face of decreasing returns” trust, or the final group stage match against Algeria at the World Cup, where Bornstein turned thousands of fans who had screamed in agony at the lineup before the match into happy fools, with a fine performance suggesting Bob knows best.

Low Point: Shaky play throughout the Confederations Cup in South Africa, a streak of “What are you doing moments” in essentially every American qualifier, capped off by his lifeless/clueless performances in a pair of the American friendlies in the World Cup build-up. There wasn’t a specific moment—it as the rash of inconsistency that plagued the cycle which concerns most fans.

2014 Outlook: With Bradley Sr back in the fold, Jon Bornstein will get every opportunity to keep his spot at left back. I just don’t think he’ll keep it, as for once, the young talent in the back is promising. I do think he’ll grind out a roster spot though—his pace is too enticing and Mexico could make him a legitimate attacking threat for twenty to thirty minutes, which would be a fine role.

Steve Cherundolo, Hannover 96  B-

Summary: Injury plagued the second half of the cycle, the general theory was a healthy Cherundolo would move right into the starting eleven. We just didn’t get to see enough of him to know that for certain until late in the cycle. He also had some moments within the cycle where he looked like a player who had been injured a while and was out of form (see the 2009 Gold Cup). Once he got fit, Cherundolo was a paragon of stability for an American side back corps that frankly lacked it all cycle.

High Point: The World Cup, where he was one of the Yanks top four players. Credit Cherundolo with the second assist behind Robert Green for the England draw. He contained Ashley Cole (yes, the Ashley Cole who was England’s best player in South Africa) and abused James Milner so badly that Capello had to remove him from the game and feign an injury to the press to protect his pride. He then was instrumental in the Slovenia comeback, threatening the flanks throughout with well-disciplined and thought out forays forward. Like many of the Yanks, he played his worst game against Ghana, but wasn’t particularly bad in the match—just not as good as the rest of the tournament.

Low Point: Cherundolo has his defenders on this front to be sure, but his performance against Mexico in the Azteca was poor, particularly after the Americans took the lead on the lethal Donovan to Davies counterattack. He failed to close out on Israel Castro’s once-in-a-lifetime howitzer that equalized in the first half, and was left hung out to dry by Efrain Juarez on the game winner, though he was nearly rescued by Jay DeMerit, who covered well and was unlucky to have the ball bounce to Miguel Sabah, who fired it home.

2014 Outlook: Again, there isn’t one. Cherundolo looked ageless at times this summer but beyond a Gold Cup next summer, one would think his international career is over.

Jay DeMerit, Everton? Wolfsburg? Vancouver Whitecaps? B –

Summary: Jay DeMerit, which is also interestingly an old Latin phrase meaning “blue collar”, probably embodied this team’s fighting spirit more than anyone on Bob Bradley’s 23 man roster in South Africa. By now we all know DeMerit left for England with no job, started playing for a pub side and eventually ended up captain of championship-side Watford, where he played admirably and with his usual Springstein-esque grit. He repeated the deed at the Confederations Cup, where his performances alongside Oguchi Onyewu had Yanks supporters thinking their side was among the finest in the world at 1 on 1 aerial challenge defending. One thing was certain throughout, DeMerit was this cycle’s “Brian McBride”, which is not a label you issue lightly. He left it all on the field, playing above his talent level for the most part, and never taking a minute off.

High Point: The upset of Spain in the Confederations Cup. Yes, you will begin to notice a trend here. DeMerit was also brilliant in the Egypt match that preceded it, and was steady in the final half of qualifying.

Low Point: The World Cup, where DeMerit’s heart and soul were left on the field but his technical issues were exposed. His shortcomings as a one on one defender helped eliminate the Americans from the tournament, and like many grinders, DeMerit struggles early in games while everyone is fresh, mostly because he just can’t play at world class speed a full ninety—he can play at DeMerit speed. That wasn’t good enough against Slovenia or Ghana, and it cost the States dearly.

2014 Outlook: There isn’t one, as DeMerit is too old. He might have a chance to factor heavily into the 2011 Gold Cup, which is now a crucial tournament for the Yanks, but he’ll need to figure out where he’s playing for that to be a certainty at this point. I’m not sure today’s rumored move to the Vancouver Whitecaps as a Designated Player will get the job done.

Clarence Goodson, IK Start, C

Summary: The Norwegian professional made the most of limited opportunities, providing a stable option for Bradley as the Yanks dealt with injuries late in the cycle. Scored his first goal against Honduras in the semifinals at the Gold Cup, where he had a steady tournament for a team filled with youth and inexperience. Excited supporters with his knack for finding set pieces with his head, and inspired enough confidence in his send-off friendly performances to make the argument that he should play for the Americans in place of an out-of-form/still injured Oguchi Onyewu in South Africa. That wasn’t meant to be, but at twenty-seven, Goodson may be able to hang around and have his say about the next World Cup.

High Point: Game winner against Honduras in the Gold Cup semifinal, and all-tournament team performance in the same tournament. Like most his teammates, he didn’t really show up in the final, but he was probably the reason the Yanks got that far to begin with.

Low Point: The Gold Cup Final, mentioned above. Even if he wasn’t particularly accountable for any of the Mexican goals, any time you concede five on home soil to your arch rival (or anyone, for that matter), and you play center back—you’ve had a bad night.

2014 Outlook: Right now, I’d lean towards Goodson starting. The problem is cycles are four years long and the talent behind him is more promising. At 31, Goodson will also be a bit long in the tooth, even for a late bloomer, in 2014, which raises doubts. His Gold Cup performance next summer will be critical to his staying power.

