United States Soccer: Where To Go After Historic Summer of 2010
The summer of 2010 will go down in the international soccer history books (wherever FIFA keeps them) as the summer that US soccer finally arrived on the world stage.
As exciting and incredibly productive as it was, though, it is now over.
The next time anybody will see the US national team organize will be for a pair of home friendlies in October against opponents who are still TBA.
Now calling the summer “as exciting and incredibly productive” is not just due to the fact that they made it to the Round of 16 in South Africa It is because they for the first time proved that they could exceed their expectations by winning Group C (instead of just advancing in England’s wake) as well as energize a nation of 300 million to the point that they began supporting a team whose sport they, for the most part, knew little about.
It is difficult to accurately sum up everything that happened this summer, but my next few columns will attempt to do it some justice.
We’ll start by analyzing the finished product; the actual play of the US Men’s National Team.
The following are observations and recommendations for the team moving forward into the 2011 Gold Cup (the feeder for the 2013 Confederations Cup) and the next World Cup qualification cycle.
The image seen here is of US fans representing the Stars and Stripes in Poland in the build up to the 2006 World Cup.
It is important to keep in mind that the MNT has covered an enormous amount of space in terms of its abilities and perceptions across the planet in even as short a span of time as the four-year interval between Germany 2006 and South Africa.
With all of that being said, let's begin...
Where To Go After 2010: The Central Midfield Needs More Bite
The US’ last match of the summer came in August against Brazil at the New Meadowlands stadium in New Jersey.
The Brazilians had long stretches of the match during which they were able to consistently find space in the midfield.
Their second goal was due in large part to every midfielder having backed off the play through the center of the pitch, allowing for the through-ball that allowed Pato to notch his goal.
Maurice Edu, Michael Bradley, and Alejandro Bedoya all shared a good deal of responsibility on that particular goal, but this event is a symptom of the US overall lack of bite in the center of the park to deter such flowing play from squads that play total football (albeit there are quite few these days).
This has really been an on/off issue for the Americans since the retirement of Claudio Reyna, and arguably dating back even further.
The Yanks have generally operated in a traditional 4-4-2 with a particular emphasis on the counterattack, but for some reason have been unable to find the correct player combinations to make that lineup hum.
This is largely down to the central midfield. If the center mids play up too high on the pitch, the back line is exposed. Too far back and the connection to the attack is severed.
Striking a balance is critical, and the last tandem to do so with any consistency, realistically speaking, was Reyna and John O’Brien.
Why did they do so well together? Simple, they complemented each other extraordinarily well.
O’Brien was a pure defensive midfielder who had good speed and excellent stamina. He was able to distribute the ball to the attacking wings and hang back from the attack just enough to cover his defenders.
This allowed Reyna to get forward and be the creative spark in the final third. It also allowed the wing mids to be a little freer in the attack, having to worry about exposing themselves down the flanks just a tad less.
Without an effective partnership in the middle, a hole will always exist on the pitch.
For instance, as earlier noted and demonstrated against Brazil, the center mids initially were unable to stay on their defensive marks in the middle of the park while the wing players (Benny Feilhaber in particular) did a great job of shutting down that avenue.
The mids as a whole got sucked into the center of the pitch after Brazil’s first goal to compensate for the gaping space, letting the Brazilian wingers have their run of the sidelines, swinging in crosses at will.
In short, unless the US can unearth a reliable defensive midfielder, spells of this midfield defensive complacency will continue to appear every so often.
So, who among the MNT player pool could provide the solution? The answer to the riddle may already be well known.
If there is any player that has the reputation of being a destroyer in the midfield, a pure defensive midfielder, it’s Jermaine Jones.
The Bundesliga product is well known for his sharp and very physical tackles, and that is exactly the sort of force that the Americans need in the midfield in order to assert more control over a match.
Sure, Jones’ presence alone will not simply prevent goals, but it will give opposing midfielders just a little seed of concern in their mind when they begin their runs. That is the critical missing ingredient in the Yank midfield.
Jones was called into the Brazil camp, but graciously declined the invitation in order to keep up his preseason training with club side Schalke 04.
American fans can now look to the two slated friendlies in October for Jones’ coming-out party.
