Saturday, April 7, 2007
While the US National Team has been playing well under the guidance of interim head coach Bob Bradley, I cannot see the current group of USMNT players playing well enough in South Africa to realize the so-called "Project 2010" and US Soccer leadership needs to reorient long term goals for the program.

"Project 2010" was supposed to be a comprehensive program that would create an environment for the US to host and seriously challenge for the World Cup crown by the year 2010.

The primary directive was aimed at overhauling the current youth system in order to develop an elite class of players who would emerge as flag-bearers in America's rise to prominence on the world scene.

Since the US humbly bowed out of the last tournament in Germany, however, no one seems to mention the goal of World Cup success in 2010 - but the goal still looms large over the powers that be at the USSF.

In various recent interviews, FIFA President Sepp Blatter has flip-flopped on the issue of retaining the current World Cup hosting rotation into the future. He has both reinforced that World Cup hosts will be rotated by continent well into the future and claimed that the rotation will be over after 2014.

Under the existing rotation system, the World Cup would be played in a country from CONMEBOL in 2014, with CONCACAF in line to host the quadrennial tournament in 2018.

With only the USA, Mexico and Canada as viable candidates, we would stand a very good chance of being selected, given that Mexico has already hosted twice and Canada has so far not shown much interest.

The only real candidate for the South American rotation, Brazil, has seen their bid come under scrutiny by FIFA, with worries concerning stadium safety. Following a recent tour of the country, Blatter wondered whether the five-time world champions would be able to make the necessary upgrades in time.

If Brazil does not pass FIFA standards for safety, the world organizing body might treat the Americas as a single continent, opening the door for the USA to step in four years ahead of schedule.

With South Africa having been named hosts of the next World Cup, home-field advantage is no longer a possibility for the US National Team and the USSF needs to alter the other goals outlined in Project 2010.

The reality is that the general uncertainty that exists around the National Team makes success in South Africa doubtful - the extended future should be the real focus.

US Soccer capo Sunil Gulati, who was also in charge of the development of Project 2010, has yet to settle on Bob Bradley as the man to lead the US through to World Cup. This indecisiveness has limited the opportunity to use the time running up to 2010 to rebuild the team after last summer's disappointment.

The major crux of the problem is that the heart of the Men's National Team retired after Germany 2006 or will likely be too old for the trip to South Africa. As a result, the US has a serious veteran leadership vacuum on the field.

The real generation of flag-bearers, who expanded soccer's exposure to the American public, is now out of the picture with no one apparently ready to take on the role.

Without the likes of Eddie Pope, Claudio Reyna and Brian McBride - three of the most identifiable USMNT players over the last 12 years - veteran leadership to carry the team through these tumultuous times is distinctly absent.

Even Kasey Keller can not be counted on as more than an experienced back up to Tim Howard. These four veterans have been the pillars that the team has been built on and it is difficult to find their natural replacements amongst the current crop of players.

In theory, Howard, Landon Donovan, Oguchi Onyewu and Eddie Johnson should be the faces of the future - the carriers of the baton, so to speak. Certainly, going into 2006, they looked to be the future.

Based on the last year or so, though, do any of these players have either the record at the club or the international level to really guide the senior team to victories in big tournaments?

Donovan, for all of his caps, does not control the pace of a game the way that Reyna could and his reluctance to stick it out in Europe through hardships and other challenges hints at a lack of mental toughness that one expects from American National Teamers. Perhaps he lacks the burning desire to win at all costs required at the international level.

Onyewu may often be the victim of bad calls, but it is ultimately up to him to play more intelligently in those situations without hurting the team. This is something that only more high-level experience can teach him, but first he has to find himself a permanent team with a starting position for him.

Johnson has yet to fulfill the potential that he showed so early in his career (clearly evidenced in the recent friendlies against Ecuador and Guatemala).

Lastly, Howard is coming around at Everton, but still has a ways to go to prove once and for all that he is as consistent as his predecessors between the sticks.

The current set of players will in all likelihood not be able to perform well in major tournaments without an established system, familiarity and trust in a single coach. If Gulati chooses to dethrone Bradley, then it is hard to believe that they will be ready to meet the expectations of Project 2010 in Africa.

Even if Bradley stays on and the US is able to build cohesion through the coach's tutelage, various gaps in the squad still exist and it seems unlikely than anyone will step up to fill them at a championship contention level in three short years.

Furthermore, the youth system has not been totally revamped as initially described in Project 2010. Project-40, the existing national youth development program, still exists and the clubs of MLS still do not have the extensive youth development system required to bring Americans along from a very young age.

Of all the goals for Project 2010, an extensive MLS youth development program was the most important. Such a program would be far superior to the current one as it has the potential to give a larger group of youngsters the best chance to develop within a system that caters to Americans.

By using systems like Project-40, the USSF naturally limits young players' exposure to levels of competitive soccer unavailable to most young Americans. By allowing MLS more freedom in developing its own talent, both the league itself and the US National Team will improve naturally from the ground up with a larger outreach than Project 40.

More of the funding that goes to Project 40 should be allocated to MLS' fledgling reserve system to expand it and allow for more competition for younger players.

Even more so, rather than throwing money out on a marquee manager for the USMNT, the USSF should spend more wisely into the future. In the youth development game, more is always better, and investment in the foundations of the game should pay dividends well into the future as soccer's popularity continues to rise in the States.

It is not the current level of popularity across America that will seal a bid for World Cup 2018 if the rotation system isn't dropped, but instead the fact that the US has the biggest, most modern stadia, which are connected by an efficient transportation network, and an underdeveloped market full of money.

Earning the right to host the World Cup will take care of itself; it is up to the leadership of US Soccer to make the appropriate moves so that we can gain the bid when the opportunity comes along.

Success at the World Cup on home soil or near to it would be an invaluable aide in developing the image of the game and pay innumerable dividends for the continued expansion of soccer in the American market.

US Soccer needs to admit the unlikelihood of Project 2010 and introduce an eight or 12-year plan that explicates the intended direction of the national program, especially in terms of organizing youth development more closely around the MLS system.

Of course, we cannot just jettison the current batch of USMNT players, but an effort should be made to look past them and into the group of players that they will influence come 2018.

By preparing for the inevitable return of a World Cup to the USA (or, at least, the region) in the not-so-distant future and not dwelling too much on the immediate future, US Soccer will be able to achieve the goals set out in the original Project 2010 - only a few years later.