Can USA’s 23 compete with the world?
Now that Bob Bradley has made the tough decisions that have helped him select his 23-man World Cup roster, the real question stands front and center.
Can this U.S. national team succeed at the World Cup?
Even after pairing down his squad from 30 to 23 players, questions abound as the U.S. World Cup team moves closer to its June 12th opener against England.
Will Oguchi Onyewu be healthy enough? Will any of the new forwards step up to challenge for a starting spot? Where will Clint Dempsey play? Who will play right back?
At first glance, the U.S. roster has its share of promise, with established standouts like Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Michael Bradley, but a closer look shows the chinks in the armor. Onyewu showed considerable rust on Tuesday night, while Jonathan Bornstein had another shaky performance that leaves you wondering if he can really be counted on. Jay DeMerit’s eye condition remains an unknown factor, while several other position battles remain unsettled.
We won’t really know how ready the United States is for the World Cup until we see the full squad take the field on Saturday against Turkey in the first real look at what could be the first team. Bob Bradley will offer the first real clues about who he favors at right back, left back, central midfield and at forward.
How well the Americans do in South Africa will depend largely on the job Bradley does at selecting the right pieces to place around the team’s established standouts. Those decisions will come in the next two weeks, with friendlies against Turkey and Australia offering the proving grounds in much the way Tuesday night’s friendly helped make Bradley’s final roster decisions.
If Bradley showed anything in his selections, it is that he isn’t afraid to gamble. He passed on an established striker in Brian Ching, who appeared healthy and offered the type of experience the other forwards don’t have. Rather than taking the safe bet in Ching, Bradley went with high-risk, high-reward selections such as Gomez, Buddle and the most surprising of Bradley’s selections, Robbie Findley.
“Plain and simple, Edson and Herculez have had real good stretches, scored a lot of goals,” Bradley said. “Brian has been such an important player but it’s tough when you have an injury at an inopportune time.”
Easily the most controversial of Bradley’s 23 selections, Findley is being brought in to help provide the speed element the team lost when Charlie Davies failed to make the squad. His recent struggles in MLS were offset by what several veterans called a good World Cup camp.
“We feel that Robbie still brings something special, especially as a reserve,” Bradley said. “His speed when he comes into a match, his willingness to try and run behind a defense; we felt that those are things that when we looked at everything our team had, we could still use some of those qualities.”
So why did Ching miss out? It could be because Bradley ultimately decided that Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey could fill any potential need for a target forward, and he couldn’t afford to leave behind two in-form strikers like Gomez and Buddle. Bradley acknowledged that Gomez solidified his place World Cup place with his performance against the Czech Republic on Tuesday.
"I think if you were going to name one player who fits into that category, you’d probably point to Herculez Gomez,” said Bradley. “He continues to take advantage of his opportunities, and we really feel he’s worked hard to get to this point.”
“Forwards are funny in that way, where if they’re really playing well and scoring goals, you have to take advantage of that, and Herc is doing that right now,” U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said of Gomez. “You look at what he and Edson have been doing and they brought that confidence into camp.”
If Bradley gambled anywhere, it was on Findley being able to provide an effective speed threat. Last season with Real Salt Lake, Findley showed good form and finishing ability in helping lead RSL to the MLS Cup title, but his 2010 has been hampered by a nagging knee injury and poor form that has even seen him relegated to bench on occasion.
He was able to net his first goal of the MLS season just before training camp, and cited that goal as a spark that helped him in the recent U.S. training camp, but he will be seen as a risky and questionable pick until he proves that he is ready to contribute on the international level.
Ching was no guarantee to make an impact on the World Cup level, but it is hard to argue that he worked well with teammates when healthy and was a good catalyst as a target forward. He showed glimpses of that on Tuesday night, delivering good passes and holding up the ball well. Ultimately, the hamstring injury that cost him the past month of the MLS season proved too much to overcome as questions about his fitness and ability to stay healthy lingered.
"It was extremely hard with the respect that we all have for Brian. As a person, for the way he plays on the field, his commitment to the team—it’s always hard whenever you make these types of decisions, but it’s particularly difficult when it’s a player that has contributed so much to the national team over the years.”
There were really no other great surprises as far as personnel, but the make-up of the roster does raise some questions. Bradley ultimately decided to stick with seven defenders rather than eight despite injury concerns for veterans Oguchi Onyewu, Jay DeMerit and Carlos Bocanegra.
Heath Pearce probably ended any chance of the team taking eight defenders with his atrocious performance against the Czech Republic. DaMarcus Beasley’s revitalized form also gives Bradley an option of potentially trying Beasley at left back again in a pinch.
Questions remain about the defense and whether it will be ready in time. Bradley’s decision to bring seven defenders rather than the customary eight suggests he is confident he has enough defenders to get the job done.
“We’ve got some injuries right now but we’ve got time to sort that stuff out,” Howard said. “I’m confident that when the time comes Gooch and Carlos and Jay will be ready to go.”
The midfield selections went according to script, with wingers Robbie Rogers and Alejandro Bedoya falling short in their quest to make the squad. Bedoya showed some flashes in recent appearances, but ultimately failed to make enough of an impact. At 23, Bedoya is definitely a prospect for the future, but having just a year of professional experience probably cost him in the final analysis.
Bradley will bring along all five central midfield options in Michael Bradley, Ricardo Clark, Maurice Edu, Benny Feilhaber and Jose Torres. All five are capable of starting, though Michael Bradley is a lock to hold down one of the two central midfield positions.
DaMarcus Beasley had been considered a fringe player in danger of missing out when training camp began, but the veteran recaptured his old form and impressed coaches and teammates alike with his play and attitude. Now, rather than being a potential roster casualty, Beasley heads toward the World Cup as a potential candidate to start.
Here is a quick look at the positions:
Tim Howard is the starter while Marcus Hahnemann gets the edge at No. 2 ahead of Brad Guzan thanks to his club play.
No real surprises, though bringing just seven defenders may surprise some. Left back remains a concern after Jonathan Bornstein’s awful showing on Tuesday night. As it stands, the starting back four against England could be Jonathan Spector, Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu and Steve Cherundolo, with Jay DeMerit or Clarence Goodson options in central defense if Onyewu struggles in his recovery from knee surgery.
Clarence Goodson impressed in Tuesday’s loss to the Czech Republic and remains a viable option if Onyewu struggles or DeMerit has issues with his eye. Jonathan Spector and Maurice Edu also are options.
The decision to bring four natural forwards would seem to suggest that Bradley is going to stick with Clint Dempsey in a midfield role. With Landon Donovan capable of playing either flank, DaMarcus Beasley flashing his old form and Stuart Holden looking healthy and strong, the U.S. team doesn’t lack for wing options.
The central midfield options are plentiful, with Michael Bradley a lock to start. Maurice Edu and Ricardo Clark appear to be the leading candidates to partner with Bradley, while Jose Torres and Benny Feilhaber are also capable of stepping to start or contributing off the bench.
Jozy Altidore is the class of the group, but Edson Buddle and Herculez Gomez are both in top form. Gomez looks like a perfect super-sub option, while Robbie Findley will be seen as a speed threat off the bench.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com who will be covering U.S. Soccer and MLS.