This is the first in a four-part series on the future of the U.S. Men's National Soccer Team. Read Part II—Midfield here, Part III—Forwards here, Part IV—The Big Picture here, or visit World Football Daily, Man Cave Sports, and Hammy End for more of the author's work.
With the U.S. 2010 World Cup run done and dusted after the first knockout round, most fans are taking a look back at the last four years—particularly the Cup's four weeks—to determine where U.S. Soccer currently stands in relation to the past.
That's all well and good, and certainly a function of the past is to teach us where to go in the future. But the doomsday prophecies I've been reading since the loss to a very good Ghana side are a bit melodramatic.
Don't be decieved—this World Cup was a positive one for the U.S. The objective all along was to get out of the group stages, which we did. But few expected the Americans to win Group C, which we did.
The tie against England intrigued the U.S. public, Maurice Edu's negated match-winner against Slovenia invigorated it, and Landon Donovan's winner against Algeria inspired it.
Certainly, Ghana was a winnable game, and the semifinals were there for the taking. In the grand scheme of things, however, the U.S. Soccer Federation should look at this Cup as a positive. U.S. soccer, thanks to massive ESPN coverage, got more positive media attention than it did even in 2002, when the U.S. was in the quarterfinals of the World Cup.
This series of articles, however, is more concerned with the future of U.S. Soccer, a one which, despite the outcry of the bandwagon media and public after the Ghana loss, looks quite bright.
Let's take a look at each area of the squad and determine what changes—if any—need to be made in advance of the big international tournaments before and including Brazil 2014.
All of these articles assume (for argument's sake, only) qualification for the Confederations Cup in 2013, as well as the World Cup in 2014, neither of which is a guarantee, of course.
Today's focus: defense
The Old Regime
Of all the positions on the field, the U.S. Men's National Team will likely see the most turnover in the next few years defensively.
Just take a look at the starters' ages from the first two group games: Carlos Bocanegra (31), Steve Cherundolo (31), Jay DeMerit (30), and Oguchi Onyewu (28)—not exactly spring chickens here, folks.
Other than Gooch, I don't expect any of these to feature for the USMNT beyond the very near future. The 2011 Gold Cup is only a summer away, so a lot will depend on how these guys perform for their clubs next year.
Bocanegra is getting a fresh start at St. Ettiene, while Cherundolo, on the back of a wonderful World Cup, is set to sign a two-year extension with Hannover, with an option for a third. He also will become the club's captain. DeMerit, on the other hand, is out of contract, as Watford have yet to resign their former captain, but a good performance against England marking Wayne Rooney has piqued interest from Leeds, among others. Rumors are also circulating that DeMerit could return to the MLS as a DP, possibly to D.C. United or the Chicago Fire.
The only other defender to make a start in the Cup, Jonathan Bornstein, is only 25 and could be an option down the road. While he did well in his two Cup starts, he currently lacks the strength and skill of an international-caliber left back.
With so much up for grabs as the starts of the old regime enter the twilights of their respective careers, let's break down the possible replacements position by position, starting on the right.
The right back of the future for the U.S. is Jonathan Spector. A former Manchester United player, Spector is a regular starter for West Ham United in the English Premier League, and he was stellar in the Confederations Cup just a summer ago. Poor form down the stretch for West Ham and a surge from Cherundolo saw Spector go minuteless in the World Cup. Bob Bradley has seemed reluctant to play him at left back, though that's his regular position at West Ham.
Spector would seem to be the guy to build the defense around in the future. He has yet to hit his prime and offers creativity, service, and strong defense at right back, although his versatility could put him anywhere on the U.S. back line.
Daniel Williams could provide another young option at right or left back should he capitalize on his American eligibility (born in Germany to an American father), as could Eric Lichaj, only 21 and an Aston Villa defender who had a nice spell on loan for Leyton Orient this season. Frank Simek is only 25 and might be a player more familiar to U.S. fans, but he has done little recently for Sheffield and has been released by the club.
Other names that could emerge with enough success on the right side are Kevin Alston (22 years old, New England Revolution), Marvell Wynne (24 years old, Toronto FC), and Rodney Wallace (22 years old, D.C. United, but is not yet eligible since he was born in Costa Rica). Zarek Valentin is experienced in the U.S. system with 28 caps at the U-20 level, and the 18-year-old Akron star is an amateur player to watch for.
Cherundolo should hold on to his spot for another year or two, but it's Spector's job to lose beyond 2012.
2011 Gold Cup starter: Cherundolo
2013 Confederations Cup starter: Spector
2014 World Cup starter: Spector
In the center, Onyewu could possibly be a starter for 2014 (he would be 32, older than any player on the U.S. roster this go round), but he's definitely the go-to guy for the Gold Cup upcoming. While this World Cup run was forgettable for Gooch, who was benched the final two games, he will bounce back quickly. With rest for his injured knee, he should be our best defender henceforth.
If Gooch can get some time at A.C. Milan, who are known for keeping older players fit well into their thirties, he could definitely be a starter for the next four years. He still has some development to do, but there's no better place for him to learn than Milan beside Nesta and Thiago Silva. Playing time could be a concern, however, but he still seems the best option in the center for now.
The big question, then, is who plays beside Onyewu in the years to come? Eliminating Bocanegra and DeMerit, who may or may not play in next year's Gold Cup but most probably will not be starters longterm, there are several options, starting with Clarence Goodson.
