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.
Tuesday September 1, 2009 4:29 pm
there is a lot of good development with Bradley - and defensive tactics is not a bad thing at all. This is how Italy got ALL its titles. A league made up of boring, defensive play. You can play exciting football, or successful, just look at the dutch team, seldom both. It is easier to play successfull defensive tactics if you don't have a bunch of superstarts, so Bradley is doing the right thing. The team already got much better. So for the critics, why not wait until the last game of 2010 before you skin him alive? Give him a fair chance.
Tuesday August 25, 2009 8:54 pm
this has got to be one of the first ever positive articles from BL. he was in africa this summer so he must have a good feel for the path of the team.

something i dont get about the bob bradley haters. these people wish to get rid of coach bradley but they never suggest any replacements. and on top of this, it is not just about a new coach coming in with european pedigree is it? carlos quieroz has all the pedigree in the world and he is having trouble getting his team into the world cup and they have the best player in the world on this team.

lets say we take on a new coach, then what, what does usa soccer do after it has hired a mercenary and this coach has not done much? it seems like these fans that suggest a new coach every day of the week dont really think about the long term prospects.

no, lets stick with coach bob bradley and lets keep working on the american game and lets keep producing better and better players. i dont think coach bradley is going to play ching over altidore and davies if these two young bucks are scoring in england and france respectively. whats the big issue really
Charlie G
Sunday August 23, 2009 7:07 pm
Great Article - Thanks. There always seems to be players emerging and blossoming...who will be next ? I feel we need to be a bit grateful that players like Charlie Davies, Stuart Holden, emerge, and that other players continue to grow, Gooch, and to "re-emerge" Benny F. It always seems that with each WC cycle most of the previous team would have a challange making the next cycle's team.

While player development has been pretty steady, coaching talent has not kept pace. To me Bora Milutinovic probably got more out of his players than any coach since. We simply need a coach that is above the level of the players - and now, since most of the first team are playing in Europe, why have an MLS coach ?

I think the USSF and Gulati likely care more about promoting the game in the US through a successful and higher profile MLS - having an MLS bred national coach may be part of this plan.

It not that the USSF and Gulati are going to face a popular uprising for sticking with BB thorugh this WC cycle - they have nothing to lose. It is only you and I that are complaining, and frankly, we don't have much of a voice. I've yet to have an e-mail response to any question/comment I've sent to the USSF.

Thanks to everyone who takes the time to comment - its reassuring to know you're out there (with no TV, I sat alone at a local brew pub watching US v. Spain..only the Mexican wait staff and I cared)
Sunday August 23, 2009 6:22 am
is it just me or has anyone else wondered why bradley hasn't given gabriel ferrari a try?
Friday August 21, 2009 3:18 pm
One more thing ,, players that born here and don't want to play for our team if because they know that they can't be successful with that coach ,, think if we have Ericson or other coach his level ,,we will have a line of good players looking forward to play for us
Friday August 21, 2009 3:02 pm
Please bob ,, step away ,,if you love football like we do ,,and love this country , just give the players the opportunity to show their full capacity with a world class coach ,, you good ,,but you should know your limitations ,, and Gulati ,, don't change with another MLS coach ,,
Friday August 21, 2009 12:47 pm
I like this optimistic view. I agree with several that the one area that we are struggling in is the coaching position. Until the US steps away from playing 90 minutes of bunker defense, and the idea of having a lone striker that holds the ball (Ching), there will still be lots of disappointments. Can coach Bradley see that? Probably not!
Ed C.
Friday August 21, 2009 2:56 am
agree with chicho - bradley holds us back (the coach bradley, not the player).

this is a very optimistic view brent, dilusional perhaps, so i hope you haven't been bitten by the swine flu bug or something.

yes, the team has improved and we're getting better but its like having a ferrari without a license to drive it - get us a friggin' coach worthy of coaching these group of potential world-beaters!!
Friday August 21, 2009 2:03 am
Well yes and no. We've still not produced a player who on his own can take the game by the scruff of the neck and dictate the pace of the play. I have no doubt that eventually this will happen, but it hasn't yet. When that player finally does appear he will comand great interest from Europe, both from a financial standpoint and from a publicity standpoint. Years ago it happened to Denmark when Alan Simonsen burst on the scene with 'Gladbach in the Bundesliga...

Meanwhile we have a workmen like National Team that can play at a high level, but is still inconsistant. Our tactics have often not been the equal to our talent, simply put we've played so much counter attack that we've failed to believe that we can controll the game ourselves from the start. When we've actually got ourselves a lead, it has seemed to scare our coaching staff and we've tended to act as if we're behind instead of in front of our opponent, we fall back into a defensive shell and against a high level attacking team that is a major weakness that has come back and biten us more than once.

As far as producing real goal scoring Strikers, well we just haven't done much of that yet... maybe Altidore becomes one but he hasn't yet. Now Charlie Davies is showing real signs of becoming a force up front, but other than Kenny Cooper just how many other real forwards are we producing? This is something that will keep us from really becoming that first tier soccer nation... when we truly have compitition for the forward's spots on the roster, then we will have arrived.
Thursday August 20, 2009 5:40 pm
I agree with several comments already posted: we need better coaching. The personnel is there for the team to succeed; this is surely a better, deeper USMNT player pool than ever before. But I am not convinced Bradley is a step up from either Bora or Arena. His starting lineups are reasonable most of the time, but Bradley seems to be lost in terms of making the right mid-game tactical adjustments to get results.

I also wonder if he has a blind spot re Jr. With Jones, Edu, and Feilhaber also competing for spots in the middle, I would not include the coach's son among midfielders who should be guaranteed a start. While Jr is a box-to-box player who puts in the work, Feilhaber is better going forward and both Jones and Edu are better defensively. The US needs Feilhaber to help organize midfield, keep possession, and kill games off.
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