EDGAR ZUNIGA - Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Why not the other Johnson?
Team USA hits the road for their next World Cup qualifier, with the boys packing their bags (and food, water, bug repellent and malaria shots) as they travel down to the tiny terror known as El Salvador.
Recently, someone who considers himself quite knowledgeable about US Soccer told me that the trip to El Salvador should be a cakewalk for Team USA...well, when compared to the match with Mexico, he added.
I totally disagree.
Look, it doesn't matter whether you're a casual fan or already have your tickets booked for El Salvador, you have to understand one thing: no game south of the border is a "cakewalk."
It's like Boromir says in The Lord of the Rings, "One does not simply walk into Mordor." One does not simply walk into El Salvador for a World Cup qualifier and expect to leave unscathed. It's not like the US will be greeted by orcs or goblins, but the Salvadoran fans can sure be a bunch of trolls.
They might even turn on their own team, especially after recent developments. In case you missed it, members of the Salvadoran team, upset that the Salvadoran Federation hadn't paid bonuses for their advancing to the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, walked out during training for their upcoming match with the US.
Although the matter was eventually resolved, the Salvadoran team admitted they missed some valuable training and preparation, which will no doubt affect their performance.
Although Mexico is still a hated rival, Salvadorans now see the US as the biggest threat in CONCACAF and their fans will turn Estadio Cuscatlan into a war zone in order to give their team frightening home field advantage.
Moreover, El Salvador, like many CONCACAF teams, rely more on physicality than anything else, which has proven to disrupt USA's flow and style of play in the past. Although USA has the talent and strength to overcome these conditions, wins in Central America are always very difficult. The US already expects a hostile reception and a team famished for a win over a quality opponent. However, once they hit the field, all bets are off.
You have to be careful when dealing with a crazed and confused animal. It might just bite your arm off.
So, with such a demanding task at hand, it was not really surprising that Bob Bradley called up some veterans like Frankie Hejduk and Pablo Mastroeni, who have wealth of experience in such conditions and against very physical opponents.
You can say Bradley is playing it safe by calling these guys up, but then you begin to wonder where these two fellas fit in for next year's plans. Does anybody seriously think that Frankie and Pablo will be in next year's Confederations Cup and World Cup rosters?
What happened to the youth movement? Shouldn't some deserving youngsters be travelling with the team or even playing in such intimidating conditions so they can prepare for the high-pressure situations of the World Cup?
No doubt, Hejduk has a lot of heart and can still bring it (for now). But, why couldn't Bradley call up Toronto FC's speedy Marvell Wynne? He was incredible in the friendly against Sweden earlier this year and showed that he's ready to take on the pressures of the national team.
Let me be blunt: Mastroeni's best days are gone. Although he brings experience to the table, there are better and younger options in the national team pool.
And what's this nonsense with calling up Eddie Johnson? That really came out of nowhere. Dude finally scores a goal in Europe and that's enough to merit a call-up? He sure isn't the same Eddie Johnson from 2004, when he scored 12 goals in 26 MLS matches for FC Dallas. He sure isn't the same guy who scored 15 in 24 for Kansas City Wizards in 2007.
Maybe Bradley thinks that bringing Eddie to El Salvador will spark a similar performance from him as in 2004, when Eddie began a run of seven goals in his first six World Cup qualifiers with a goal at Cuscatlan.
Instead of Eddie, why not Kenny Cooper? He has his detractors, but no one can deny Cooper is a workhorse and battles for every ball that comes his way. He deserves to be in that roster.
Yeah, I'm putting my flame suit on, but you can't deny that Cooper's size and pace makes an impact when he's on the pitch. The guy also has vision. Did you see his 60-yard bomb that beat the keeper in his first MLS game of the season?
But if you're not sold on Cooper, why not give a fringe player like Jemal Johnson a shot? Ever since joining Milton Keynes Dons, Jemal has developed into a talented striker and certainly deserves a shot at the national team.
Sure, Cooper, Jemal and Wynne might be young, but if Bradley wants to start building for the future, now is the time to give these particular guys an opportunity to show what they've got.
Exposure or playing time in a boiling Cuscatlan equals invaluable experience, especially with trips later this year to Estadio Azteca, Estadio Saprissa and Estadio Olimpico - three stadiums known for their intimidating atmospheres.
As far as Hejduk and Mastroeni, as I said earlier, Bradley is probably just playing it safe. Still, you can't help but wonder when he'll start making the transition to the younger guys in the national team pool that could take over for these still willing but aging stalwarts.
Then, of course, the World Cup is just over a year away.