Two years ago, Heath Pearce declared himself the best left back in the US National Team player pool. This came after an outstanding Janaury camp in 2006 which saw Pearce enter the discussion for a spot in Germany 2006 only to see an injury and lack of experience thwart his chances to make the final World Cup squad for manager Bruce Arena.
Arena instead counted on Eddie Lewis, a star of the 2002 World Cup who had shifted from his natural left midfielder position to play left back for national team, and Carlos Bocanegra, whose left foot made it possible for him to play outside on the left, but whose lack of speed and recklessness eventually doomed the idea to failure. Cory Gibbs, a left footer who can play outside back or in the middle suffered a devastating injury in a friendly just prior to the World Cup, and has still not returned to his previous form.
When Pearce made his deceleration he wasn’t even being called in for friendlies. In Bob Bradley’s initial months on the job he relied on Jonathan Bornstein who Bradley had managed at Chivas USA. Then when Pearce was given a shot in Copa America he did little to impress.
Pearce was called in for a September 2007 friendly against Brazil in Soldier Field. I was at that match and after having spent months as a Pearce critic, I was turned around on the player by this one performance. Pearce showed ease and confidence in frustrating Brazil’s world class attackers. The US unluckily lost that match, but the perennial problems at left back which stretched all the way back in time to Steve Sampson’s national team reign were beginning to be solved.
The US had a strong winter 2007/spring 2008, featuring victories on the road against Switzerland, South Africa and Poland. In each of those of those matches Pearce looked comfortable and Bornstein his onetime rival was battling injuries and inconsistency. Pearce had seemingly locked down the left back spot for the 2010 World Cup cycle. Even when Pearce’s Bundesliga side Hansa Rostock was relegated it seemed Pearce was safe as a national team regular, even as one of the few Americans not playing in a top division to be considered a national team pool member.
But then World Cup qualifying began and Pearce was once again exposed. At the Mateo Flores against Guatemala, Pearce turned in what can only be called a shocking performance. The US won that match, but probably should not have because Pearce committed a clear hand ball in the box that went uncalled, and was consistently beaten down the left side. Then in Cuba, Pearce had a similarly bad match against what theoretically should have been an outclassed opponent.
The entire semifinal round of CONCACAF Qualifying was poor for Pearce, who allowed the door to be re-opened for Bornstien and potentially other left backs. Recently, ESPN.com’s Jen Chang also raised the possibility that DaMarcus Beasley could play left back for the US, particularly with an emerging crop of left sided midfielders in the player pool including Robbie Rogers, Colin Clarke, Stuart Holden and Jose Fransisco Torres. (for the record I believe Torres would be better in the middle in place of Sacha Kljestan in South Africa 2010)
The possibility of playing Beasley, who defends well at left back has been raised before. On CSRN’s American Soccer Show several months ago Dave Denholm of ESPN 710 radio in LA and myself bantered about the topic. At issue for us was that playing Beasley in the midfield was almost like using an extra defender against better opponents, and that Pearce was not up to the level demanded of a national team player.
But in 2006 the US made a fatal mistake by moving Eddie Lewis, the team’s most consistent left midfielder to back at a time when it appeared the aging Lewis would be passed by Beasley and a young Bobby Convey at the left midfield position. Not only was Lewis ineffective on the backline but Convey and Beasley were both disasters in the midfield in the first two matches of Germany 2006. In the final match needing a result against Ghana, Lewis was returned to his natural position, Beasley was pushed inside, and Convey was placed on the bench. Lewis played well in that match but not well enough as the US was eliminated.
Ironically, the now 35 year old Lewis has continued to play a part in the US setup since World Cup 2006 as an emergency left midfielder, and even scored a great goal off a free kick in Krakow against Poland. Much of that playing time has come at Beasley’s expense or while Beasley has been injured.
Beasley is a frail player. Again Wednesday we were treated to highlights of the player being injured by a hard tackle this time in Rangers Scottish Cup match. The players injury filled stint in the SPL comes on the heels of a season at Manchester City where despite some flashes of absolute brilliance, Beasley looked too thin and not physical enough to play in the Premier League. That probably means he cannot play left back on the international level.
This brings us back to Pearce. Neither Pearce or Bornstien are the type of players you want to see starting a World Cup if you actually expect to make it out of the group stage. But Pearce somehow continues in his left back role in spite of being continuously outclassed by weak CONCACAF opposition.
With players like Heath Pearce starting every match it’s no small wonder why many a reporter in Europe have a hard time taking the US seriously as a footballing nation. Pearce could be one of the least accomplished players for any participant to start in World Cup 2010 should he continue in his current role for the US. On a national team whose player pool is more accomplished than ever before, Pearce stands out as the type of player the United States long ago used to field in internationals: a second division player who is the only option for a nation with few professionals to speak of.
In 2009, however this does not make sense. The United States has more professional footballers than ever before and a deeper player pool than ever before. At almost every other position on the pitch an injury or two is no reason for panic as the replacement players are for the most part seasoned and accomplished in their own right. But left back remains a huge sore spot for the U.S. Short of naturalizing another David Regis, whose last minute inclusion in the 1998 World Cup squad upset team chemistry, though Regis proved to be a solid left back for the next few years, the US is in deep trouble at the back.
Cory Gibbs injury problems and his recent bizare withdrawal from the January US camp probably leaves Pearce safe for the moment at left back. But should Pearce start in South Africa next year, chances are the US stay at the World Cup will be a short one.