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.