When Bob Bradley announced his preliminary 30-man World Cup roster on Tuesday, American soccer fans felt something other than contentment. They breathed sighs of relief.
It’s no secret that the United States is not considered one of the World Cup’s elite—only twice in over 50 years has the country advanced from the group stages of the tournament.
However, due to the record number of Yanks plying their trade in Europe’s best leagues and the advancement of the domestic game, this squad boasts a respectable mix of experience and technical ability.
And this was all made possible by Bradley, who proved to the world—and more importantly, Americans—that he has the soccer knowledge to lead this team. He included all the right veterans while fielding a healthy amount of young, unproven talent.
Though he may be questioned for some of his ommissions, Bradley is justified in all of them.
First and most central, the Charlie Davies situation. The bottom line is that his club in France didn't clear him for full training and play with the first-team, so Bradley didn't want to risk ruining the career of a promising 24-year-old by bringing him back too soon. Davies needs to get healthy for the long-run and if he might not be able to do it in the next three weeks, then he's out. Period.
The only other hard-luck loser with a case for inclusion is Freddy Adu. And while he has seen decent time for Aris Thessaloniki this season for the first time in his career, the former shining star hasn't shown enough. There is no doubting his talent and creative brilliance, but I guess sometimes that isn't enough.
But let's start looking at the ones that were selected instead of those missing out. The United States needs to get serious because despite a favorable draw that should navigate them out of the group, there will be no easy games. Despite inferior FIFA rankings, Slovenia and Algeria are packed with European talent and could easily embarrass an unprepared or flat American team.
Anyway, let’s break it down.
There are no surprises regarding goalkeepers. Tim Howard, who was among the Premier League leaders in clean sheets this season for Everton, will deservedly be the starter. Marcus Hahnemann, the shot-stopper for Wolves, which secured their Premier League status only two weeks ago, will back him up.
Brad Guzan, Brad Friedel’s back-up at Aston Villa and the next in line to stand between the pipes for both club and country, is the best third-choice.
At least Bradley had the wherewithal not to choose Troy Perkins.
There are no surprises in the defense either. The definites are Jonathon Spector, Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Jay DeMerit, and Clarence Goodsen—all of whom have had serious minutes for their clubs in Europe.
Oguchi Onyewu’s fate will be decided in the next few weeks as his fitness is evaluated. Luckily, it seemed the towering center-back fully recovered from his four-month long knee injury when AC Milan included him in the 23-man travelling squad against Genoa in the season finale.
DeMerit, who famously almost lost his right-eye over the winter at the hands of a freak retina infection in January, has miraculously recovered full vision in time to feature this summer. Spector, who can play either side of defense as witnessed by his ability to fill in at unfamiliar left-back for West Ham this season, will be key. His bounding runs up and down the flanks will make or break the counter-attacking Americans.
All those that play in MLS are fighting for one spot. Jonathon Bornstein has traditionally been a Bradley favorite, but thanks to both Cherundolo’s and Bocanegra’s ability to play on the outside, the half-back doesn’t bring enough to the table. So the choice lies between Heath Pearce and Chad Marshall.
The midfield pool is the deepest and most difficult position for Bradley to choose. This is where he will make his money this summer.
Bradley will most likely take nine midfielders and four forwards. But the omission of Charlie Davies leaves the attacking pool shallow and could make it ten and three, however unlikely.
This means that Clint Dempsey, who filled in up front for Fulham and will be the first-ever American to play in a European final come Wednesday’s Europa League finale, will most likely occupy the same role for America. If he doesn’t, Landon Donovan will most likely play as a deep-lying forward behind Jozy Altidore instead of on the outside.
The bottom line is that by playing one of his star midfielders as a forward, Bradley has the option of skimping on forwards and stacking up the midfield depth.
Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu, and Ricardo Clark, all of whom have seen significant minutes in Europe this season, are locks. Even though Clark has only seen time for Eintracht Frankfurt lately, it will be enough to earn a spot.
Benny Feilhaber and Stuart Holden, who recovered just last week from a broken leg sustained in an International friendly in February, will also make the final squad. Holden’s ability to fill in on the outside will make the move of either Dempsey or Donovan successful.
This leaves two spots for DeMarcus Beasley, Alejandro Bedoya, Jose Torres, Robbie Rodgers, and Sacha Kljestan. This is the tough decision. Beasley has the experience against the world’s best thanks to a career taking him to PSV Eindhoven and Rangers. On the same note, the 29-year-old has seen better days and rode the pine for the Glasgow giants for long stretches this season.
Rogers and Kljestan, two of MLS’s poster boys, just don’t have what it takes at the international level. Kljestan, who plays in the middle of the field, is going up against an established core that is simply better than he. Rogers, who prefers the outside, has shown flashes with his pace and crossing ability, but his difficulty in the clutch and when close to goal will be his undoing if Bradley goes with four forwards.
This leaves Bedoya and Torres. Both have proved that they have a good touch under pressure and the fact they can excel as wide players will bode well for their chances of inclusion to Bradley’s squad. They will both be in barring unproductive training camps.
Finally the forwards. To many, this is America’s weak point, as no striker has ever proved reliable of scoring a big goal in a big game. Ever.
The only one that has, Altidore, who scored the memorable goal against Spain in the Confederations Cup last summer, was lucky to put that one in and only scored twice in over two-dozen appearances for Hull City this season. That doesn’t do the 20-year-old the justice he is due however, as the Haitian-born striker often proved difficult for English defenders to handle thanks to his power and pace.
The other options, Brian Ching, Robbie Findlay, Eddie Johnson, Edson Buddle, and Hurculez Gomez are most likely fighting for two spots. Ching and Findlay just don’t have what it takes. Buddle, who scored nine goals and had two assists in the LA Galaxy’s first eight games, is in undeniable form. But he still plays in MLS.
Eddie Johnson has finally found a home in Europe after unsuccessful stints for Fulham and Cardiff City in England—albeit on-loan to Aris Salonika in Greece—and has started scoring goals. He works hard, has pace, and at least has found the net in a top league.
That matters. A lot. Bradley needs forwards that he can rely upon to put the ball in the back of the net when they get chances. It is the only way that the United States will advance out of the group stages.
If he’s smart, Bradley will take Altidore, Johnson, and Buddle or Gomez. Whoever impresses coach more over the next three weeks will find their way into the final roster spot. Who knows, they both might if Bradley decides to take four strikers, which is a stretch considering Dempsey’s and Donovan’s durability.
So, good luck, Bob. A nation depends on it.