BRENT LATHAM - Friday, May 29, 2009
With the national team headed for a busy summer schedule that will include as many as a dozen matches, lists are beginning to turn up all over the place. Everyone seems to be guessing which fringe players might have a place in one of the squads head coach Bob Bradley will put together for the qualifiers against Costa Rica and Honduras, the Confederations Cup, and the Gold Cup.
I'll admit, ranking the list of national team contenders is entertaining. We do it all the time here at YA. But seeing that 2010 is fast approaching, I find myself asking a different question: How is Bradley going to fill all these holes in the first team lineup?
Looking at the starting eleven, there are more serious question marks than I can remember at any point this decade. When we here at YA put together our 23 tickets the last go round, we came to an alarming conclusion: beyond the seven or eight guys ready to pack their bags, the rest of the tickets are completely up in the air.
Now with Steve Cherundolo out, the Nats have question marks at left and right back, and depth issues in the middle of defense. Not even coach Bradley seems to yet know who should partner with his son in midfield, and no one has claimed either of the wings as their own. And forwards? The Americans' best forward hasn't played a club game in the second half of the season, and the other starting forward is still Brian Ching. Enough said, no?
But, that chilling assessment behind us, things are not as grave as they might seem. A year is a world of time in professional soccer. This time last year, the younger Bradley still had more doubters than proponents, and few American soccer fans had even heard of Jose Francisco Torres.
Beyond the question marks is a boatload of young talent that could, over the next year, develop into a strong side. This summer is the perfect chance for a coming out party for a number of players who will fill out the American roster. Those players, providing depth and options, will also determine how far the US can take its South African dream.
So the main question to be answered this summer is: Beyond Howard, Donovan, and the other usual suspects, who will step up, and make this team better?
Here's my squad of eleven strong candidates to seize their spot in the national team this summer, from the forward slot on back to the pipes.
Charlie Davies A terror in the respectable Swedish league, Davies is yet to really step it up on the international level. His speed and athleticism have always been exceptional, and the BC product credits his time at Hammarby with improving his work ethic, and teaching him how to be a pro.
To this point, Davies has only a few cameos with the national team, and this summer promises to provide him with the stage to secure a place going into 2010. If Davies can become a goal scoring threat to place alongside the still growing frame of Josmer Altidore, the US could put a forward tandem on the field in 2010 that will give opponents some real matchup headaches.
Conor Casey It has been quite a while since the former Portland Pilot has been mentioned in the same sentence as the national team, but this summer seems like the time for that situation to end. In the same mold as Kenny Cooper, Casey may hold the edge over the FC Dallas man because of coach Bradley's apparent aversion to Cooper, FC Dallas' indifferent start, and Cooper's limited production thus far in the MLS campaign.
Casey, in the meantime, has been having a solid MLS season. He is the type of large, skilled forward that the US could use in the Gold Cup against smaller regional opponents, and is potentially a more skilled version of Ching. It is not clear, however, that anything less than a spectacular summer could push Casey far enough up the depth chart to supplant the favored incumbents like Eddie Johnson and the Houston Dynamo man.
Jose Francisco Torres It's hard to think of a player whose stock has risen faster in the last few months than Torres. Brought into the team last year in what seemed more like a precautionary measure to impede Mexico from grabbing the talented midfielder, Torres has been getting regular minutes in a very talented Pachuca midfield that includes soon-to-be-capped Argentine international Christian Gimenez.
Torres would make an interesting pairing for Bradley in midfield, as both are box to box types that can play defense and pop up in the offensive third as well. Bradley brings some tackling and bite, and Torres complements him nicely with quickness, unusual poise over the ball, and silky passing. Torres still has some rough edges, like a tendency to get caught in tight situations in his own defensive third, but if he continues his rapid improvement, 2009 could be remembered as the year the USA found its next Claudio Reyna.
Maurice Edu A solid second half of the season has put Edu firmly in the plans of renowned Scottish champions Rangers, which is a good place to be going into a pre-World Cup year in which playing time at the club level will be a huge determinant of players' roles on the national team.
After sitting out most of the first half of the season, Edu seems to just be getting warmed up. He has made a central midfield spot at Ibrox his own, and is likely to now see big minutes in the June qualifiers and the Confederations Cup. If Edu plays well with the first team early in the summer, that midfield spot alongside Bradley will have become his to lose.
