Qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa began for the United States Men's National Team recently, and head coach Bob Bradley's makeshift band of outlaws, no-names, and underachievers has many scratching their heads, wondering what the squad will look like in two years. More importantly, will they be competitive.
Long time fans of the beautiful game need to realize this, though: no longer is the U.S. Soccer Federation leaning heavily on MLS to feed players up to the US squad. It's widely known that the quality of play at the MLS level isn't that strong, and the world's best footballers play in the European leagues.
Now more than ever the US Men's National Team is very well represented in Europe, as Coach Bradley has filled his current roster with a record number of Americans who play abroad.
Of the 32 players included in the current pool, half are playing in the MLS while the other half are under contract to play on European club teams. That percentage will change for the better, though, as the World Cup approaches.
It is estimated that once a 22-man roster is in place in 2010, as few as 7 MLS players will be left—a list that will include B. Ching, R. Clark, B. Davis, M. Edu, L. Donovan and E. Robinson—and nearly all will be reserves except for Donovan.
The other 15 (including 10 starters) are players with current contracts in Europe. This can only mean the U.S. is getting better...right?
Not so fast, my friends. We do know this: the three tune-up games the US team endured vs. England, Spain, and Argentina showed us many things about our home team; the good (vs. ARG), the bad (vs. ESP), and the ugly (vs. ENG).
The U.S. defense has trouble defending the set play. We saw this against England and Spain. We also saw it a bit in the second leg against over-matched Barbados.
No matter what lineup Bradley employs on the pitch, the U.S. attack can't seem to get the ball in the net. Other than the eight balls that touched the old onion bag against Barbados (a riff-raff squad made up mostly of amateurs), the Americans have scored seven goals in six previous matches (all in the first three games this year vs. Sweden, Mexico, and Poland, and none in it's final three matches).
Only one goal was scored by a forward, while four came from defenders, mostly on corner kicks and other set pieces.
There is also a massive log-jam at the midfield positions, where there is an abundance of inexperience.
Up top, it's been all fluids and no solids. Whether you're in the restroom or on the playing field, this can't be good. Bradley has employed seven different starting combinations in the team's last seven matches.
One thing is for certain, though: the coaching staff has given famed MLS striker Eddie Johnson plenty of opportunities to prove himself (four starts in'08), and time and time again, he comes up short. He may be the odd man out.
The buzz surrounds South Florida native Jozy Altidore, who despite only being 18 is slowly solidifying his spot on the roster, and is the pride and joy of the MLS' Red Bulls, and is playing in Spain next season. 19-year old Freddy Adu (who is currently playing in Portugal) has shown a real knack for playing an attacking midfielder role, as well as being a forward who can distribute the ball.
Look for MLS's Brian Ching and Clint Dempsey—currently under contract with Fulham in England and the only American to score in the 2006 World Cup—to be in the mix as well. Though neither did much this summer, both have shown in the past that they can put the ball in the net.
MLS youngster Chris Rolfe may get a look, but his size (5-foot-8) and inexperience might not fit into Bradley's plans. There still has not been a Kenny Cooper sighting, either.
Alas, the most notable problem with Bob Bradley's squad...too many midfielders, not enough roster spots. The U.S. team is littered with mids.
There is reason to believe the outside wing positions are solidified in DeMarcus Beasley (LM), who plays in Scotland, and Landon Donovan (RM), but the central midfield is still wide open, largely because no one has claimed a starting role.
Michael Bradley—who played in Holland this season—has been very good at times, but his strength lies mostly in attacking rather than holding. Coach Bradley tends to prefer both central mids to hold, which is the safe choice.
Bobby Convey and Eddie Lewis are chiseled veterans who both played in England this season, but are more comfortable on the outside. Sacha Klejstan of the MLS hasn't done much to prove himself yet, either, no matter where Coach Bradley places him.
Bradley's real dilemma is that he has way too many defensive minded, holding midfielders who are better at tackling and dispossessing than anything else: Ricardo Clark, Maurice Edu, Pablo Mastroeni, and Brad Davis (all playing in the MLS) and Benny Feilhaber (playing in England) have all played significant roles in the middle since 2006, but who will represent the team in 2010?
Against Barbados in game one, M. Bradley and Mastroeni got the nod, and with the coach tinkering with Dempsey and Adu in the midfield, everything stays a bit muddy. There's a good chance there will be players left out who never even got a chance to prove themselves.
Coach Bradley frequently used a formidable back line of (from L to R) Cherundolo, Onyewu, Bocanegra, and Pearce. All four play for club teams in Europe.
Reserves beyond those four haven't proven their worth thus far. Demirit, Spector, and Califf (who play in Europe) and Moor, Hedjuk, and Parkhurst of the MLS have all seen playing time, but none stood out.
For Hedjuk, a defender who loves to attack rather than hold his line, this may be his last hurrah. Will an aging Jimmy Conrad or the young Eddie Robinson, both playing in the MLS, get chances to prove themselves next month against Guatemala?
This is the one position that the US can safely say is A-OK. The GK position has long been America's strong suit, as great goalies have stood between the posts for the US since the early 90's, with the likes of Tony Meola, Brad Friedel, and Kasey Keller. These gentlemen saved the Americans' backsides time and time again.
But the great thing about the U.S. situation is that the group always seems to be remarkably deep. This year, it's no different. Tim Howard had a fantastic season for the EPL's Everton and is the starter for now, but Brad Guzan (EPL) is nearly as good, and Ries (MLS) and Hanneman (EPL) are also available and very able if called upon.
TIME TO TAKE A GUESS
Now that the dance has begun, it's time to take an educated, albeit meaningless, stab at who the competitors will be. Coach Bradley is an old-fashioned 4-4-2 guy, regardless of his tweaking and tinkering. One of his central midfielders is going to have to come up and attack, though, if this team expects to score goals in South Africa.
GK: Tim Howard
WBs: Heath Pearce, Steve Cherundolo
CBs: Oguchi Onyewu, Carlos Bocanegra
WMs: DeMarcus Beasley, Landon Donovan
CMs: Pablo Mastroeni, Michael Bradley
Fs: Clint Dempsey, Freddy Adu
Key Reserves: Jozy Altidore, Brian Ching, Brad Davis, Maurice Edu, Benny Feilhaber, Ricardo Clark, Bobby Convey, Jonathan Spector, Danny Califf, Eddie Robinson (or Jay Demerit) and Brad Guzan.
This might be what the team looks like in 2010. Then again, maybe it won't...