Some will question the midfielder’s viability for the next World Cup, but keep in mind that he hasn’t played nonstop over the last few seasons like Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey have.
He will be 32 in 2014, certainly not too old for the tournament.
Jones partnering with Bradley in the midfield does a number of very positive things for the US.
Chief among this is making it much more difficult for an opposing midfield to have its way in the center of the pitch.
Jones’ presence should force the play to the outside much more, allowing the center backs to set up shop back around the top of the area and wing midfielders to help trap the ball along the sideline, eventually allowing for the counterattack to form.
The US has already demonstrated an ability to shut down the wings with speed, meaning that the addition of Jones will reap big benefits as the next cycle kicks off.
Beyond Jones, Ricardo Clark, provided he can display some improvements, would also fit the bill.
The majority of supporters might not find this idea too attractive, considering Clark likely cost the Americans two goals in South Africa.
He lost track of his mark against England in the early going, an error that sparked Steven Gerrard’s fourth-minute strike.
He once again blew it in the Round of 16 start against Ghana, clumsily turning the ball over at the halfway line to Kevin Prince-Boateng, who did well to score on the ensuing play.
All that being said, by and large, Clark has all the makings of a strong, hard-charging defensive midfielder.
He plays with the requisite physicality, has good speed, and can go 90 minutes without much difficulty.
Clark’s mistakes seem to stem more from mental lapses than they do from any physical inabilities. The issue is one that has dogged him for several years.
Clark has gone back and forth from making ill-advised or poorly timed challenges to hovering just a little too far off the ball.
However, there is considerable hope for Clark going forward. His new three-year deal with Frankfurt should provide him every opportunity to improve in all areas of his game.
The Bundesliga is well known as being one of the most physical of the top European leagues, and Clark’s already present ability, combined with solid coaching and high level match experience, may well see him develop into the midfield enforcer that the United States needs.
After all, if that particular path worked for Jones, it can work for Clark, too.
Where To Go After 2010: Depth At Mid To Give Manager "Good Headache"
The assured starting midfield for the United States is as follows: Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley.
That’s three guys. The US plays a 4-4-2 and doesn’t have the personnel to run a strong 4-3-3 at the international level.
As mentioned earlier, from a tactics standpoint, Jermaine Jones really should be the other center mid for the Yanks moving forward.
However, behind those four, there is an enormous amount of depth, giving whoever the manager will be beyond 2010 one of those “good” headaches.
He will have Stuart Holden, Sacha Kljestan, Maurice Edu, Benny Feilhaber, Alejandro Bedoya, Jose Francisco Torres, and Ricardo Clark as subs.
And these aren’t even the young guys that are coming through the ranks of Europe’s reserve squads…highly touted youngsters Sebastian Lletget, Charles Renken, Joseph Gyau, and others will be pushing for at least a look by 2014, and in all likelihood much sooner.
In the last year, there has been an incredible increase in the depth and experience for these midfielders.
Kljestan moved away from MLS to Belgium’s Anderlecht and promptly proceeded to score a goal in his first Champions League game, tallying an assist as well.
Maurice Edu is pushing to be a starter in the Rangers midfield in Scotland, a squad that annually makes an appearance in the Champions League.
Rico Clark has earned himself a three-year contract with Eintracht Frankfurt of the Bundesliga after an initial half-season deal.
Stuart Holden will likely be a starter for Bolton Wanderers of the Premier League. Jose Francisco Torres is a starter for his club team in Mexico.
Feilhaber starts for his club team in the Danish league. Bedoya is a starter for his club, as well. Lletget, at just 17 years old, is pushing for inclusion in West Ham’s first team.
Clearly, manager (whoever he will be) will have a ton of experience at his disposal moving into the next qualification cycle. That can only mean good things from an offensive standpoint for the American midfield.
Assuming the US qualifies for the 2014 World Cup, a couple of these guys will not even make the plane because there will be such great depth.
That will create a great deal of competition within the squad, and that breeds stronger players.
When an international manager is able to look at his roster and turn away players starting in top European leagues, it is certainly a good thing.
This enormous number of quality midfielders also has another, slightly darker benefit for the Americans. One of the biggest issues the US faced in South Africa was a lack of striking depth due to injury.
