This is Part Two of a Three Part Series on The United States Men’s National Team’s run through qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. This section addresses particularly what changes need to made to the team to have a successful trip next summer and what challenges and obstacles will and have already presented themselves to the National Team as it now begins final preparations for the World’s most-anticipated sporting event.
PART TWO: WHAT CHALLENGES REMAIN, AND WHAT CHANGES MUST BE MADE
The qualifying cycle has been described by at least a handful of writers, including one on this blog, as a rather unsatisfactory string of results which essentially saw the National Team do only as much as they had to do to qualify. There were no statement victories outside of the opening 2-0 dissection of El Tri. There was no breakthrough at the seemingly impenetrable Azteca, despite the early Charlie Davies goal. There were far too many goals conceded early, leaving the U.S. playing from behind often—fine in qualifying some argue, but dangerous when the ability of the opponent reaches the level it will in South Africa.
There is merit or at least reasonable argument hidden in this criticism, whose central tenet seems to be that despite the highest four year winning percentage in Federation history and the accomplishments at the Confederations Cup, the United States under Bob Bradley has not progressed or taken a step to a level a cut above what was achieved in the Bruce Arena tenure.
Essentially, the argument made by these critics is reduced to a few sentences. While it is nice that the U.S. has played with grit, determination and heart, much of the guts and hard work simply served to bail the National Team out when their own impeachable play had made a meal of what ought to be a walkover victory (see the draw against El Salvador away, the away win over T and T, the home win against the Hondurans). While it is nice that a road victory was attained in Honduras to secure qualification, it came only after Honduras missed a PK, a stroke of fortune you won’t get in say, Pretoria, next summer. While it is nice that the U.S. played well in South Africa, it took an outright miracle just to qualify for the knockout stages and the collapse against Brazil in the final was more evidence the U.S. just isn’t capable of playing at an elite level consistently. Qualification should have been assured in Mexico City, against an opponent who is not as good as the Americans and over whom the Americans have a psychological edge, these critics say. It is time for a culture change that demands better results, or so the argument goes. This culture change begins with critics and bloggers who are prepared to call Bob Bradley somewhat lucky, genuinely upset at the inconsistency of the side, personally aware that the FIFA ranking is flawed and inflated, and think that true development means not sending a team to South Africa that may earn points, but sending one that should earn points and should expect to play at least one knockout match. This criticism must also extend to players who aren’t performing the way they are capable of performing on a consistent basis. The manager doesn’t get all the abuse, the argument goes, and they stare cynically and wishfully at Clint Dempsey most of all when they make this argument. The arguments are mostly fair, and I think borne out of genuine concern and a good deal of knowledge about the game. Some of those questions will be addressed in what follows; more will be addressed in the coming months on this site.
My personal feeling, as reflected by the first portion of this piece, is that the truth is somewhere in between. I have become convinced through the qualifying cycle—and yes, at the Confederations Cup, that the Yanks are a well-managed team with a great amount of potential. I also recognize that Bradley’s men have at times produced results that either haven’t matched Bradley excellent tactical choices or in some cases have caused any concerned fan to question those same roster or tactical choices.
Putting the cookies on the lowest shelf: This team has not dominated and has rarely played with “flair” or with “pizzazz”, with a style or dominance sufficient to excite a mouth like Colin Cowherd, or an ESPN mainstay like Rece Davis. To their credit, they have battled best and played best with their backs to the wall, including the marvelous 225 minute stretch against Egypt, Spain and the first half against Brazil in the Confederations Cup. They seem to be lingering in the quicksand moat between the “B-level” national sides in the world (See Switzerland, Denmark, Nigeria, Cote D’Ivore, Mexico, Australia) and the beautiful, hilltop fortress that houses the World’s “A-Level” elite sides (Brazil, Spain, France, England, Italy, and the Dutch). Navigating this final hurdle is the immense challenge facing Bob Bradley, and he’s running out of time. Unfortunately, through injury and both lingering and new question, crossing the moat appears to be a daunting, but not impossible, proposition. Here are two particularly critical questions facing the Yanks as they prepare for their final match week of 2009.
a. Injuries happen, but the Oguchi Oneywu injury is a particularly tough blow this close to the World Cup. Sure, Gooch will be back—but how fit will he be? And what in the holy name of Eddie Pope and the are you serious Bruce Arena name of Jeff Agoos are we going to do @ left back?
To his credit, Bob Bradley has never pandered to the media and the bloggers and armchair managers with his lineup. For example, it cannot be overstated what a brilliant tactical decision it was to play Conor Casey in the front to hold and link up with the brilliant Landon Donovan in the qualification-securing win over Honduras last month. The decision to swing the Captain Carlos Bocanegra out-wide in the late stages of the Confederations Cup and play the physical and technically steady Jay DeMerit, though not derided as an act of lunacy like the Casey decision, is another tactical move that took courage and paid off. With the injury to Oneywu and the continual search for an answer at left back, Bradley is again backed into a dangerous corner where everyone seems to have an answer. My gut instinct is that Bradley will continue to do what he has done right all along, which is to recognize, as Yahoo’s Martin Rogers writes, that “the USA has only a couple of truly elite players who demand inclusion into any situation” and can complement them with “good, solid, strong and consistent performers with good all-around games and only subtle differences between them.” Utilizing this knowledge, Bradley will in all likelihood choose a back four that caters to the matchup in front of the team at each particular moment in time. Given the player pool, this seems to be a methodology better equipped to serve the team well than sticking with one formula, roster, lineup or even formation. What is assured is that Bradley will play with four in the back. The challenge that remains is figuring out who the top-tier choices are going to be for the back four. Below are the strongest candidates:
– Chad Marshall, CB, Columbus Crew.
