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Eddie Lewis

Which Team is Better – 2002 or 2009?

02 vs 09

There has been some talk lately about how the USMNT has regressed from its best teams of the past decade – that a lack of veteran leadership has made this team shakier and that Bob Bradley is making do with a hand full of poor cards.  I don’t believe that to be the case.  The current US team has as much potential as the 2002 World Cup quarterfinalists, and if they can catch some of the same breaks as that 2002 team, they can go just as far if not farther.

To make my point, let’s compare the 2002 team that took the field for its greatest World Cup victory (2-0 win over Mexico) against the team that took the field this summer in South Africa in its greatest victory (2-0 vs Spain).  Before we do the apples to apples comparison, a couple of global comparisons:

  • The 2002 team finished the World Cup Final with 2 wins, 2 losses and a draw.  The 2009 finished the Confederations Cup with 2 wins and 3 losses, including two losses to Brazil.  Neither record was all that stellar.
  • Both teams upset a top 5 team (Portugal in 2002 and Spain in 2009).
  • Both teams were really lucky to advance out of group play.  The 2002 team advanced because, despite their loss to Poland, an already-through South Korea did them a huge favor by beating Portugal.  Similarly, the 2009 team got through because Brazil was nice enough to beat Italy by three goals.

Let’s look at the players:

Goalie – 2002 Friedel vs. 2009 Howard.  A wash.  Two great goalies who had the ability to get super hot during a tournament, and did.  They have both played overseas with good clubs in great leagues, and each US team felt relieved to have that type of quality between the pipes.

Back Line – 2002 Berhalter, Sanneh Pope and Mastroeni vs 2009 Spector, Onyewu, DeMerit and Bocanegra.  You have to give the edge to the 2009 line.  As professionals, the entire 2009 back line has spent most or all of their careers in Europe and have played more minutes at a higher level than the 2002 line.  Pope was a stalwart leader, but no less than Gooch is one today.  Both lines played with heart, but DeMerit, Spector and Bocanegra each had a season or longer trying to keep the Henry’s Rooney’s, Torres’ and Ronaldo’s of the world from scoring.

Midfield – 2002 Lewis, Reyna, O’Brien and Donovan vs 2009 Dempsey, Bradley, Clark and Donovan.  On the wings, the 2009 team is better, and in the middle, the 2002 team was far better.  The 2009 Donovan is a much better player than the 2002 version – a better dribbler, passer and finisher – and is probably operating at the height of his powers right now.  Similarly, I would pick Dempsey over Lewis any day.  Lewis is quicker and a better crosser, but Dempsey is a more complete player who can hold the ball, create and score.  On the other hand, Reyna and O’Brien were the perfect match – O’Brien’s creativity and Reyna’s toughness were as ideal as the US could hope for, and while Bradley and Clark may be there one day (especially Bradley), they are not there yet.  Overall, I would give the slight edge to the 2002 team, but it is not a slam dunk.

Striker – 2002 McBride and Wolf vs 2009 Altidore and Davies.  Despite my affection for McBride, you have to give this one to the 2009 team.  Altidore and Davies are that strength and speed combination that can unbalance their opponents.  McBride was a scrapper and great in the air, but the McBride/Wolf combination is a step behind the 2009 combination.

Overall, I would give the edge to the 2009 team, but my larger point is that it is a mistake to think that Bruce Arena was dealt and inside straight while Bradley has nothing but bum cards.  Bradley has every opportunity to do as well as any US team has ever done.

How far can this team go?  Nobody will favor them to go far or, depending on who is in their bracket, even get out of their group.  However, the US is good enough to do what plenty of mid-level teams have done in the past – catch some breaks, have a goalie get NASA hot, meet some opponents who are underperforming, and progress pretty far in the competition.  In a knock-out tournament, anything can happen, and the US is good enough to make the most of whatever fortune they happen to stumble across.

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  1. bailey button

    July 17, 2010 at 10:57 pm

    I agree the 2002 team had some good players on the bench. But the 2009 team has that potential too.

  2. doug

    June 7, 2010 at 2:44 am

    Please. the 2002 team hands down was better. Sure, they finished just 2-2-1, but that’s counting the German defender batting the ball out of the goal w/ his hand. I just rewatched the highlights from that game — the US definitely had more chances. In fact, I love Donovan, but that game must have tore him up for years to come, b/c he really wasted quite a few chances, and it would have put us through to the semis of the WC. Sanneh missed a header so narrowly to equalize in the 89th minute. That team really wanted to win, and they played with heart and confidence.

    Second point, the chat on-line and everywhere else was that the koreans didn’t deserve their penalty against us. I was actually at that game — talk about home field advantage. So, that 2002 team played four excellent matches out of five, which is huge in a world cup. 2009 was impressive, but it wasn’t the world cup. The jury is still out on whether 2010 has the heart…

  3. afrim

    September 23, 2009 at 11:08 am

    you cant discount the impact Sanneh had at RB….he played the tourney of his life and was an absolute phyiscal specimen back there….a poor man’s Maicon if you will. Im not sure if Spector has the raw tools that Sanneh had.

  4. Goalscorer24

    September 18, 2009 at 12:32 pm

    I agree the 2002 team had some good players on the bench. But the 2009 team has that potential too. I think the bigger question between the two teams is the coach. Arena took some chances in the world cup with a couple of young players. Will Bradley do the same?

  5. Soccer Guru

    September 17, 2009 at 4:46 pm

    While I agree with Kartik that the 02 team was much better than today’s team, the bottom line is that this team will change before next year has the potential to be very good. Recall that 02 team had three key guys, DMB, Landon and Mastro that did not play at all in qualifying. We could have Rogers, Castillo and J. Jones do the same next year.