If a Yank midfielder is injured, the US midfield will not be hampered nearly as much as the strikers were by the absence of Charlie Davies.
All of this being said, one of the more interesting storylines to come out of the Brazil friendly was Kljestan’s return to the MNT.
After having dropped off the radar after the 2009 Confederations Cup, the Californian has returned and shown that he has made obvious strides in his short time in Europe thus far.
His set piece cross to Michael Bradley that resulted in a goal being called back was excellent.
This is rather definitely not the broken-looking Kljestan that the American faithful saw in the build-up to the World Cup.
Kljestan’s shot on goal from a set piece in the 66th minute was a high quality attempt, as well.
It certainly wasn’t an easy claim for the Brazilian ‘keeper, Victor, causing him to nearly bobble it at Jozy Altidore’s feet.
Although the midfield did disappoint during the Brazil match, if there is one thing that is clear moving forward into the next cycle, it is this: The US has a lot of quality midfielders at its disposal.
Where To Go After 2010: America Will Not Be Wanting Between The Sticks
Historically, it seems that the true test for all MNT goalies is to go up against a major South American nation and make saves that no goalkeeper should be expected to make.
Kasey Keller had his absolutely epic match against Brazil in 1998, leading Brazilian striker Romario to gush that he had never seen a ‘keeper play that way before.
Tim Howard shut down Argentina in 2008, earning plaudits from the American faithful and cementing his reputation as one of the best in the world at his art.
Now Brad Guzan has taken his turn.
The Aston Villa man has long been seen as a potential heir to Howard’s throne as the top American ‘keeper.
Unfortunately for Guzan, it seems that his first opportunity to claim the No. 1 shirt will be for the 2018 World Cup, at which point there will be a bumper crop of American ‘keepers vying for the spot, as well. More on them later.
In the meantime, though, Guzan did nothing short of putting on a clinic in the second half against Brazil. Faced with high-powered shots from players brimming with confidence like Neymar and others, many from close range, Guzan didn’t flinch in the least.
Tim Howard certainly did as much as could be asked of him in the first half, standing on his head on a couple of occasions, but it was Guzan who provided the highlight-worthy saves.
Guzan continues to be the backup at Aston Villa (behind former American international Brad Friedel), but if his current form is any indication, he is more than ready to wear the No. 1 in the Premier League right now and can definitely step into the American goal and provide stability and confidence for his defenders.
His superb save in the 80th minute against Carlos Eduardo from point-blank range should be proof enough for anybody that American ‘keepers are top quality, let alone that Guzan is ready for the pressure of being a starter at any level.
By passing his “test,” Guzan has gone a long way to helping the entire American defense re-solidify.
The strength of Tim Howard hasn’t been questioned for years, and the defenders in front of him play with confidence knowing that they have one of the top ‘keepers on the planet as a safeguard.
Those same defenders now have seen that the backup in Guzan can perform under fire. For a defense that will be in rebuilding mode for the next four years, that is a very important assurance.
The knowledge that not every mistake will mean sure punishment will give young defenders like Omar Gonzalez a greater ability to learn and thrive on the pitch, rather than simply survive from game to game.
Moving forward into qualification for 2014, the only real question for American goalkeeping is to wonder who the third stringer will be.
The best guess at this point is that it will be one of the plethora of young talents that have made headlines recently.
These include DC United’s Bill Hamid. The DC United Academy product broke Tim Howard’s MLS record for being the youngest ‘keeper to start a match by four days this season.
Samir Badr, also a product of DC United’s academy, is already playing for FC Porto’s reserves at age 19 and demonstrated great agility during his time at the Milk Cup.
And there are still other names to consider, like Celtic’s Dominic Cervi and Philadelphia Union’s Chris Seitz.
One of the few truths in international soccer is that a team always has a chance if they have a goalie who is really on his game. By that logic, the Yanks will always have a chance in the foreseeable future.
Where To Go After 2010: The US Needs Much Greater Attacking Depth
First things first. This is not an original insight, but it is one that is continually brought back to the forefront of the discussion about the future for the Yanks. The last striker the Yanks could call upon to score with frequency was Brian McBride.