Chad Marshall, Columbus Crew C

Summary: One of the last men out of Bob Bradley’s 23 man roster for South Africa, the two time MLS Defender of the year was a subject of intense debate in supporter circles. Marshall put in an all-tournament team performance in the 2009 Gold Cup, and started a critical fixture against El Salvador with Oguchi Onyewu suspended, playing admirably. The difference between he and Goodson was aerial prowess, both with challenges and the ability to score off set pieces, and this minute distinction probably kept one off the roster and placed the other on it.

High Point: The 2009 Gold Cup, where he dominated all the way until the final when….

Low Point: He played abysmally and the Yanks suffered their worst loss of the cycle, a five-nil defeat on home soil to their hated rival to the south.

2014 Outlook: He’ll be thirty in 2014, and to be honest there are questions about his upside. Right now, he’s steady and reliable, the kind of guy that gets to start the early qualifiers. I fear, however, that he may be Brian Chinged off the roster in Brazil—the guy who does the dirty work to help you get there and is rewarded with another plane ticket home before the big party.

Oguchi Onyewu, AC Milan B –

Summary: It was the best of times…it was the worst of times. Onyewu looked every bit the promising, athletic, young and overpowering defender he can be at his best at many times in this World Cup cycle. Two performances stand out above the others—his ruthless marking and aerial victories in the Hexagon opener, another dos y cero defeat of Mexico in Columbus, and his dominating performance against Fernando Torres in the Confederations Cup semifinal win against Spain. Onyewu started nearly every qualifier, and his club and many back home think he certainly started one too many. The man who became the first US international to sign with AC Milan may never get the chance to play much there, and if that happens, it is a shame.

High Point: Listed above—another dominant performance against Mexico, and his immense Confederations Cup, which included a fine performance in the final against Brazil as well.

Low Point: The World Cup, but that isn’t completely fair. The real answer is the injury against Costa Rica, period, end of discussion. Just making it back to the roster for the tournament is a testament to both AC Milan’s freakish medical staff and Gooch’s resolve and determination. Fact was, he just wasn’t ready to go. A shell of himself, he cost the Yanks against England and Slovenia and was mercifully put out to pasture by Bob Bradley for the final matches. What’s worse is the impact it’s had on his club position—there’s just no guarantee he’ll get back in the fold at Milan.

2014 Outlook: If the knee is fine and he finds playing time at his club, he’ll start in the American center. Those are big ifs. He also has four years to answer the questions.

Michael Orozco, Philadelphia Union A +

Summary: Orozco started every game for the Americans at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. He even played relatively well in the opening matches against Japan and Holland. It was then he decided that he would lose his temper in the first five minutes of the match, get sent off, leave his team with ten men against a talented Nigeria side, and turn a tournament with great promise into epic and sad disaster. Anyone who saw the “Two Escobars” documentary understands that Orozco is extremely fortunate the majority of Americans don’t take their soccer all that seriously. Why the A plus you ask? Well around the TYAC offices, we call the 24 year old California native and Union defender George Washington.

High Point: The red card against Nigeria. It made four guys so depressed they started a blog at nine in the morning on August 13, 2008. They called that blog The Yanks Are Coming.

Low Point: Impossible to have one. He’s responsible for The Yanks Are Coming.

2014 Outlook: Orozco is a common starter for the upstart Philadelphia Union and Bradley is very familiar with him. He has called him into camp on a couple of occasions and is always willing to look at players who have extensive histories in the American youth programs, which Orozco does. The question is really whether he has the top end talent to contend with the other youngsters in the fold. Our guess is he doesn’t, but that won’t keep him from a cap or two.

Jonathan Spector, West Ham United C -

Summary: No player whose name doesn’t rhyme with Bon Jornstein sparks more heated debate among USMNT supporters. Some see a player whose started consistently (until this campaign) in England the world’s top league. They see a player who is dangerous on crosses, a splendid long-ball passer and a reliable one on one defender. Others see a player who is falling out of favor at a relegation-threatened EPL side. They see great crosses but no pace. They see a reliable defender, so long as he can keep up. They see a player who leaves his feet when he shouldn’t and is prone to short passing turnovers, which are concerning for a side that battle to build possession from the back. The bottom line is whatever Spector’s future truly is will be resolved in the next couple of years.

High Point: Brilliant play throughout the Confederations Cup. Even in the early losses, Spector was reliable in the back. He entered the tournament on a fine run of form with West Ham, and it showed. He was dangerous, even in the Final against Brazil, with cutting crosses and well-placed long passes, and he was responsible against high-level international defenders.

Low Point: The run up to the World Cup, which resulted in his failure to see the field in South Africa. Spector was on a bad run of form at West Ham during this period, partly due to his own erratic play and partly due to Gianfranco Zola’s confusion as to what to do with Spector, who has played everything from Striker to defensive midfielder in his career. Given a chance to cement a starting spot on the American left in the send-off series, Spector performed miserably against Turkey in Philadelphia, getting skinned repeatedly by Hamit Altintop. That performance sealed his fate.

2014 Outlook: A move out of West Ham seems imminent. The question becomes where to? If he remains in England or Europe, he’ll have a chance to build his confidence again, get consistent playing time, and fight his way back into Bob Bradley’s confidences. I think he’ll be on the roster again; the question is whether he’s going to finally see the field in a World Cup.

Neil W. Blackmon is the Co-Founder and Associate Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at nwblackmon@gmail.com or found on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.

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