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.
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.