The US national team has a glut of quality midfielders, several of whom can play in attacking roles.
That being said, relying on Landon Donovan or Clint Dempsey as the Yanks have is not a long-term solution to the Americans’ lack of striking depth will not reap consistent rewards.
The United States sorely missed Charlie Davies in South Africa and against Brazil in the recent friendly.
It was Davies’ blazing speed that helped pry apart Brazil’s defense in the 2009 Confederations Cup final (although the Americans did eventually lose), and his speed certainly would have been welcome against Brazil.
The Stars and Stripes perform best when they have a combination of speed and physicality up top. Davies’ partnership with Jozy Altidore in the Confederations Cup and subsequent absence demonstrated that quite well.
While Davies is expected to make a full recovery from his egregious injuries, it will take him a while to fully recover his touch on the ball.
His club team has stated that, while he is now physically fit, he still needs much match experience in order to truly regain his form.
In the meantime, the Americans are left with a problem up top.
The solution? There is no quick fix. A potential shot in the arm could come from anywhere.
It could be from a youngster like Omar Salgado. Just 16, he will begin his first year in the MLS next summer after being raffled off in the MLS SuperDraft.
The Texas native showed great pace to compliment his excellent 6’4” frame at last month’s Milk Cup in Northern Ireland.
He certainly will not be asked to step into the national team anytime soon, but he might be a player to watch with an eye toward 2014.
It could come from players like Herculez Gomez (who nearly earned himself a goal late against Brazil) and/or Edson Buddle. Both should continue to be options for the Yanks, as they both have consistent minutes with their club squads.
However, they still must develop enough to the point where they can be relied upon to step into the squad at any time and perform up to the international standard.
Neither of them are there yet and they need to start making headway. It must also be said that neither of them appears to complement Altidore as well as Davies has, although Gomez’s partnership with the 20-year old has begun to improve.
In any event, the point is that the US needs to find another true striker. And this person has to be found by next summer’s Gold Cup.
The eventual return of Charlie Davies will certainly help increase the potency of the American attack, but depth will still be a key issue that needs to be addressed.
If the US experiences another lengthy injury of the magnitude that Davies has faced, they need to have better options than they had this past summer.
Where To Go After 2010: The US Defense Is Still In Good Hands
Omar Gonzalez didn’t think he would be getting his first start against La Selecao.
Most thought he might get a call-up into the camp, and some fans thought he might even see some action on the back end of the Brazil friendly.
He did get a call-up, but only after Columbus Crew’s Chad Marshall had to back out due to injury.
Not only did the 6’5” LA Galaxy defender get his first cap against Brazil, but he started for the Americans and went the full 90 in New Jersey.
Although the US did give up a pair of goals to a very dangerous Brazilian squad, Gonzalez had really a very solid first experience on the international level.
From a positioning standpoint, Gonzalez did a very commendable job. Having only had one day to practice with an entirely new group of teammates, “Gonzo” actually performed quite well.
He had very little time to establish any kind of understanding with his partner in the back, captain Carlos Bocanegra, and managed not to find himself at fault for either of Brazil’s goals.
Gonzalez was rarely caught out of position, and in those instances, he tracked back quickly and ensured that the opposition could not get off a clean shot.
What Gonzalez lost on that first step, he made up for in physicality and doing the simple things right; putting himself between the ball and the net. 6’5” of defender is a pretty large thing to overcome for most attackers.
Let’s put things in just a bit of perspective, too. One of the biggest knocks against Gonzalez was the fact that, as a very tall defender, he may not be able to match the speed of smaller strikers.
On a night when he faced a couple of the fastest young guys in the world, Chelsea-linked Santos star Neymar among them, and the always dangerous speedster Robinho, Gonzalez did not find himself unable to keep up.
Even further, it is absolutely never an easy thing to earn your first international appearance against a phenomenal side like Brazil.
Gonzalez managed to insert himself into the squad and not look out of place against a high-caliber lineup. That’s worth a nod in his direction at the very least.
It isn’t as if this is a one-off observation, either. In the last few weeks, Gonzalez has performed well against some of the best competition in the world.
He faced off against Manchester United with the MLS All Stars in Houston and later started for the Galaxy against Real Madrid.