  6. Jason

    September 17, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    Reyna was tough, but not a defensive MF. He played best with Armas or Masetroeni behind him. The 2002 WC was Pablo’s “coming-out” party as Armas was hurt in the build-up.

    I continue to argue that people don’t give enough credit to the impact Reyna made on the USMNT team. He was not good enough to overcome the fatal flaws of the 1998 and 2006 teams, but since he has left the team, the US has not had one clear player to control/dictate the tempo and style of play. This leads to the schizophrenic results of the last 3 years.

    It may be argued that Stewart was maxed out by 2002, but he was playing at a great level at time. He was probably the most reliable player during 2001 and 2002, and a 2002 Earnie Stewart would be a consistant starter on this team in my opinion, probably with Dempsey pushed up top.

    The biggest impact on the 2002 team was a healthy John O’Brien. He had never played consistantly for the US, and his impact was glaring. The 2009 team does not have a player in his prime that can make that type of combined tactical and technical impact.

  7. Seybold

    September 17, 2009 at 1:10 am

    My gut feeling is to say the 2002 squad was much, much better 1-22 for the reasons Kartik states, and because they made the quarterfinals. However, in fairness I don’t think you can compare them until after the current bunch plays in the World Cup, assuming they qualify.

    Remember, that very same 2002 USA team was in 4th place after 8 rounds of qualifying, behind Mexico on goal difference, back when only 3 teams qualified the WC–no 4th place playoff back then. That bunch came very close to being a disaster.

    The team that won qualification ended up being different from the team at the WC–Arena took big chances, starting youngsters Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley to great effect in the first match against Portugal. Neither of them had played in qualifying until the final irrelevant match.

    We all know who similar nominees are for the USA in 2009.

    I hope Bradley understands how forming a team for the World Cup is different than qualifying. Arena was conservative in his selections during qualifying, but not in the WC.

  8. Kartik Mehta

    September 16, 2009 at 7:56 pm

    Well then your requirements are different. Being offered to go to AC Milan means Pope’s definitely as good as Onyewu, and who knows how Onyewu’s choice will work out….Also, Berhalter and Sanneh were in Europe at the time, so…..

  9. Eric Altshule

    September 16, 2009 at 7:31 pm

    Look, neither of these teams is Brazil 1970. That being said…

    Kartik K- If the 2002 bench was that much better, I am not seeing it. Putting Cobi aside (no argument – a great player), a 33 year old Ernie Stewart or a Joe Max Moore who had already maxed out his career and would barely kick a ball again after 2002 is not some giant triumph. Similarly, I love Hejduk, but while he was the books at Bayer Leverkusen, he was never on the field. He was not a regular club player until he joined the Crew again. Also, while Clint Mathis had a great World Cup (or at least a great goal against South Korea), he will go down as the greatest “what could have been” player in US history. What does all that mean? The2009 US bench with Edu, Feilhaber, Cherundelo, Torres, Holden, Ching, Castillo (maybe), Marshall, and others is not so far from the mark. The 2009 team is thinner at striker perhaps, but thicker in other areas.

    DA – You are right. We are, to some degree moving sideways. However, the 2009 team is still very young, and there are only a few players who are not likely to still be available and improved in four years. I do think we are on the verge of a big upgrade, though we may not be there yet.

    Kartik M – (what are the odds of two Kartik’s replying to this post?) Whether Pope is our greatest defender or not (I would never give that award to someone who spent his entire career in the MLS), I still prefer the current back line. They play in tough leagues against tough teams for 9 ½ months a year. The biggest concern the US team has at the moment is Gooch, and how much time he will see in Milan.

  10. Kartik Mehta

    September 16, 2009 at 6:25 pm

    Your argument that the 2009 defense is better simply because “they play against the rooney’s and torres’ of europe” is flawed. Pope is our best defender ever. Bocanegra for all the leadership he offers, is slow and shaky. DeMerit plays in the championship, and spector is more of squad player. I’d take the 2002 team any day when you include Hejduk to the back four you named above.

  11. DA in LA

    September 16, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    The fact that you have to even compare these two teams is the problem. At best, we’re moving sideways.

  12. Charles

    September 16, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    Obviously you can argue theoretical ‘better’ all day long ( and I will read it too ), but the results are what matters.
    I think it is real easy to say France WCup stunk ( it did I was there ) and ’02 was great ( it was ), without realizing that a break here or there and it could be reversed.

  13. Rob

    September 16, 2009 at 12:44 pm

    Good little comparison piece, and I agree big time with Katrik above. I have one thing to say about the 2009 midfield though; and that is the fact that it COULD be much better with the options Bradley has and it SHOULD be better than the ’02 group by next year or beyond.

  14. Kartik Krishnaiyer

    September 16, 2009 at 12:33 pm

    The real comparison is on the bench. Clint Mathis was amazing in the 2002 World Cup, and he provided the sort of depth no one on this current team can provide. Then you had the likes of JMM, Cobi Jones and Earnie Stewart, world cup vets that brought a steady hand late in games compared to youngsters like Holden, Torres, Feilhaber, Kljestan, etc.

    I think if you look at the US team 1-22 from 2002, because after all Arena played every field player in the tournament except Regis and Dolo, you’ll see that team was much deeper and much more complete. I don’t even think it is worth comparing or discussing at this point.

    One more note- in 2002, Arena often started Mathis at AM and Donovan at FWD. It seems like you’ve simply taken the lineup from the Mexico game which is fine for a one off comparison, but Frankie Hejduk started the other four games of the WC and you don’t have him listed.

    At the time Frankie was on the books of a team that had just lost in the Champions League Final, Bayer Leverkusen.

    Certainly the starting XI can be discussed, but I think 1-22 the squads are not even close.

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