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Unbeknownst to most of the country, the United States National Soccer team starts qualification games for the 2010 FIFA World Cup this Sunday against Barbados. Consequently, I thought this might be a good time to jot down my thoughts as to where we stand. If you’ve been paying any attention at all then you know that the U.S. has just finished playing three games against England, Spain and Argentina, gathering two losses and a tie while scoring no goals.

To say that the last three games have been sobering is an understatement. Its also a bit simplistic. Despite all the handwringing among the fanbase that coach Bob Bradley is still trotting out the likes of Josh Wolff and Frankie Hejduk, the games need to be put into context. Between injuries and the ongoing MLS season, Bradley’s had some severe roster limitations. But he was not just limited by the roster either. He was limited by the expectation of the opponents that we would field a competitive team. Spain was preparing for Euro 2008. Argentina has WCQ coming up.

I know that in the absence of Landon Donovan and other MLSers, many fans would have preferred that Bradley field a more experimental lineup. I think if he had done that however, he risked aggravating our opponents, making them unwilling to play us in the future. As sad as it is, of the available options up top, Josh Wolff was the best choice.

This is not a defense of Josh Wolff. I live in Chicago and have watched Wolff for years. He hasn’t been an international caliber forward since 2002. But, unfortunately, Nate Jaqua, or Kenny Cooper or Taylor Twellman will never be international caliber.

If we’ve learned anything from the last three games it is that since the retirement of Brian McBride, the only international caliber forward the United States has is Landon Donovan. When Donovan doesn’t play, the United States is a very pedestrian team. For several years now we’ve been trotting out jack-of-all-trades type players like DaMarcus Beasley and Clint Dempsey. When Beasley left for PSV, he was playing left back for the Fire. Now he’s a forward? What position exactly does Dempsey play?

Its still early in the 2010 cycle however. Its not so important how we look today. What’s important is how we look on or about June 11, 2010. With that in mind, here’s my review of the United States National Soccer Team.

Goalkeepers: Really, with respect to goalkeepers there isn’t much to say. Goalkeeping is still the strength of the United States team. After the Argentina game its clear that Timmay is a nearly unstoppable number 1 goalkeeper. Guzan is a capable backup. I wouldn’t be surpised to see Keller hang around just to sit on the bench for one more World Cup.

  • Tim Howard (29) – GK, Everton (England)
  • Brad Guzan (23) – GK, CD Chivas (USA)
  • Kasey Keller – GK, Fulham (England)
  • Defenders

    By the time the 2010 World Cup rolls around I do not believe that the defense will be considered a strength. The current veterans are mediocre and the pipeline is thin. The United States defensive core currently consists of three players:

  • Steve Cherundolo (29), Hannover 96 (Germany)
  • Oguchi Onyewu (26), Standard Liege (Belgium)
  • Carlos Bocanegra (29) Out of Contract
  • All three are young enough such that provided they stay healthy they should not have declined too far by the age of 31, 28 and 31, respectively at the start of the next World Cup. Stevie C is a short, small veteran, who I’ll admit has grown on me over the years. Gooch is a hulking menace of a man, full of potential, but not good enough to catch on full time in the Premiership.

    Besides the defenive core, there are essentially two wild-cards that could significantly affect how the defense looks in 2010. The first of course is 22 year-old Jonathan Spector. Spector made 26 appearahnces for West Ham United (England), 13 as a starter and 13 as a sub. Given what we’ve seen so far from Spector, its possible but not assured, that he develops far enough in the next two years to earn any one of the four starting spots on the back line. His ceiling is probably higher than any of the three vets, although probably not by much.

    The second wild-card is nineteen year-old Neven Subotic. Subotic grew up in Germany and the U.S. and is a former US youth international. Subotic has not decided whether he will play for the United States or Bosnia internationally. After a good season at Mainz 05 (Germany) in the 2. Bundesliga, Subotic recently signed a five-year deal with Borussia Dortmund.

    Heath Pearce (23) – D/M, Hansa Rostock (Germany) had seventeen appearances for Hansa Rostock last season and appears, for now, to have won the starting left back position. Pearce’s main competition at left-back would appear to be twenty three year-old Jonathan Bornstein (Chivas).

    The Rest

  • Danny Califf (28), FC Midtjylland (Denmark) and Jay DeMerit (28), Watford (England) were both named to the 21 man training squad for the Barbados game. I have the same thing to say about both of them: meh
  • Michael Orozco (21) played 767 minutes for San Luis in the Primera Division in Mexico last year. He played well in Olympic Qualifying.
  • Drew Moor (24) plays for FC Dallas. Haven’t really seen him play.
  • Frank Simek (23), right back at Sheffield Wednesday (England)
  • Marvell Wynne (22) is a track star, but unfortunately not a soccer player.
  • Michael Parkhurst (24) is a soccer player, but unfortunately not a track star.
  • Cory Gibbs (28) continues to rehab from multiple knee injuries. Maybe he’ll surprise me, but I’d be surpised if his career ever rebounds to point where he’s a factor for United States. But then again, given the lack of quality and depth at center back, you never know.
  • Midfielders and Forwards

    I’m going to address the midfielders and forwards together. As I said before, besides Landon Donovan (26), our forward crop is weak. Eddie Johnson (24), Fulham (England) and Brian Ching (30), Houston Dynamo are known quantities. Josmer Altidore (18), Villareal (Spain) is part present, part potential. Depending on the game and the opponent, the likelihood is that the U.S. will be best served if one of those three players is on the field with Donovan.