The Crew centerback was the most outstanding Yank at the Gold Cup this summer, and was just named MLS Defender of the Year for the second straight season, which incidentally makes him only the second player in the history of the league to achieve the honor twice (see Carlos Bocanegra). Certainly Marshall is likely to parlay that honor into a move to Europe in the January transfer window, and there is an argument that he is, outside of Landon Donovan, the finest player currently plying his trade in MLS. Marshall is a shut-down defender, a bit quicker than Oneywu and a bit calmer on the ball, although he is not quite as big as Gooch and does not offer nearly as much on long throws or set pieces, despite a four goal effort for the Crew this season. Marshall has been called up to the national side for the upcoming friendly fixtures against Denmark and Slovakia, and I expect he’ll start in the center with the Captain in those matches.
– Jon Spector, SB/CB/DMF/Whatever Gianfranco Zola feels like when he wakes up in the morning, West Ham United
Spector, the former Manchester United Youth Academy and reserve squad starlet, has settled in at East London and his very presence in the world’s most elite league gives him poise and confidence that are unique to the other young American defenders. He also appears to understand that Brian McBride has never cried in his entire life, hair gel is for sissies, and rapping is best left to Clint Dempsey. I digress. The problem with Spector is that he’s not truly a left back, (his career started at striker actually but Sir Alex happened to see a game he played at center back due to a dearth of injuries and signed him on the spot—true story) Gianfranco Zola plays him everywhere and for whatever reason he seems to lack Bradley’s confidence, at least at this point. He’ll get a look this week too.
– Frankie Hejduk, SB, Columbus Crew and Jimmy Conrad, CB, Kansas City Wizards
Hejduk helped the team qualify, playing marvelously against T and T in Nashville and against El Salvador in the near disastrous draw, where Hejduk tied the game late. His pace is still as good as ever and some writers consider him to be playing better in the twilight of his career than he did in his prime. He’s a chemistry-glue type of guy and though his service is adequate at best he does have the recovery speed to make runs in the attack and then defend his flank against speedy wingers. How he holds up over a grueling World Cup is a concern.
The same concerns apply to Conrad, but with Gooch out Bradley probably sees Conrad’s World Cup experience as a nice commodity and has brought the former captain into the fold as a stabilizing force. His World Cup future probably depends on the next set of friendly fixtures. This is especially true when you factor in Oneywu’s recovery, which appears to be going well and which assures that Oneywu will be in South Africa, although we don’t know and can only hold our breath as to in what capacity.
2. So Jermaine Jones still has some injury issues with a stress fracture and Maurice Edu is still recovering from knee surgery thanks to the classless and vile Celtic Football Club. Is there even enough time to bring them back into the fold? And whither Edgar Castillo, who truly is a left back?
The above questions are probably the most over-discussed, most-asked, and increasingly annoying sets of questions that Bradley will face. I honestly have no idea whether there is enough time to integrate Jones, a historically volatile personality, into the fold in time to make an impact on the team this summer. I also am not certain that Maurice Edu will have more than two matches in the early spring to showcase his Starting 11 talent to Bradley. There’s no question that the Rangers starlet would have played 270 minutes or so in the Confederations Cup had he not been brutally assaulted (we won’t even call it a tackle) by Celtic FC in the final version of the 2008-09 Old Firm fixture. Unfortunately, he was, and between him and Jermaine Jones there are two immensely talented midfielders who may or may not be on the plane.
As for the diminutive Mexamerican Castillo, it is curious that he was not called up to the next wave of matches, especially after it was widely reported that he was being called up. His play for Tigres in the Mexico Primera league has been nothing short of brilliant this season (this goal in particular is can’t miss YouTube stuff), and while not the panacea for all American troubles at left back as he has been hailed by some, it would be nice to see the Yanks field a team with a natural left back with pace and outstanding technical ability on the ball. It is possible that Bradley will call in Castillo for the second friendly, but if he does not, like Jones and Edu, his chances to make a final impression will be very limited.
These are just two burning questions. To be certain, there are others, such as why does the U.S. seem to concede early goals so often and what will Bradley do at striker without Davies (though calling in Eddie Johnson, who has been a pleasant surprise at Fulham, provides a hint…maybe) ? We hope that our blog can answer these questions as the calendar turns to 2010, and we appreciate you reading. Stay tuned for Part III of this series about the “State of the Men’s National Team”, which will be a gaze forward to the South African tournament itself.