Thursday, February 16, 2006
Two blow-out wins in a row in friendly matches have left American fans and, presumably, the coaching staff with a lot to think about. Here is a collection of random thoughts after watching the matches against Norway and Japan.

But wait, there's more... after I've finished with my thoughts, I'm dipping into the YA mailbag to cover some of your letters about our most recent "23 Tickets" feature. Hope you've eaten recently and there's no chance your boss will walk by anytime soon, it's a long one.

Donovan the US Gerrard?
With Donovan, Dempsey, Reyna, O'Brien, Mastroeni (and to a lesser extent Olsen and Armas) all competing for spots in central midfield and not a lot of options on the right, it looked like Bruce Arena might be experimenting with the idea of shifting Donovan out wide.

A similar shift has yielded spectacular results for Liverpool as traditional central midfielder/man-without-a-position Steven Gerrard has moved out to the right side. Donovan doesn't seem to have the same aptitude for crossing the ball that Gerrard does, but he looks as much the part as anyone else we've put out there, and if it opens up more playing time for Dempsey in the middle of the park behind the strikers, all the better.

I'd like to see more. But please, no more corners.

Options Up Top
Brian McBride is a no-brainer, but in the wake of Eddie Johnson's injuries, Josh Wolff's struggles and Taylor Twellman's spectacular outburst, you have to wonder what would happen if the Cup started today.

Can Twellman and McBride forge a successful partnership? Or are they too similar? Certainly there is time for Eddie Johnson to recover his health before June, but if he can't, will Wolff really get the call despite his frustrating inability to capitalize on the good positions he puts himself in?

My take is that McBride/EJ is still the ideal option, but that I'd rather see McBride and Twellman figure it out rather than giving the spot to Wolff just because he can replace EJ's speed.

I reserve the right to change my mind if Wolff can manage to have a Twellman-like breakout between now and June. I think, fundamentally, he's a good player who needs some luck to feel comfortable.

Eddie Pope
I've been a DC United guy since their very first match, and between his time at United and his performances for the US, Eddie has earned the benefit of the doubt in my mind. Over the last twelve months or so, I've been down on his inclusion in the squad for Germany.

The last two matches have started to change my mind. Maybe he just needed some off-season rest to brush off the disaster that was the Real Salt Lake season. His performances against Norway and Japan showed he can still play solid D and pick his spots on set pieces.

I don't want to get carried away, I still think his best role in Germany will be as a reserve, but I'm coming around to the notion that he might push out someone like Gregg Berhalter, who has struggled this year in Germany.

A Left Back?
Without any spectacular offensive players on display, it's been hard to evaluate Todd Dunivant's ability to compete as a man marker on the international level, but he's certainly looked the part going forward on the left side. He can cross the ball and does a good job of getting to the end line and putting the ball back into space.

He may lose out to the combination of Eddie Lewis, Bobby Convey, and DaMarcus Beasley on the left side, but he does bring more physical presence (6'0, 170 lbs) than any of those three. Dunivant's emergence has been one of the good stories that Bruce Arena's somewhat controversial MLS-based selection policy for January and February has produced.

Now, to answering the YA Mail...

One Bandwagon Starts
Readers Uriah Kramer and David Haynes are apparently ready to drive the Chris Rolfe bandwagon all the way to Germany.

Kramer writes "It’s impossible Aaron Gidding writes, in regards to Eddie Johnson, 'It will be interesting to see how a relatively untested striker does against Alessandro Nesta.' Well Rolfe is still relatively untested, but he’s already scored on Nesta. I was there, jumping up and down in Section 8 when the Fire were playing AC Milan. Literally seconds after Christian Vieri had just put Milan on the board, Rolfe took a feed, shook Nesta, Jaap Stam was late coming to the rescue and Rolfe just fired off a left-footed screamer…Rolfe is a force."

NT – I'm not sure you can compare scoring in a preseason friendly to the World Cup, but I have to admit that I was sold on Rolfe after the Fire's demolition of DC United at RFK in the MLS playoffs last season.

Every time the ball got past half field, he was causing the United defense problems. Not sure if he'll make the cut for 2006 but based on what I've seen at the MLS level, I'd be inclined to take him to Germany over Josh Wolff.

…and another blows a tire…
Greg Rudell has apparently joined Sir Alex Ferguson in being disenchanted with Timmy Howard. In his opinion "The only name I would like to see higher on the list is Kevin Hartman, assuming three keepers go. If Howard doesn't see some 1st [team] time this session, I think Hartman is the better choice…"

NT – Well, I'm not sure if 45 minutes against Portsmouth is 'some 1st Team time' or not, but I have a hard time believing that we'd take Hartman over Howard. If some one were to get injured (knock on wood) then I think the guys in MLS would be left to fight it out for the third spot.

