BRIAN SCIARETTA - Tuesday, December 1, 2009
With the US National team concluding 2009 with two friendly losses on the road in Europe, the year has left US coach Bob Bradley with a clear set of challenges that have to be addressed heading into the start of World Cup preparation in March.

Donovan Reliance

The first real challenge concerns how reliant this team is on Landon Donovan to build an attack. Although the two friendlies in Europe were largely experimental and the two losses were not very meaningful, they did confirm beyond doubt that Landon Donovan is clearly the driving force behind the American attack.

In fact, when looking at the 15 games the USA played this year in World Cup qualifying and the Confederations Cup, the USA scored 27 goals. Of those 27 goals scored, Landon Donovan either scored or was a key contributor in 18. This tremendous production will surely be noticed by the scouts of whoever the USA draws in the World Cup.

While the USA needs to have Donovan step up next year for the USA to have a successful tournament and advance from group play, it is going to be much harder for him because stopping him will be the primary focus of every defense he faces. Other skilled offensive midfielders like Clint Dempsey, Robbie Rogers, Benny Feilhaber, or Stuart Holden, will have to step up, or some other threat will have to emerge for Donovan to be successful.

The Forward Situation

During his almost three years as head coach of the US National Team, Bob Bradley has never appeared more desperate than with his selection of forwards in friendlies this past month. Before Charlie Davies was injured in a car accident, the USA looked strong up front. But since then, the position has emerged as a major weakness.

Jeff Cunningham, despite a very good MLS season, has been a MLS journeyman his whole career. He has not played for Bob Bradley yet this cycle. Despite being 33 years old, Bob Bradley named Cunningham to the roster and gave him significant playing time. To be fair, Cunningham played decently and managed to score. But still, the fact that he is playing with the USA on FIFA international dates less than a year from the World Cup shows that Bradley is running out of options.

Even more puzzling than Cunningham was the selection of Eddie Johnson. There is no easy way to put it other than to just simply say that Johnson's career has been in the doldrums for years. His skill has dissolved since his move to Europe, and at 25 years old, he is still toiling in the EPL reserves for Fulham. His performances in the friendlies were awful, and it was amazing that Bradley would think it would have been any different.

The good news is that there are still very good options yet to explore. Over the last two weeks, Dempsey and Jozy Altidore put in solid performances in the English Premier League at forward in the starting lineups for their clubs. This Altidore-Dempsey combination has yet to be tried out by Bradley, but all signs are pointing to it. The USA simply cannot ignore an option that involves two players who start at forward in the best league in the world. If Dempsey and Altidore can play well for their clubs and transfer that effectiveness to the national team, the forward position may not be a weakness at all come next year.

Central Defense Injuries

The end of 2009 has brought about more than its share of injuries for the USA. The unfortunate aspect of this is that it has hit the USA particularly hard at one position. Central defenders Oguchi Onyewu, Jay Demerit, and Chad Marshall have all started important games for the USA this year, but heading into 2010, each of them is dealing with injuries.

This past month in the friendlies against Slovakia and Denmark, Bob Bradley tried out other options in central defense revolving around Carlos Bocanegra, Jonathan Spector, Clarence Goodson and Jimmy Conrad. Results were certainly mixed. The Spector-Bocanegra combination was certainly interesting in that it gave the USA an option that was significantly improved in terms of ball-skill. This lack of skill in the backline has been a major problem for the USA and it was important to see an attempt by Bradley to fix it. But the fact that neither Spector nor Bocanegra plays central defense for their clubs became apparent as their lack of recent experience at the position was largely responsible for all three goals scored by Denmark.

Next year Bob Bradley will have key decisions to make. At the forefront will be whether or not he will stick with the usual combo of Onyewu-Bocanegra. While both players are talented, there are areas of concern, the most serious of which are that Bocanegra does not play central-defense for his club and that Onyewu will be recovering from an injury while at a club at which he has rarely seen playing time even when healthy.

So between now and at the end of the European season, key roster battles will develop as players get healthy and as the MLS season approaches. Club form as well as the January friendlies will go a long way towards determining what the options are if Bocanegra is moved to LB and Onyewu fails to recover.

Most likely, Chad Marshall will get the call because he offers a good bit of ball control in the back as well as the physical edge Bob Bradley likes. The decisions Bradley faces between Demerit, Goodson, and Spector will be interesting and won't be decided until the last month.

The Continuing Left Back Saga

There is no doubt that the left back situation has been a major problem for the United States for well over a decade. In 2009, Bob Bradley has given chances in World Cup qualifers to Heath Pearce, DaMarcus Beasley, Bocanegra and Jonathan Bornstein.

In the end, Bornstein won the position, but his winning the position was a result of a failure of all other options. Pearce and Beasley simply no longer appear to be options at left back.

So where does that leave Bob Bradley now?

There are really only four options at left back as the USA heads into 2010: Bornstein, Bocanegra, Specto, and the newly-available Edgar Castillo. Each option brings some positives but also serious weaknesses.

Bocanegra is usually solid on defense on the left but he is not going to add anything into the attack. Spector, while best at right back, can play anywhere on the backline, however, he is best described as a jack-of-all trades but master at none. Bornstein has been given many chances and is wildly inconsistent. Sometimes he is above average, but at other times, is a tremendous liability. Castillo is still young and, while talented, is widely considered to be a defensive liability.

