As Team USA Prepares for the 2010 World Cup with a game against the Czech Republic tonight in East Hartford, CT (ESPN, 8:00 PM), I wanted to taker a moment and breakdown the team position by position to articulate my own set of expectations for the team. Let’s start up top and work our way back through the probable line-up...
As sure as you are reading these words, barring any unforeseen injuries or problems, Jozy Altidore will be starting up top for the USA. At only 20 years old, Altidore is one of the brightest hopes for the future of USA soccer, but after playing sparingly on loan at Hull City in the English Premiership this season, Altidore did not cover himself in glory, being sent off for this headbutt in his final game with the team:
While I admire the passion, this is exactly the type of reaction players try to bait one another into during the World Cup and Altidore cannot let frustration get the better of him. Then again, he can also do this:
I have been a huge admirer of Jozy Altidore’s ever since I watched him as a teenager playing for the NY Red Bulls; he is a great kid with a great head on his shoulders. That said, he hasn’t had the best year and he will hardly be a player to strike fear in the hearts of the opposing defense. He is capable of great things and, if he is given service of the ball in dangerous positions, look out. That said, he is built like a target forward, a player whose size allows him to hold up the ball and bring other players into attack, but his hold-up play is not his strong suit, as he prefers to face the goal.
This wasn’t much of a problem when the Charlie Davies was around; a small, lightning quick striker who played well off of Altidore, Davies was the lightning to Altidore’s thunder. But in October of 2009, Davies was injured in a brutal car accident that, despite hard work in rehabilitation, has ruled him out of the 2010 World Cup. With Davies sadly out of the picture, the forward position has become a lot more cloudy. Which leads us to... Edson Buddle and Hercules Gomez.
If you had told me last October that Edson Buddle and Hercules Gomez would be duking it out for a starting role with Team USA in the World Cup, I would have promised to eat my hat. Today, I would be doing some hat eating; seemingly from nowhere, with hardly any international experience between them, Buddle and Gomez are in form and could make an impact. That said, the idea of Edson Buddle lining up against Rio Ferdinand and John Terry of England is enough to give any USA fan sleepless nights; despite a great run of form knocking in balls fed to him by Landon Donovan in the MLS, I just don’t see Buddle as a game-changer. He reminds me of a slower Carlton Cole with a lot less touch. But boy, he’s been good this year:
Hercules Gomez has been lighting it up for Puebla FC in the Mexican League and of all of the strikers in camp for the USA, his pace and game remind me the most of Charlie Davies. That said, Gomez has struggled for playing time on The USMNT in the past, and unless he and Altidore can establish some chemistry and understanding, it may be a bridge too far to expect great things from him at this Cup. Team USA stalwart Brian Ching’s game is too much like Altidore’s (a big target player who doesn’t love playing with his back to goal), but he probably makes the team for insurance purposes, which means either Buddle or Gomez has to go-- I’m guessing Buddle goes, Gomez stays. That means Buddle and Robbie Findley appear to be the odd men out along with an ailing Eddie Johnson, who has never recovered his goalscoring form of a few years ago.
Forwards score goals, and with a 20 year old leading the way and giant questions of international experience plaguing the rest of the roster, the lack of proven goal scoring up top may mean that Coach Bob Bradley decides to slot Landon Donovan or, more likely, Clint Dempsey up top, behind Altidore in a supporting striker role. Which, of course, throws the whole formation of the midfield into question...
Barring a start at forward, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey are the poles in midfield that give the USA a fighting chance in every match. Donovan is a fast and dangerous goal scorer and playmaker who is the engine of the team, but too often he has found himself marked out of games as he is, invariably, the focus of every opponent’s defensive planning. Still, he remains a difference maker, one of the only players on Team USA who has the potential to unlock defenses with a pass, a creative run, or a shot on target. He is the best player we have, and while fans have often criticized his career choices, you can't argue with his 42 goals (the all-time leader in US history) and 42 assists wearing the Red White and Blue (PS- the goal at 1' 21" in this clip reel never fails to bring a smile to the face)...
While Donovan motors around the pitch like a man possessed, Clint Dempsey plays it smooth; he has a languid style that seems to be in a disinterested slow motion, but which, in truth, is always a result of complete, efficient control. Watch any section of a USMNT match and look for the player jogging like he’s just warming up and you’ve found Dempsey. And yet, for all of that laid back style, he is probably the only creative genius on the team, and his play has developed during his time at Fulham into something unique in U.S. footballing history; a creative player who can pull magic out of his hat.