    Freddy Adu (19), Benfica (Portugal) is Freddy Adu. He has the potential to be better than Donovan. As we’ve seen over the last few games, Adu’s time is either here or its really, really close. Where Adu is in his development two years from now is likely to make or break the U.S. team. Donovan is a good player but in baseball terminology, he’s not a number one starter. Whether Adu (or Altidore) is has not been determined yet.

    For the next two years, the U.S. offense is likely to center around Donovan, Adu and a Number 9, none of whom play much defense. Donovan’s defensive effort has improved over the last few years. Even so, my spies in the Bradley administration have snuck me part of the official U.S. defensive depth chart:

    These same spies tell me that Adu wearing a traffic cone for a hat is somewhere below Donovan on the chart.

    These defensive deficiencies will play a large roll in how the U.S. approaches the game. Essentially, the U.S. will be forced to play in a manner similar to how the Chicago Fire have been playing for the last 3 or so years: Start with three or four attacking players and then load up on defensive mids (btw, I believe the Fire’s record for defensive mids on the field at one time is eight).

    There’s been a lot of criticism of gentleman Bob’s “Empty Bucket” formation, utilizing two defensive mids. If you think that this is going to change any time soon, I think you’re wrong. If you think this should change any time soon then I think that you might be mis-analyzing the talent available to the U.S. over the next two year cycle.

    The reason the Empty Bucket looks so bad right now is that the attacking players available are not of the caliber of Donovan or (potentially) Adu.

  • Look at DaMarcus Beasley (26), Rangers (Scotland). Beasley is small, fast, has feet of stone and plays well with Donovan. He sees the field well and makes nice runs. I think he’ll ultimately play well with Adu. He is also capable of playing tough-nosed defense in the midfield. But, if Beasley is the best attacking player you can field, you’re in trouble.
  • Clint Dempsey (25), Fulham (England) impresses me less and less as time progresses. When he first popped on the seen, I envisioned his potential as a hard-nosed two way central midfielder. Instead, the Dempsey we see now is slow of foot, slow of thought and indifferent to defense. If Clint Dempsey is starting for the United States come the 2010 World Cup, we will be swept out in the group stages once again.
  • If Bradley continues to go with the Empty Bucket, or the Chicago Fire Six-Four, then the U.S. will need two to four of the following players to continue to develop.

  • Pablo Matroeni (32), Colorado Rapids is a stalwart who will help the U.S. through qualifying, should it be necessary. Depending upon the development of the younger mids, I wouldn’t be surprised if he were the last midfielder on the roster in two years.
  • Michael Bradley (20), Heerenveen (Holland). Last season Bradley broke the record for the most goals scored in a single season by an American soccer player in a European first division. Previously held by Brian McBride (13 goals for Fulham), Bradley scored 17 in all competitions.
  • Maurice Edu (22), Toronto FC (Canada) was the MLS Rookie of the Year last season. I haven’t seen him play a lot. What I have seen though is pretty impressive. Specifically, over the last few friendly’s it seemed as if Edu’s first touch was second only to Adu.
  • Sacha Kljestan (22), Chivas USA — I confess I don’t know much about Kljestan. Coming out of college I got the impression that he was a number 10 type player. The times that I’ve seen him though, he seems to play some defense.
  • Ricardo Clark (25), Houston Dynamo (USA), the oldest of the next generation of midfield destroyers, Clark possesses a somewhat awkward, lanky athleticism and covers a lot of ground.
  • Benny Feilhaber (23) Derby County (England). Last year he was a rising star during the Gold Cup. This year he couldn’t even make the Olympic Qualifying roster. A complete enigma.
  • Danny Szetela (21), Brescia (Italy) is young and talented and inconsistent. Rumor is that his name is actually pronounced San-ti-no Quar-an-ta. But that’s unconfirmed at this point.
  • The Rest

    Finally, I wanted to mention a few more possibilities. I don’t believe any of these players will really impact the U.S. team. They are not candidates to replace the list of center/defensive mids listed above. Their position would be in the front four of the Empty Bucket. The potential for injury aside, I don’t see these guys supplanting Donovan/Adu and their backups.

  • Stuart Holden (22), Houston Dynamo
  • Justin Mapp (23), Chicago Fire, I probably shouldn’t have Mapp on this list anymore. But he’s still young and maybe more importantly, Mapp may or may not be forging a new role for himself on the Fire recently. He’s no longer the “dribble, dribble, dribble” left-winger. Whether he can make anything else out of himself than that I don’t know. But his role is changing a little.
  • Robbie Rogers (21), Columbus Crew
  • Eddie Gaven (21), Columbus Crew
  • Bobby Convey (25), Reading (England) — I’m just mentioning Convey here so that the Convey lovers don’t think that I’ve overlooked him.
  • Conclusions

    The reality is that I’m pretty confident about the next two years. There is a lot of talent that will potentially develop. Most interesting I think is how this cycle will be different than last. Last cycle, the U.S. was in the midst of what can only be describe as a generational transformation. One of Arena’s most difficult tasks was judging the “current state” of talent. Reyna, McBride, Lewis, Pope, O’brien, Berhalter, Hejduk were all on the downsides of their career. The next generation of talent was slow in arriving.

    Bradley will have no such difficulty this time. Jimmy Conrad (31), Josh Wolff (31), Frankie Hejduk (33) and Eddie Lewis (34) will not play in the next World Cup. Lewis and Hejduk might have a similar role to Cobi Jones last cycle during the early qualification games. But, by the time the next cup rolls around the only players that will be over 30 are Mastro, Howard, Cherundolo and Bocanegra.

    This cycle will be almost solely about how well this generation of talent develops. The prospects so far are promising.