If there are a much better grouping three teams to test a player’s quality against, they don’t readily come to mind. Gonzalez earned high marks in each of those encounters.
Oh, one last thing. He got praise out of Tim Howard, one of the best ‘keepers on the planet who is also notorious for his tough but fair assessments of his back line.
Howard said when interviewed, “…I thought he played well. Didn’t think he made many, if any mistakes…so this is a good start for him…and he didn’t disappoint.”
That’s pretty high praise for a 21-year-old who just got his first cap and first start.
A lot has been made of the potential problems that the US defense will face moving into the next qualification/World Cup cycle. They will likely lose three of their World Cup starters in Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, and Jay DeMerit.
The US will need two new wing backs and at least one center back, potentially two depending on Oguchi Onyewu’s status in 2014.
The US may find themselves needing to field a back line in 2014 with no World Cup experience
On the evidence above, the US defense is not in nearly the sort of dire straits that have been heralded.
Gonzalez is obviously good enough right now to play in full international games against highly skilled players.
It would be naïve to assume that European clubs haven’t taken notice of his skills, and he certainly has a chance to make a move abroad after the MLS season comes to a close.
Behind Gonzalez on the future radar are Gale Agbossoumonde, Chad Marshall, Eric Lichaj, and Kevin Alston (more on the last two a little later).
Agbossoumonde recently captained the U-20 Milk Cup side to a tournament victory, scoring and displaying great poise out of the back.
He asserted himself on the pitch and locked dominated in the air. He will certainly get a chance to earn a place with the big boys in the coming months, perhaps appearing in the senior side camp as early as January.
He earned the nickname "Boss" for his commanding play from the back.
Marshall is a former MLS Defender of the Year and was a part of the 30-man World Cup camp roster.
Although he has had a rockier season this time around due mostly to lingering injuries, he is another defender who is very smart positionally.
Another plus with Marshall is his toughness in the box, especially in defending against set pieces.
The capability of both men at the back should be assurance enough for all of the American faithful that the center back position is already in young but capable hands.
New York Red Bull rookie Tim Ream is another young player who is making a very loud case for inclusion in the national team setup moving forward.
Heralded by several well respected pundits as having the potential to be named Rookie of the Year, Ream’s first season in the professional ranks has been stellar so far.
Last season, the Red Bulls’ defense was simply horrid. This season, they have improved drastically, and Ream has played in 14 of New York’s 19 league matches thus far.
Ream has become a defensive fixture for New York, combining speed with good aerial skills. At 6’1”, Ream has an excellent ability to combine his height with a great sense of positioning.
That sense of positioning led his club manager, Hans Backe, to claim that he plays similar to a European center back. This is certainly high praise.
On the wings, the Americans have some interesting options, as well. Jonathan Spector and Jonathan Bornstein may have underwhelmed against Brazil, but both of them are starters for their club squads.
Spector plays regularly in several positions along the back line for West Ham United in the Premier League and Bornstein will be lacing his boots up in the Mexican League next season.
Joining them in consideration is another Mexican League regular in Edgar Castillo. Depending on the managerial situation for the US, Castillo may find himself with another chance to impress in the future.
Again, there is youth to be on the lookout for on at the wing back positions in Alston and Lichaj.
Alston has been a starter for New England Revolution of the MLS for the past two seasons and earned himself a place on the All Star Team to face Manchester United.
Alston’s most beneficial trait is his sheer tenacity. He doesn’t like to get beat, period.
And you can be sure that if he gets turned by an attacker, he’ll be harassing him mercilessly until he has regained a better defensive position.
Lichaj began to crop up on the radar while in college at the University of North Carolina. After his freshman year, he took off for Aston Villa of the Premier League.
In that time, he has bounced around from training with the Villa first team to several loan spells.
Just days ago, Lichaj signed a three-year contract to remain at Villa Park, despite the managerial controversy left in the wake of Martin O’Neill’s departure.
Both Lichaj and Alston could play at either wing back position for the Americans, helping to shore up a problematic area.
To be fair, there are obviously a great deal of uncertainties regarding the back line at the moment.
But the US appears to have enough depth and highly talented youth to assuage most fears. Certainly Gonzalez has done his part in playing solidly against Brazil.