While Dempsey and Donovan provide a majority of Team USA’s threat, Michael Bradley, son of Coach Bob Bradley, has cemented his place as the central midfield general of the team, launching attacks, shutting down counter attacks, winning balls, doing the dirty work alongside Maurice Edu or Ricardo Clark, two Defensive Midfielders who are the shut down safety valves of the team. If Team USA plays a formation with four midfielders and two strikers, you should expect to see Donovan/ Dempsey/Bradley/ Edu or Clark starting-- my guess is Edu, who has had a great season for Glasgow Rangers, will get the starting nod and be subbed by Clark late in games. And if Dempsey or Donovan moves to the forward position (or in the hole behind Altidore, making a five man midfield), then players like winger Stuart Holden and central midfielder Benny Feilhaber could see significant time as the USA plays conservative and tries to control the midfield.
That leaves, in my book anyway, José Torres deep on the bench with DaMarcus Beasley who, after establishing himself as a USMANT mainstay in years past, has gone off the boil in recent years. Beasley’s saving grace is his defensive mindset-- there isn’t a ball or player he won’t chase down, and that hustle will probably earn him a spot on the roster. On the outside looking in, I have Robbie Rogers (not a good year for Robbies I‘m afraid) Sacha Kljestan and Alejandro Bedoya, none of whom will probably make it to South Africa.
At the end of my previous post, reader Jamal Bouhlal wrote of Team USA’s chances in Group C:
“They do have the talent, especially the defense. They can earn a win and two ties with the defense they have and the counter attack they have.“
The greatest challenge facing Team USA is its defensive unit, a patchwork crew of players coming back from injury, coming off of really poor showings in the league campaigns, and everyone uncertain as to who will play where.
The heart of the problem lies in the surgically repaired knee of Oguchi Onyewu, a central defender of imposing stature and dubious decision making, and the poor play of Jonathan Spector, who had a horrible season playing Left Back for West Ham. Onyewu is a lock if he’s healthy, which means he and maybe Jay DeMerit are partnered in central defense which would put Carlos Bocanegra at Left Back. Or, maybe Bocanegra could start in central defense alongside Onyewu and Spector could start at Left Back, pushing DeMerit to the bench. With the diminutive Steve Cherundolo at Right Back, I’m guessing the defense will line up as
Cherundolo-- Onyewu--DeMerit-- Bocanegra
but it all depends on Spector’s performance in camp, or if Bradley decides to play Spector at Right Back, his natural position, which could mean, if DeMerit doesn’t play well in central defense, Bocanegra could be shifted over to the middle and someone like Jonathan Bornstein could start at Left Back, which, would mean no Cherundolo.
And then, what happens if we lose Onyewu to re-injury (please no) or card accumulation (international referees take a dislike to big players--fact!)? Cherundolo, DeMerit, Bocanegra and Bornstein? Clarence Goodson and Heath Pearce round out the roster and provide insurance, while Chad Marshall probably stays home and returns to the Columbus Crew of MLS.
If the number of maybes, caveats and uncertainties is confusing to you, imagine how it feels to longtime followers of the team, and probably to the players themselves. This is a case where we have a couple of flexible players (Spector and Bocanegra) who are jacks of all trades and masters of none, all of which makes me think that, when England’s Wayne Rooney is bearing down on goal, we have big problems in terms of size, pace and positional play. The defense is, by far, the greatest weakness on this team and, aside from uncertainty about Altidore’s youth and questions about Michael Bradley and Maurice Edu’s ability to boss the midfield against people like Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, I will not be surprised to see this team let in some goals. There is just not enough quality or stability at the back to give any reasonable fan a sense of security. Scary times ahead.
Tim Howard is a world-class goalkeeper, Brad Guzan and Marcus Hahnemann are both pretty good and will back him up. No questions here, it’s Howard as the anchor in front of goal, with Guzan and Hahnemann only seeing the pitch if qualification is guaranteed. TIMMY!
My best guess for the World Cup starting 11:
G Tim Howard
RB Steve Cherundolo
CB Oguchi Onyewu
CB Jay DeMerit
LB Carlos Bocanegra
DM Maurice Edu
CM Michael Bradley
RW Stuart Holden
LW Landon Donovan
ST Clint Dempsey
ST Jozy Altidore
Up Next: Analyzing The Group Stage