US soccer exited 2006 at something of a crossroads. Not exactly breaking news, I know.
The retirement of former stalwarts like Brian McBride and Claudio Reyna from the National Team, the botched coaching transition and the failure of the (supposedly) rising core of players to rise to the occasion left US Soccer fans looking for answers.
Granted, the friendlies against Ecuador and Guatemala didn't resolve any of our doubts or fears unequivocally, but they did help us learn some new things about the guys that will and won't help us do better come 2010.
The most important thing we learned here was that he is willing to be broad in his search. He opened up camp to guys like Jay DeMerit and Frank Simek, who hadn't been given much of a chance by Bruce Arena.
To those of us who have been wondering why some of the European-based players haven't been more a part of the US program, we now get to start finding out what we have with guys who have been little more than names on a foreign scoresheet and the promise of potential untapped.
The second thing we learned is that Bradley isn't going to be as focused on himself as the center of attention as Da Bruce. Who would really blame him if, after clearly NOT being the first choice and forced to wear the interim tag, he started a public campaign for the full-time job.
He has quietly led a string of solid performances do his marketing for him. Granted, a few friendlies against teams that aren't exactly the powers of world soccer don't make him a no-brainer, but he has definitely proven that he's not out of his league.
I have to say we didn't rally learn much here. Tim Howard is who he is (and don't think his quality isn't a constant source of debate around YA headquarters, there is no player who engenders such varying opinions from our staff).
Keller really wasn't tested much against Guatemala, I guess the only point of worry here is that Bradley continues to rely on someone who is (extremely) unlikely to figure in 2010.
I have to say I applaud Bob Bradley's loyalty to his old Chicago Fire guy Carlos Bocanegra, but he just isn't a fullback - he really struggled to make an impact as a pure defender or a threat going forward.
Steve Cherundolo was also ineffective for someone who should be in mid-season form. Jimmy Conrad and Gooch Onyewu looked uncoordinated, and as a group, the US continues to struggle with speedy forwards. Not a tragic set of results, but I certainly had the feeling that it could have been much worse if the Ecuadorian strikers had finished better.
My initial reaction to the Guatemala match was that the newbies - DeMerit, Simek and Jonathan Spector - did a great job, but on further pondering, I have to reserve a real opinion until those guys face a team that shows some interest in attacking.
With four defenders ganging up on a lone striker, Carlos Ruiz, who is neither fast nor particularly tricky should have meant even more attacking chances that our guys produced. That said, none of them looked out of place in CONCACAF, which is a nice first step.
The best way that the US midfield situation could be described coming into 2007 is muddled. With Reyna gone and uncertainty about Donovan (both about his performance and about his best position) heaped on top of the mediocre-at-best performances from our wing players at World Cup 2006, things would more realistically be described as a mess.
After these two most recent friendlies, we at least have some cause for hope in the center of midfield. Benny Feilhaber got some playing time and seemed to generate more conversation, but I was most impressed by Michael Bradley. He's not the fastest guy out there, but he certainly doesn't lumber like most of our larger guys. He seems to have an excellent sense of where to be and where the ball should go when he gets it.
Feilhaber also did a nice job with the chances he received. The Guatemalan strategy of putting 10 men behind the ball for the majority of the game certainly seemed to dampen his ability to contribute much. Against Ecuador, he was very effective - especially once Donovan moved to forward and Bradley joined him in central midfield.
In general, everyone should be hopeful that these two continue to get chances and improve over the next couple years. Both seem destined to at least contribute to the effort in 2010 with a reasonable chance of starting, especially for Bradley.
The situation on the wings is much less hopeful. I felt like I was watching Liverpool in the Michael Owen days - Route 1 was the biggest trend on display across both matches. Not necessarily because that's how Coach Bradley drew it up, but because that is what was working. We really got nothing from our wingers, regardless of who was in there.
DaMarcus Beasley continues to be a bit of a riddle, but that isn't exactly news. The good news is that in the absence of attacking prowess, he did some nice work coming back and helping Bocanegra who looked like he definitely needed the help.
The big worry is that he seems to have not only stopped improving, but he's regressed. The big positive for DMB this summer is that the proliferation of matches will almost certainly guarantee him a starting spot in one tournament or the other. Maybe the extended run will be exactly what he needs to get his mojo back.
Clint Dempsey missed a great chance against Ecuador and a reasonable chance on a header against Guatemala, and didn't show much when he was on the ball. I'm sure he'll be fine, but it may not be until after a full training camp with the US team over the summer until he's back to where he was - and maybe not until after a full camp with Fulham that he starts showing the improvement we're all hoping for from his move to the Premier League.
Finally, we come to Justin Mapp, who was widely acclaimed as someone who would be pushing Beasley and Bobby Convey on the left side of midfield after his performances earlier in the year.
What he demonstrated against Guatemala was what he has always shown during his professional career - namely, that he is capable of dominating performances one day and the next day he can be nearly invisible.
I don't know enough about the opponents to point the finger at different defensive alignments or the type of defender who was marking him, but what I DO know is that Mapp took a step backward in the wake of the Guatemala match. His goal for the summer must be to show consistent excellence or he will be lost in the shuffle of above average MLS players.
Honestly, we didn't learn too much here. We already knew that Brian Ching and Donovan play well together. We knew that Donovan can shine (although those goals were especially sweet), but we also know that there won't be any definitive answer on him until the bright lights come back on - CONCACAF matches, even ones against Mexico, don't really count.
The jury will remain out until 2010 unless he knocks it out of the park in Copa America (assuming he plays).
Like Beasley, there isn't a great deal NEW from what we observed of Johnson in February. We already knew that EJ was in a huge slump and that, until he gets a little success, we probably don't want to count on him for too much.
On the positive side, he made some good runs and got himself in position to score some goals. On the down side, he missed some chances that someone who wants to be considered both a presumptive starter and rising star at the striker spot NEEDS to make.
The good people of Kansas City (or at least the 30 or so who show up for Wizards games) should take heart in the fact that he looked a lot better than he did at any point last year.
Between the upcoming MLS season and the summer tournaments, this will be EJ's make-or-break year. One more year of this and whomever is coaching the National Team will have to look elsewhere for his striker of the future/present.
Kenny Cooper showed some life and tried to do some things in his cameo. While I'm definitely excited to see more this summer in MLS and our various tournaments, I'm not sure we really learned anything about him.
Overall, I guess the best I can say for the winter of 2007 is that there are at least some reasons to start being hopeful again after the disaster that was 2006, with particular emphasis on the fact that a lot of young guys are starting to get a look.