Where To Go After 2010: Nepotism No Longer In US Supporters' Vocabulary
Landon Donovan was subbed off in the 61st minute against Brazil. Donovan made sure that everybody, including ESPN’s cameras, saw him strap the captain’s armband onto Michael Bradley, coach Bob Bradley’s son.
If the World Cup wasn’t enough to completely kill off the claims of nepotism in some quarters of the American faithful, Donovan’s handoff should have been.
In considering who will be the next Captain American going forward (let’s face it, Carlos Bocanegra will not be on the pitch in 2014), Michael Bradley is certainly one to consider.
Donovan would appear to be the top candidate for the post, all things considered, but Bradley’s sheer passion for the game and for his team continues to shine through.
Where To Go After 2010: USA Under (New?) Management
As of this moment, the manager of the US men’s national team is Bob Bradley. However, his contract expires in December of this year. After that point, everything regarding the management of the Yanks is a little foggy.
The lines have been drawn as far as who should be filling that post after December 2010. Bradley did a great job with the Red, White, and Blue in South Africa, leading them to their first ever group win. He led them to a draw with England, ranked eighth in the world at that time.
Looking a little further into the past, he managed the team to the country’s first ever FIFA sanctioned final in the 2009 Confederations Cup. He won the 2007 Gold Cup, and led a C-team to the final of the 2009 edition of the same tournament.
He has, however, been questioned over some of his lineup decisions. Perhaps the most well known example was his decision to start Ricardo Clark against Ghana, rather than Maurice Edu (who he subbed on in place of Clark in the 30th minute of the match).
Bradley is very loyal to his players and places great trust in them. Unfortunately, his trust is sometimes misplaced in some of the most inopportune moments.
This of course begs the question of whether or not Bradley will be rehired by United States Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati. Gulati has said quite little on the subject, adding to the murky waters.
A little bit of history on international management may be appropriate here. Most international managers last one World Cup cycle.
There are a few exceptions, but these are made for only the most successful managers. Even high profile managers like England’s Fabio Capello don’t stick around very long.
He took the reins of the Three Lions in 2008 and has stated publicly that he will manage that team through the 2012 European Championships.
Bruce Arena is the most recent American coach to have earned himself a contract for a second cycle.
He managed the Americans in 2002 to their quarterfinal berth in the World Cup and was at the helm until the Americans crashed out of Germany 2006.
Bradley has been linked with several high profile clubs in England quite recently to take over for clubs with managerial vacancies.
The first rumors included him going to Fulham (nicknamed Fulhamerica by some) of the English Premier League. That post was filled, but another would open on the eve of the Brazil friendly.
Martin O’Neill left Aston Villa in a surprising move, and Bradley’s name was one thrown around immediately across the pond, at least by the newspapers and tabloids.
In short, if Bob Bradley doesn’t get an extension, this is not really what could be considered a surprise, based on past precedent, some questionable personnel decisions, and his apparent European prospects.
Neither would his continuing on with the Yanks, based on his success and how well liked he is by his players.
So, if Bradley does not continue on, who might take up the mantle?
Great question. The name that pops up first for most American fans is Jurgen Klinsmann.
The ex-German international and German manager currently lives in Los Angeles with his family. He was rumored to have been approached by Sunil Gulati in 2006 for the same position, but turned it down when he learned he would not have free reign to call in MLS players for the upcoming Copa America.
Klinsmann would be a great manager for the US national team moving forward. The Yanks are at a stage in their development now where they need the influences of a European coach in order to, if nothing else, figure out how to beat European teams with much greater frequency.
He is also a manager who has great familiarity with the squad, having been a commentator for ESPN during the 2010 World Cup.
Further, he was the one who first brought Landon Donovan to Europe at Bayern Munich.
Beyond Klinsmann, there are a wide variety of other names. I could go in-depth into each of them, but suffice it to say that just about any coach in MLS who has had a consistently solid track record will have his name in the proverbial hat.
This includes New England Revolution’s Steve Nicol, Seattle Sounders’ Sigi Schmid, and Houston Dynamo’s Dominic Kinnear.
Really the only thing that is certain at this point about the American managerial situation is this: it will be decided by January 2011 at the very latest.