Looking Ahead Part 2 of 2: The US Player Pool
Thanks to Michael Haley for his contributions
The results of the 2006 World Cup in Germany clearly demonstrated that while our national team remains talented, the player pool is not as deep nor as experienced as the pool was in the 2000-2003 time period. While this statement may make me unpopular with many of our most passionate fans, it is a reality that in my mind cannot be overlooked. This is best evidenced by our semifinal run at the 2000 Summer Olympics with an under 23 team, which was followed up with non-qualification for the 2004 Summer games. The glorious group that led the USA Youth World Championship team to glory in 1999 has graduated to the senior national team and the group that has followed has been less accomplished, but yet still has some talent.
Having recently watched the USA-Germany Quarterfinal game from the last World Cup again, it is amazing to compare the number of viable attacking options Bruce Arena had on the bench in Korea four years ago that he did not have in Germany this time around. The player pool particularly when it comes to attacking players needs to be replenished and re-energized and that is something that MLS, much to the chagrin of the new Bruce Arena will have a direct and active hand in.
Our Goalkeeping situation is in the air for qualifying and beyond. We have had a glorious run with three keepers about the same age. Tony Meola was fantastic in 1994 World Cup after learning on the job in 1990. Kasey Keller was solid throughout a rough qualifying campaign for the 1998 and 2002 World Cups and superb in the easy qualification for 2006. (with the exception of one very costly mistake versus Mexico in a qualifier held at Foxboro in 1997) Brad Friedel started all 5 USA games in the 2002 World Cup and was considered at the time to be one of the top 3 keepers in the world, and almost single handedly was responsible for the USA advancing beyond the group stage.
Tim Howard was widely assumed to be the USA keeper of the future many years ago, but due to his extensive club schedule in England with Manchester United, and now to his loan to Everton where he will be a full time starter as once was at Man U, his participation, much like Brad Friedel’s before him will be limited. Howard’s ability to fly stateside and participate in qualifiers and friendlies is unlikely except in the most rare, and critical circumstances. That leaves Chivas USA keeper Brad Guzan, now 21 and possibly some other MLS keepers such as New England’s Matt Reis and LA’s Kevin Hartman to carry the load during qualifying.
The backline looks solid moving forward. Eddie Pope will likely be phased out over the next four years at his center back position, but could still play a role in qualifying. Oguchi Onyewu, who will be better at 27 than he is currently at 23, will anchor the line with several options inside and outside. They include Cory Gibbs whose injury after being named to the roster for Germany 2006 was one of many ominous signs of trouble leading into the World Cup, Jonathan Spector whose injury problems have precluded him from being more active with the national team, DC United’s Bobby Boswell now 23, Heath Pierce now 21 and playing in Europe as well as Chad Marshall who is now 21 playing in MLS. Liverpool’s Zac Whitbread who has lived less than 2 years of his life in the USA is eligible for a call up and that too should happen soon. Whitbread is tall and a force in the air on set pieces. Expect Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo to continue to play important roles as well. Onyewu is an interesting option to captain the squad, but it appears like the timid Landon Donovan will instead get that nod.
Defensive midfield has been a problem for the USA National Team for years. Mike Sorber, Chad Deering, Brain Maisonieuve, Chris Armas, John O’Brien, and Pablo Mastroeni among others have played the position since the 1994 World Cup with varying degrees of success. Many in US Soccer believe a potential star in this position is Nathan Sturgis, who is now 18 and playing a key role for the US Youth International teams. Sturgis is also a member of MLS’ LA Galaxy where he looks to get more and more playing time as the year wears on. Mastroeni himself should continue to play a key role during qualifying, but he will be 33 when the next World Cup roles around. Perhaps Brian McBride who will be 38 in 2010 but still is fit, tall and excellent in the air and with the ball at his feet can play this position in the future, ala Lothar Matthaus who dropped back into a “libero” position later in his international career for Germany after much success as an attacking midfield/forward player? McBride is a tough player and though he lacks the pace to continue to play up top, maybe we can find a role like this for him.
Our midfield looks crowded but little accomplished. DeMarcus Beasley proved in this World Cup that he lacks consistency and in many ways to be a true superstar. Despite his lumps, Beasley does have the talent and the work ethic to be a key factor going forward. Landon Donovan will likely be the captain of the team which is unfortunate because Donovan has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that is incapable of leadership, grit and fighting through adversity. It has been pointed out to me by several readers, that Donovan the golden boy of American soccer did not flop in Germany but merely was homesick. My retort is that if Donovan is unwilling to stick it out and toughen up under typical circumstances for a non-European international in a Euro league, he is completely incapable of being an impact player on the world stage. Donovan, sadly proved in this World Cup that taking the easy road has disastrous results. If Donovan wants to play chess as Eric Wynalda stated last week on ESPN or go do photo shoots for glamorous magazines back home in Southern California, best of luck to him. We need fully committed tough leaders on our side, and Donovan seems to lack the guts and determination required to be a success. Hopefully Germany 2006 will wake Donovan up and reveal to him that he must once and for all leave his comfort zone for the betterment of US Soccer.
Bobby Convey and Clint Dempsey showed in this World Cup why they belong in any future plans for the national team. While Eddie Lewis is unlikely to be on the 2010 roster when he is 34, he is the best left sides crosser of the ball we have and should still see some time during qualifying. Freddy Adu has received much hype worldwide but unless he works harder he is destined to a Landon Donovan type career stuck in MLS and outclassed at an international level. Adu is left sided player and quite frankly the USA has an abundance of left sided midfielders, although without a playmaker in the middle Adu or Beasley may be used inside. Eddie Gaven is smallish playmaker whose game has not improved much in 3 seasons of MLS. Yet Gaven is only 20 and should be an option for qualifying and the 2010 World Cup. Michael Bradley who attended the US pre World Cup camp and is the son of Chivas USA coach Bob Bradley is another option on the right side of the midfield. Santino Quaranta we sometimes forget is still only 21 because he has failed to live up to his billing thus far on DC United, but he has already logged several appearances for the national team and should get another look.
The attack looks typically weak for the future. Eddie Johnson is currently just 22 but hasn’t played well on the international level for almost t
wo years now. Nonetheless, should Johnson return to form and stay fit he is the most viable attacking option the national team has going forward. Kenny Cooper has been impressive since coming to MLS this year but has never played for any US youth national team. Cooper played for Manchester United’s reserve team in England scoring 8 goals in 20 matches two seasons ago. Cooper is eligible by virtue of his father to play for England or the USA, but the Baltimore native is unlikely to ever get a call up to the English national team. Conor Casey has battled injuries the last year or two playing in Germany, but he will only be 28 in 2010 and is likely to see substantial playing time during the qualifiers. Chris Rolfe has been impressive in MLS, and at 23 he will be in his prime in the next few years. Rolfe however is a bit on the smallish side and may need to play in the midfield. Mike Magee has been playing for the New York MLS Franchise since he was 18, but now approaching his 22nd birthday he has yet to really make his impact felt on his club consistently. Similarly the development of DC United’s Aleko Eskandarian seems to have stalled in the last year or two, even though he still is a viable option for the future. Taylor Twellman was a much talked about omission from Bruce Arena’s roister for Germany 2006. Arena probably felt that Twellman, who was pegged as a superstar a few years ago is soft because he declined the option to play in Germany several years ago to play in MLS. Nonetheless, expect Twellman to start plenty of games in qualifying, though he will be 30 in 2010, an age by which the USA’s all time leading goal scorer Eric Wynalda had dropped out of the regular player pool for the national team.