Goodson has emerged on the USMNT scene in last 12 months as an athletic, lengthy player who offers great aerial ability and good agility. He's 6'4" and has looked good when featuring for the U.S., but he's 28. While he might be a starter short-term as DeMerit and Bocanegra age, two 32-year-old center backs will get us nowhere in 2014.
That leaves us with some younger players who are so far unproven but will have to step up. Among these are Chad Marshall, Gale Agbossoumonde, Omar Gonazles, Ike Opara, and Michael Orozco. Marshall has the most USMNT experience of the bunch and might have made the 2010 World Cup squad if not for nagging injuries. Agbossoumonde has been dubbed the next Onyewu, while Gonzales, Opara, and Orozco are among the best young central defenders in the MLS.
Then, of course, there are complete wildcards that could emerge from nowhere ala DeMerit, like Jamil Fearrington, Hunter Freeman, and Brandon McDonald, among others. Again, you'll notice a pattern here, but Spector is a likely candidate to play in the center should a right-sided player emerge.
One last note at center back: With the young depth of the U.S. central midfield (more on that in Part II)—namely Michael Bradley, Jose Torres, Benny Feilhaber, Stuart Holden, maybe Landon Donovan in an attacking role, and Sebastian Lletget—Maurice Edu could be a future center back for the U.S.
Edu was great in this Cup in the midfield, but he has played central defender for the U.S. before. If the Rangers give him some playing time in defense, it's a possibility worth considering until a younger option like Opara or Agbossoumonde is ready.
2011 Gold Cup starters: Onyewu, DeMerit
2013 Confederations Cup starters: Onyewu, Marshall/Edu
2014 World Cup starters: Onyewu, Agbossoumonde
Bocanegra has served the U.S. admirably, and his time on the national team is not quite done.
However, past next summer's Gold Cup and a couple of qualifiers and friendlies, Bocanegra has probably seen his last days as the U.S. left back.
Granted, if Bob Bradley sticks around, it's likely Bocanegra will remain captain and start either in the center or on the left. But the U.S. need to find a replacement going forward if we are to build on our international success.
Left back has always been a problem position for U.S. Soccer. More often than not, a former midfielder like Eddie Lewis or DaMarcus Beasley or a right-sided defender ala Frankie Hejduk has slotted in at the left, but it's been a long while since a natural left back was in the American defense. There was David Regis, but even he was a) French and b) a natural central defender.
Spector is again a possibility if Lichaj or Simek emerges as a starter at right back, but let's keep him out of the left back picture and look elsewhere.
The first and most obvious choice is Bornstein, a familiar face in the USMNT under Bob Bradley. The Chivas USA man has experience at all levels of international play and might move abroad after a solid couple of starts in the World Cup, but he has never been the most consistent player and was lucky to make the World Cup squad.
Unless Bornstein puts on some muscle and picks up some tactical awareness, I would stray away from him as a long-term starter at left back. Yes, he played well in the Cup, but he really didn't face an attacking winger. The last time he did—against the Dutch in March—he was embarrassed. I see him as a back-up or situational player and nothing more.
Heath Pearce is only 25 but seems to be on the downward slope of his career for FC Dallas, and this was probably his last chance to get in a World Cup squad. Beasley is old and has never done well at left back, and it's tough to come up with another name who has seen significant time on the left of the U.S. defense. Maybe Feilhaber could find a place at left back, but other than actually having a left foot, his skills aren't really suited there.
The best decision, then, might be to go outside of the familiar names to find the left back we are looking for, and the best selection would be Edgar Castillo.
Just 23 years old, Castillo is a dual United States-Mexico citizen and grew up playing in the Mexican youth ranks. However, passed over by Sven Goran Erikkson during 2010 qualifying, Castillo switched his allegiances to the U.S. and was capped in November 2009 against Denmark.
Castillo provides speed and skill from the back as a real attacking threat. Like Bornstein, he need to add some weight to deal with the superior strength of international wingers like Ronaldo, Robben, or Ribery. He's a real burner, however, and he gets forward like he's being chased. Currently on loan to San Luis from Club America, keep an eye out for him in the Apertura 2010 campaign.
A young name to watch for is Greg Garza, who plays for Sporting Lisbon and has featured for the U-20s. He can play on the wing or at the back and is a promising talent, but he's even greener than Castillo and doesn't provide much size at 5'8".
Outside of Castillo, Bornstein, and possibly Garza, there's not much talent for the U.S. left back pool. It will be crucial for one of them to develop into a quality left back, or else Spector may need to get comfortable on the left side and pray that a right-sided candidate emerges.
2011 Gold Cup starter: Bocanegra
2013 Confederations Cup starter: Castillo
2014 World Cup starter: Castillo
Two words: Tim Howard.
He's the present and the future of U.S. keepers. Brad Guzan will provide solid backup and will step into the starter's role one day, but it's Howard's for now and the future. This is one spot Americans will never have to worry about.
Yes, Howard is 31, but keepers enter their prime in their 30s, so it's looking good for Timmy.
2011 Gold Cup starter: Howard
2013 Confederations Cup starter: Howard
2014 World Cup starter: Howard
Stay tuned for Parts II and III of this series looking at the future of the USMNT in the coming weeks. Part IV will appear just before the Brazil friendly in August.