BRENT LATHAM - Wednesday, August 19, 2009
It's been a long, interesting summer. For this YA correspondent, it's been somewhat of a mixture between those summers as a kid that I got to play outside with friends all day, and those I spent stuck in summer school.
There are many lessons I've learned while accompanying the national team from Bloemfontein to Boston to Mexico City and back. But the principal takeaway is this:
The US men's national soccer program is finally ready to be an elite world power.
That's right. It bears repeating. The United States is finally on the brink of becoming a world soccer power. Not in women's soccer or men's basketball. In soccer, period. Over the hump. Past that tipping point that Sunil Gulati loves to talk about. Through the looking glass.
Does this mean the US is going to win the World Cup in 2010? Probably not. What it does mean is that the US program is firmly entrenched among the top dozen in the world, and can reasonably expect to stay there for the foreseeable future.
I'm basing that conclusion largely on the quality of the product the US can now – if Bob Bradley so chooses – put on the field. The Americans' best team is one that can regularly expect a result against all but the world's very best, and reasonably hope for a win against anyone, anywhere, anytime.
Here's what I've seen change, permanently, this summer to make that so:
The starters are starters.
By the time Bradley got his lineup down at the Confederations Cup, most everyone in the first eleven for the Americans was a player who has been seeing extensive time at his club team, or can expect to this year, most of them at top levels in Europe.
The American starting eleven even featured a number of players that caused top teams in Europe to stand up and take notice. Even if the buzz fizzled out and only one high profile move actually took place (Gooch to Milan), the way first division teams in the best leagues in the world look at Americans will never be the same.
This also means that gone, finally, are the days when the likes of a DaMarcus Beasley or Josh Wolff could waltz into national team camp and onto the field, straight from the bench of their respective European clubs. From now on, to make this team, you'll need to be playing regularly, somewhere, and probably in a first division in Europe. Even that may not be enough. That's a huge leap from just a few years ago.
It's suddenly hard to break into the line-up.
The American first team, at this point, is pretty much quality top to bottom. They play well together, and there aren't too many holes. As the fallout from the Gold Cup, during which only a couple players were even able to register a blip on the first team radar, proves, it's not easy to get into this team any more.
Certainly there are still a few holes to fill, and improvements are possible. Though Rico Clark has put in some good performances, an upgrade at D-mid will be beneficial when Jermaine Jones or Maurice Edu is ready. And the forward situation (read: Brian Ching) merits another op-ed in and of itself.
But overall the lineup Bradley put on the field at the Confederations Cup Final, and even against Mexico, is a solid one with few doubts. Take the rest of the midfield for example. What sort of performance would it take, over the next year, to supplant Dempsey, Donovan, or Bradley? With Jermaine Jones completing the quartet, who is going to break into that foursome? That the bar has suddenly been raised so high is further evidence of the Nats' recent improvement.
There are too many European Yanks to cover.
Overall, and with the exception of the altitude weariness that affected the whole team, the weakest spots in the lineup that took on Mexico (other than the under-performing Dempsey) seemed to be Clark and Ching. It is no coincidence that those are two of three starters that play in MLS.
Which leads to the next piece of evidence of improvement, one which we here at YA struggle with on a daily basis. There are now almost too many Americans playing in Europe to cover. When YA started out a few years ago, this was a more straight-forward exercise: cover Brian McBride and the goalkeepers, and hope someone else did something noteworthy occasionally. Now, there are dozens of Americans in top divisions across the continent, and hundreds more trying their luck at lower levels.
Given the unusual personnel nuances of the American domestic league, and the recent trend of youth players moving abroad as well, this is a situation that will only continue. It's not that MLS doesn't produce quality players. But at this point in the league's development, there comes a moment when the national teamers, in most cases, need top level European soccer to hone their skills enough to put them on the level of our national team.
That's a good thing for American soccer in general, if not for MLS. As the top prospects develop in the hyper competitive youth programs of Europe, perhaps they'll be less likely to hit a ceiling a la Eddie Johnson or Freddy Adu. At any rate if players want to get into the national team in the future, it's looking like they will have to pass the European litmus test.
Some cant-miss prospects have been forgotten.
Speaking of litmus tests, what better evidence of the improvement of the program than the gradual marginalization of what had been some of America's brightest prospects in recent years?
Obviously there is a huge downside when Eddie Johnson and Freddy Adu fail to pan out, at least thus far. But on the upside, there are enough top level American internationals these days that nobody is coming into camp anymore without producing at the club level. For Bob Bradley that is a beautiful thing.
Johnson and Adu aren't the only ones in this boat. Remember Bobby Convey? He should be at his peak right now, but the US hardly misses him as he toils in San Jose. Beasley suddenly fits in this picture too. For the first time in the history of the USMNT program, the coach has the luxury of selecting a team from players who are playing, and leaving the rest of the group, no matter how talented it may be, to come back when they are seeing some productive time.
The team could be that much better.
I won't dwell on this bitter subject, but aside from the team that is on the field, America has produced a handful more world class players that will never turn out for the Stars and Stripes. Their individual cases aside (including eligibility) how much better would the Nats be if they were reinforced by the likes of Subotic, Ibisevic, Rossi, Soumare, and/or Hangeland?
Mind you, the specific cases of those players (several of whom couldn't have played for the US anyway) are not the relevant factor here, but rather that the country is capable of producing some extraordinary talent. One day the Nats will be seeing the further benefits of that production.
That day may come soon, as the USSF continues to improve at identifying its worldwide talent at the youth levels. We'll find out in Egypt if Thomas Rongen has uncovered any diamonds in this U-20 cycle, but whether he has or not, the coach who once forsook Neven Subotic has certainly looked at the widest range of American players possible this time around, from all sorts of backgrounds. That, in and of itself, is a step forward.
The youth teams are on the verge of professionalism.
Speaking of youth teams, this edition of the U-17 youth team looks like it may be something special. One of these days the United States is going to win a youth tournament, and this just may be the side to do it.
Whether Coach Wilmer Cabrera is successful in Nigeria or not is less relevant than the number of American U-17s who are already getting looks from European clubs. The continued rapid development of the American youth programs is another factor that bodes well for the future.
The fan base seems to be growing.
Last but not least, with all the hype this summer, the American fan base looks to be growing, perhaps permanently. More dollars and attention splashed at professional men's soccer in the US can only be a good thing in terms of creating an environment for the national program to thrive.
While there has always been a core of soccer crazed, educated American fans (the ones who read YA), the sport could be put over the top by the masses of sports fans who, like the US national team, have begun to show their stripes at the "summer school of American soccer."
Of course all of this means nothing if the team can't get enough points from the last four games of the hexagonal to make it to South Africa. The day the Americans can really count themselves among the world's elite will be the day they can confidently walk into any stadium in the region - Azteca excepted - and take away three points. That day may not be here just yet, but it is coming.