With no real attractive options, Bradley will probably be forced to have no top option at the position but rather make a decision based on the opponent. Most likely, the conventional path will be to start Bocanegra against top teams who will carry the possession and play Bornstein against teams the USA will be able to carry most of the run of play. Since he has not played much, Castillo will probably serve best as an offensive sub.

With a little more than six months to go before the World Cup, there is time to find the best solution to these problems. There is, however, only one FIFA international date for Bradley to work with before the end of the European season in May. Bradley is going to have to explore MLS options during the friendlies on the non-FIFA dates and then figure out exactly what he wants to do come May when the fine tuning will begin.
Sunday January 3, 2010 5:29 pm
The U.S. having "World Class" talent is a joke, outside of Tim Howard.

Howard is top-5 goalkeeper in the world.

Donovan and Dempsey are close, but nobody would dare mention either of them in the same breath as a Messi, Ronaldo, Essien, or Torres..
Thursday December 31, 2009 5:48 pm

That was a terrible article. Dempsey is one of the slowest guys in the EPL. Have you ever seen the guy run? Dempsey is Altidore only much smaller, slower, less athletic, etc. You need a guy who can run paired next to the big, athletic Altidore, and that means Davies, Findley, Cunningham, or Johnson.

Comparing Chad Marshall to Oguchi Onyewu is like comparing Chris Kaman to Dwight Howard. Marshall (Columbus Crew) is not the physical athlete that Onyewu (AC Milan) is. Forget about any success on defense if Marshall is picked.

Big T
Defense Wins
Saturday December 5, 2009 2:21 pm
The combination of Demerit and Onyewu in the center seemed to work well at Confederations Cup. Obviously, we need both of them healthy again. Bocanegra at LB and Spector at RB. Is Edgar Castillo a natural defender or is he more of a midfielder who sometimes plays defense? I'd prefer to keep Bocanegra at LB (his natural position) and sub for him at 60 minutes with Castillo (if we're losing).
- S Weebe
Friday December 4, 2009 1:20 am
Great article, but no mention of our midfield situation. I agree with most of what was written, and it's a serious blow to our team that our budding super star, Charles Davies, had his accident. Perhaps Robbie Rogers, or Findley will be that surprise player in 2010 that adds that spark and excitement we all felt watching Davies.

I believe the most significant missing piece of the USA team is a creative midfielder that can hold onto the ball and distribute it. We have a plethora of hard tackling defensive minded midfielders (Edu, Clark, Bradley). We simply don't have a Claudio Reyna, John Harkes, Tab Ramos, or John O'Brien. Our defense seems leaky, but I attribute that to a lack of that special midfielder.

The closest we have in the national team pool is Beckerman. I like Beckerman's play in MLS, but have not seen enough of him in US matches that count, and don't know if he is the One. I'm hoping Stuart Holden can step up and be that player, but I think he will develop into a Donovan style of attacking midfielder. I had great hope for Sacha Kljestan, but he has struggled at the National level. Jose Torres may be that player, as he can certainly dazzle with his ball control, but I think he needs another year or two to refine decision making and passing.

Maybe Adu will finally fulfill his potential or some yet unknown presence, but Iím putting my money on Holden for now...otherwise, someone, please step up over the next few months and be the One!
Thursday December 3, 2009 5:08 pm
I hope the team can get it together in the next 6 months - they have a lot of work to do! Thanks for another great article.
World Class
Thursday December 3, 2009 12:16 pm
world class?

what does that even mean?
Thursday December 3, 2009 10:23 am
you know what the usa have, we have world class players. and im not talking about just one player. dempsey, world class. donovan, world class. people can agree or not, these two are definately world class. junior bradley is close to world class and jermaine jones is world class. not to mention the goal keepers, again, world class.

it would be nice to be able to say tab ramos and john harkes were world class, but they were not, though the both scored some world class goals. but today usa do have world class players and along with roll players usa will be formitable for any opponent.

ill bet anything coach bradley throws robbie findley into the system in march and what comes out is going to be another danger man for this next world cup. and lord have mercy if charlie davies and his tough body make it back to even 95 % by this summer. usa forward options are very deep and with this depth we are bound to see a player step up this summer. it might even be a combination of players. its not going to be any 33 year old strikers, or brian mcbride, but it will be one of the new breed, maybe even marcus tracy.

lack of depth in the usa pool is a farcical myth, so is the idea that coach bradley is not the right man for the job.
Wednesday December 2, 2009 6:25 pm
We have 6 month to work with another coach ,, BB don't have the ability to coach this team ,or any team in the WC ,,so bring the russian ,,We are so lucky that after the 3 and out with BB ,, we can wacht the best futbol of the word ,,
Wednesday December 2, 2009 4:57 pm
I'm no fan of Coach B, but saying that he's got the talent to compete for championships is borderline delusional. There are probably lots of coaches who could get more out of what little the US has, but none of them could consistently win against WC-type competition with this team. What the US needs to take the next step forward is a better and deeper pool of players that get on the field, not a marginal improvement in tactics from the bench.
Brazilian G
Wednesday December 2, 2009 3:14 pm
Bornstein SUCKS!! what the heck is he even doing on the US National team playing LB
START Pearce @ (LB)

GO USA !!!!
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