…and a third is apparently missing entirely
As Jason Moran points out, a loaned-out Liverpool defender hasn't gotten much attention from The Bruce. "…I wonder why no one ever mentions Zak Whitebread. He is now getting PT as Liverpool loaned him out and he is left footed. I [believe] when the U23 were trying to qualify he was one of the National team coaches favorites and it hurt the team when he was injured for the Mexico game."

NT – I don't have any inside information on this, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear that Arena thinks that some of his young European-based players are better off staying and playing/training with their clubs while the MLS guys take part in the US-based friendlies in January and February.

Once he's seen those guys play and MLS camps start up in earnest, then he will have a chance to see the Euro-based guys play against Poland and Germany. Not saying it's GOING to happen, just trying to get inside the head of a coach who has a lot of players vying for the last few spots on the roster.

Someone's Got Josh's Back
Del Shaffer is apparently not afraid to stand up for the guy even after a rough set of matches on the West Coast. He submitted his own version of "23 Tickets" and included Josh Wolff as his 4th striker with the comment '…works the other team and is crafty'.

NT – I'm sorry to take such an easy shot at Del here, but for all his speed and aptitude for making dangerous runs, Wolff isn't putting the ball in the net even when we're scoring goals in bunches.

Not good times when your job description is supposed to be "put the ball in the net". Wolff will need to have a Twellman-like match at some point if he wants a roster spot for Germany.

Erik Ippel would like to see Mexico's favorite whipping boy re-enter the conversation not only at Yanks Abroad but at USMNT headquarters – "[I] was disappointed not to see Cobi Jones go to camp. I think he warrants a closer look From BA…"

NT – If Eddie Pope is still being given a shot to prove that he has something left to offer, I'm not sure why Cobi shouldn't at least be given a look.

He's not likely to play much of a role as a starter, but I wouldn't have any problem with the notion of Cobi coming off the bench for the last 20 or 30 minutes of a match if we needed either an offensive spark or a veteran to help kill the clock.

Going against him is the fact that he really only plays one position – most of the reserves seem to be more versatile than that.

Bobby Sinking?
A number of readers including Phil Norton wondered about the fact that Bobby Convey slipped in the latest edition of "23 Tickets" asking "…why do you have Bobby Convey as moving down with a red arrow? He has played well all year and has pace like Beasley as well as tenacity…"

NT – No doubt Convey is having an excellent year and is pretty much a lock to go to Germany this summer. Most of the reason for the decline has to do with how we put the feature together. We compile votes from our staff and average out the opinions of those that contribute.

Bobby made the top category by the slimmest of margins last month. A new contributor placed him in the category just below, dragging his average rating just hundredths of a point under the cut-off for a "Pack your bags" rating.

It's just goes to show that every system has its quirks, and we doubt this anomaly will slow the Convey Express to Germany.

Fearing the Worst
Andrew Ikeda is worried that Captain America might not be back in time for Germany and wonders at the alternatives asking "…If Claudio remains injured and is unable to play, how about Landon filling in for the position. It seems to me that he is capable. What do you think?"

NT – Never wise to ask an editorial writer what he thinks, he could go on for days... but my quick opinion is that Landon is best suited to playing a role with less responsibility which is why I suggested above that he be moved out to the right for the Cup.

That said, I'm not sure if there is a better alternative than Donovan for the Number 10 jersey if Reyna isn't available. I'd be interested to see O'Brien take a crack at it – when healthy and in form, he's the closest thing we have to Reyna.

Closing with Predictions
Reader Todd Larlee fires the first shot with his predictions for the "Group of Death" and here's what he comes up with "My prediction: D v Czech, L v Italy, W v Ghana…"

NT – Certainly that wouldn't be a shock and it would put us in an interesting spot in terms of getting to the knock-out stages – we'd really have to crush Ghana and hope Italy does the same to the Czechs in their match.

My prediction is somewhat more optimistic given the current state of things. I think we can beat the Czechs – Nedved and Cech have both had down years and they're the two players that worry me the most.

In my eyes, the match with Italy will actually be decided before it starts – if they beat up on Ghana in their opener, they may be overconfident and give us an opening for a draw or a win. If Ghana takes advantage of the fact that Italy generally take at least one full match to realize that the tournament has started, then they'll be ready to go and I think we'll lose.

All I have to say about the Ghana match is that we'd better win.

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