When asked about the inexperience of the U.S. men's national soccer team and how it could be the defining story of the 2014 World Cup for his side, Tim Howard tried to spin it into a positive.
"Experience is a big thing," the U.S. goalkeeper told a small group of reporters after the Turkey friendly. "Experience also has baggage. So we don't have that baggage."
Only they do. At least, some of them do. There has been so much made about the U.S. national team's lack of experience and how it will work against it in Brazil that many of us—I am as guilty as anyone on this front—have brushed aside the overwhelming experience the team does have.
Howard just collected his 100th international cap in the buildup to Brazil, making him the third player on this roster with triple-digit appearances for the national team, joining Clint Dempsey and DaMarcus Beasley in that esteemed class.
In total, the USMNT has 820 caps, with 10 of the 23 players having 25 or more, and six who have played more than 40 times for their country. Compared to the Ghanaians, the first opponent the United States faces in the World Cup, the Americans look rather appropriately seasoned.
Ghana, like the U.S., has 10 players with 25 or more caps and eight with more than 40, but it has no player with anywhere close to 100. (Sulley Muntari and Asamoah Gyan lead the way with 82 and 79, respectively.)
The Ghanaians have seven players on the 2014 roster with World Cup experience, just one more than the six the U.S. brought to Brazil. And while Ghana does have an additional four players who featured on the 2009 U20 World Cup championship team, the average age of the Black Stars is just under 25 years old, more than two years the junior of the United States roster.
|USA vs. Ghana Experience by the Numbers|
|Total caps/average per player||820/35.6||708/30.8|
|Players with World Cup experience||6||7|
|Bleacher Report research (via FIFA)|
We, meaning the American media, have made such a big deal about the lack of experience within the U.S. team that it's become easy to believe the hype is true, but the team is far more experienced around the field than the narrative perpetuators—again, guilty to some degree—care to admit.
Is anyone really bothered that Aron Johannsson only has eight international caps for the United States? Until Jozy Altidore netted two goals against Nigeria in the final friendly before Brazil, there was a groundswell of support in favor of the notion that Johannsson should be starting over Altidore at the World Cup.
Does anyone think Graham Zusi, one of the most dependable players in all of MLS, lacks experience because he only has 23 international caps, most of which have come in CONCACAF qualifying or lower-level competitions?
Is anyone concerned that Alejandro Bedoya, Kyle Beckerman, Brad Davis or Chris Wondolowski will let the World Cup moment get too big for them? None of those players may be as skilled as their counterparts in Group G, but any trepidation of their inclusion shouldn't come from a perceived lack of experience.
I honestly forgot until looking up the team's international record that Jermaine Jones is a Jurgen Klinsmann appointee, meaning that he's one of the 17 players on this team to have never been to a World Cup. Jones is a wild card in Brazil, and his roughneck style will be key in keeping the opposing attack off-balance. Is anyone in the world nervous about his lack of big-game experience?
Really, it's just the back line that should worry people. (Oh, is that all?)
And even then, it's probably just the center backs. Sure, three weeks ago we were all lamenting the lack of experience of Fabian Johnson, wondering if he even had a position in the starting 11 for Klinsmann's team. Three friendlies later, Johnson is one of the key players on the team, finally showing he can be the post-Steve Cherundolo-era right back U.S. fans have been longing for the last four years.
(Look, do we all wish Johnson had more time to jell with the rest of the team during qualifying? Of course, but his individual quality and ability to link up with the playmakers in the midfield seems just fine, inexperience or not.)
Timmy Chandler is obviously one fans wish had more experience, as his infusion into the back four during the three friendlies this month seemed like it needs more time to marinate, something this team does not have, leading Klinsmann to look on Beasley to secure the left-back spot.
While Beasley has more caps (116) than nearly anyone else in the entire World Cup—he's one of a handful of players who will appear in four World Cups in his career—playing left back is relatively new to him, especially at the international level.
And then there are those center backs. (Can we just skip over them? No? All right.)
Between the combination of Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler, the two enter the match against Ghana with a combined 44 international caps, very few of which have come as a pairing in the center of the defense.
Cameron certainly deserves to be on the field for the U.S., though of the three positions he could play, center back may be his weakest at the international level. He's just the best option Klinsmann has at the position, making a lack of experience in a key spot a necessity, not an advantage.
So, it seems, is the case with Besler. The entire "inexperienced" knock appears to have everything to do with the 27-year-old center back and whatever options there are to replace him should he falter.
While John Brooks looked good in very short work against Turkey in one lead-up match, he hasn't done enough for anyone to trust him in the back against a seasoned attack like Ghana's. And while Omar Gonzalez had at one point in the last four years looked like the future of the position for the Americans, watching his recent play makes fans hope that future never comes.
There is admittedly concern for the United States' lack of experience when looking across at the Ghanaian attack. Some of the most seasoned players on Ghana—Gyan and Muntari, specifically—are some of the Black Stars' best attackers. The U.S. may not have an answer for Kwadwo Asamoah or the combination of Andre and Jordan Ayew, either.
If Michael Essien finds his legs from a decade gone by or Kevin-Prince Boateng is left free to roam, there may not be a player on the United States team—Michael Bradley and Dempsey included—who is in the same class.
Perhaps, though, Howard's positive thinking was right. Perhaps the lack of baggage for some of the players on the United States team will help them play with less pressure against Ghana, not more. Most of the players don't have to worry about the memory of 2010 or 2006, getting knocked out by Ghana in both of the last two World Cups.
Did you know those are the only two World Cups Ghana has ever been to? Experience, it seems, can be relative.
And so can baggage. The same player who created much of our carry-over baggage from 2010 enters the World Cup with quite enough of his own.
U.S. fans are still haunted by the last World Cup exit, but let us not forget how Ghana was knocked out of that tournament one round later, after a goal-saving handball from Luis Suarez, which led to Gyan banging the subsequent penalty kick off the crossbar. (A handball on the line should absolutely count as a goal, but that's another column for another time.)
American wunderkind Julian Green was only 15 years old that summer. DeAndre Yedlin was 16. Did either of them—or 19-year-olds like Johannsson or Mix Diskerud—think they would be in a situation four years later to help the United States earn revenge against Gyan and his Ghanaian brethren? Could their inexperience and youthful exuberance prove to be a spark, not a liability?
The United States should start an extremely experienced lineup against Ghana, with five of the 11 starters having previous World Cup experience, all but one starter having more than 20 international caps, and the average age of the U.S. starting 11 likely to be 29.1 years old, with just one player—Altidore—under the age of 25.
Klinsmann can then employ that youth and inexperience to his advantage. Nobody really knows what Johannsson or Diskerud or Green will bring to the U.S. attack, especially not the Ghanaians, who have had few opportunities to scout those players.
While the inexperience in the back is still an enormous concern, maybe it will prove to be a benefit coming off the bench, especially in the attacking third.
Klinsmann better hope that's the case, or the decision to include some of his unproven players will be his own baggage to carry around for the next four years.
Follow Dan Levy on Twitter: Follow @DanLevyThinks
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