Freddy Adu You've heard the story a million times. Freddy is still only nineteen, and loaded with potential. The only thing is, he has never shown it at the club level, which has, understandably, kept coach Bradley from giving him too many chances in pivotal matches for the 'Nats.
Adu has shown flashes throughout his career. To his credit, he has done enough to keep himself in the national team picture despite his club level disappearing act, quite a feat for a team with the midfield depth of the United States. The upside of not playing at Monaco is that Freddy comes into the summer fresh, and will most likely get ample time at some point, even if perhaps not until the Gold Cup.
If he can't find his place this time around, Adu might find his future chances to get into the squad for South Africa more limited.
Jeremiah White White is unique is this group in that he is very much a wildcard, on the fringes of the national team. After bouncing around Europe for a few years, White seems to have finally found a home in Denmark. It's not clear that the Wake Forest product, who has had only a cup of tea with the national team, will ever be of true international quality, but his game seems to be peaking at the right time.
If White is ever to be given the shot to prove that his blazing speed and increasingly accurate crossing can help the national team on the flanks, that moment will come in the summer's Gold Cup. There, he would likely be in the midfield with his teammate in Denmark, Benny Feilhaber, who will also covet a second chance.
Jay DeMerit For years the US has boasted depth in central defense, as players like DeMerit and Danny Califf make themselves look good against "B" competition, while Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra do the dirty work against the quality opponents. But, if one game can prove anything, the match in El Salvador in which the US was forced to call on Califf showed that the Americans need more quality depth at CB - and soon.
DeMerit is a guy who has hung around the national team picture for years without ever really playing a central role. He has the poise and experience - a season in the Premier League along with several in the Championship - to make himself into the go-to guy at center back after the starting pair.
By playing well this summer, DeMerit will become option to start if Carlos Bocanegra is forced to assume the left back role, something that is looking more and more like a possibility.
Marvell Wynne Wynne is another former Under-20 standout for whom American fans have huge expectations that are largely yet to be fulfilled. With Steve Cherundolo out, the Toronto FC man is likely to get quality time this summer when it counts.
Frankie Hejduk is currently number one on the depth chart on the right side of defense, but he is an old man in soccer years, and prone to cards, so Wynne's chance will likely come in the Confederations Cup, if not sooner.
If he can seize the international stage with both hands this time, American fans will be thrilled. The emergence of Wynne would give the 'Nats something to look forward to after 'Dolo, and perhaps drive a much-awaited transfer to bigger and better things overseas.
Jonathan Bornstein It seems the best strategy at present to reach the top of the national team's depth chart at left back is to not play. Certainly DaMarcus Beasley is not the long term solution, so even after playing himself out of the job last year, Bornstein seems to have inherited the position again.
With the indifferent play of Heath Pearce, and his subsequent demotion to the reserves at Hansa Rostock, coach Bradley faces a dearth of legitimate alternatives, so Bornstein may get his chance as soon as the qualifiers.
A solid performance under fire will keep him in the spot for the Confederations, which will be his chance to lock down the position once and for all by showing how much he's improved since being repeatedly exposed in the Copa America two years ago.
Jonathan Spector If there is one guy in particular whose time would seem to have finally come with the national team, it is Spector. He can play everywhere on the back line, just where the US needs some help right now.
To top off that flexibility, Spector managed to avoid seriously injury over the last few weeks of the Premiership, having managed to be knocked out of only one recent game - with a concussion. That he was able to return and regain a starting spot bodes well for his future in England's top flight. A healthy, productive summer would mean the same for his chances of finally making an impact with the national side.
Brad Guzan - Somewhat inexplicably, "El Gusano" is clearly the number two choice for Bradley, despite his complete lack of playing time at Aston Villa. It would be nice if someone else getting more playing time - Matt Pickens in Colorado, or Luis Robles at Kaiserlautern, for example - were nipping at his heels, but in reality it doesn't seem like there will be much time for anyone else in goal. Howard is the starter in the matches that count, and Guzan will likely see almost all the time in the Gold Cup, so he needs to step up his game.
If even half of the members of this potential squad are able to up their games this summer, then Bob Bradley and American fans will be resting easier come fall. If the majority can play well, the Americans might also be celebrating a much higher degree of summer success than anticipated.