Side Kicks: We don’t need no stinking bandages

After the latest news from the U.S. camp, it appears that Oguchi Onyewu will be out of next summer’s World Cup following his knee surgery.

A huge blow for the U.S. without a doubt, but Bob Bradley has a few other options in the central defense who can cover for Gooch. Ideal? Hardly, but his lack of serious playing time in Milan might have actually hurt the U.S. more than it helped in South Africa.

I’m only slightly less comfortable with the idea of DeMerit and Bocanegra in the middle, especially with the potential addition of Edgar Castillo on the left and the steady play of either Jonahthan Spector or Steve Cherundolo on the right. Castillo’s potential additon to the roster frees up Boca from having to cover on the left like he did at the Confederations Cup. But Castillo’s U.S. future is still written in the stars.

Like Castillo, Schalke midfielder Jermaine Jones has finally received clearance from FIFA to play for the United States and could be a big addition to the squad … after the World Cup. His persistent injuries in Germany have ruled him out of a single match this season and on top of that, the U.S. won’t be playing any competitive matches outside of friendlies between now and South Africa — hardly the right proving ground for a team newcomer.

In truth, the same holds true for Castillo, so don’t be surprised to see Heath Pearce or Jonathan Bornstein on the flight to Johannesburg.

The point to all this? Bradley has some serious work to do.

While not the greatest team in all the world, the U.S. always seemed to find a way to stay healthy and field its best players. That won’t be the case next summer.

Gooch is (barring a miracle) gone. Charlie Davies has much more important matters at this point to think about than the World Cup (never thought I’d live to see the day I’d write that). Jay DeMerit just had surgery on his cornea. That’s right — his eye. That’s not a hangnail we’re talking about.

The message is clear — ‘fringe’ players need to step up and make a serious claim for spots now disappointingly available.

Kenny Cooper? Make waves in Germany and learn to play for 90 minutes. Don’t require ten chances to make one goal.

Freddy Adu? Put in the work. Get yourself a starting spot at Belenenses and shine. It’s time. We’ve waited. We’ve been patient. Yes, you started at 14, but you’re now three years older than Ronaldo was when he replaced David Beckham at Old Trafford. You’re 20-years old now. You are no longer a prodigy. Please, for the sanity of U.S. fans, become that star we all deep down still feel you can be.

Chad Marshall? Your MLS pedigree doesn’t warrant you the praise you deserve, but most of us still aren’t sure if you can make the jump in class from Chad Barrett to Wayne Rooney (could you tell them apart if they weren’t wearing their jerseys?).

Jonathan Bornstein? You’ve got an all-access pass at the Home Depot Center. Use it to watch David Beckham make crosses. No, he’s not the greatest player of all time, but he’s better than you. Don’t get upset, get even.

Marvell Wynne? Speed kills … your ability to master the first touch.

No, it’s not all gloom and doom for the U.S., but it’s time to start thinking about a World Cup without two of the team’s best players. That’s just the way it is. I don’t like it anymore than you do, but it’s nothing different than what most teams endure along the way.

Luckily, there’s some time to address those issues, only there won’t be any proof in the pudding until kickoff in Cape Town or Durban.

Let’s do this thing …

My friends and I have been arguing on a different site about who’s more clutch on the international stage. I say it’s the USA, while they say it’s the usual suspects – Brazil, France, Italy, et. al. I say the USA is far more clutch, having made it to SIX world cups in a row!! That’s an incredible feat. Plus they have arguably the world’s best player in Landon Donovan! I’ve been watching soccer a long time. I still have a pair of John Harkes’ socks that I caught at a USA Nat’l Team practice back in 1994! Who’s more clutch – USA or someone else? Thanks fellas! Great job!!

Sylvester Q. of Armenia

Robert: Sylvester, you are a true Armenian-American patriot — the U.S. needs more fans like you without a doubt. Harkes’ socks? Wow … now that’s some seriously unhygienic dedication.

So, is the U.S. more clutch than any other nation? Well, I bleed Red, White and Blue but I’ve been disappointed far too many times in following the national team since the early 90’s to rank them as the best.

What I will ‘concede’ is this — no team in the world has improved as much as the U.S. in those twenty years. A lot of teams have ridden the waves of golden generations such as Belgium, Sweden and Bulgaria. But in terms of consistency, no one matches up with the U.S. when it comes to vertical movement.

But clutch? No, not yet. Maybe someday, but for the time being that distinction belongs to only one team — Brazil. Sure, they faltered in 2006, but before that? World Cup winners in 2002, runners-up in 1998, winners in 1994. Throw in Copa America titles in 1997, 1999, 2004 and 2007 there as well, and the 2009 and 2005 Confederations Cups, and you’re looking at the best team in the world that comes up big when it has to over the last 20 years.

Brazil has never failed to qualify for the World Cup. While our six in a row is impressive in its own right, we’ve got a long way to go before we match up with the Seleçao‘s 19 in a row.

I’m not even going to really comment too much on the Donovan comment. While I believe that he is without a doubt the best player the U.S. has ever produced, I won’t touch the ‘world’s best’ label with a ten foot pole.

But for a country that fails to yet completely recognize the grandeur of the Beautiful Game and pulls its ranks from a fledgling league that only kicked off in 1996, the U.S. is doing some beautiful things. I hope someday that the American squad truly provides you adequate justification for your argument.

John: I suppose it depends on how one defines clutch. Simply qualifying out of a mediocre region because you’re the best team doesn’t really indicate that to me. It’s sort of like being the fastest runner on your block — big deal. To me, being clutch is defined as who can step up and make plays on the biggest world stage at the most important time. Otherwise, does it really matter? However, the way the U.S. qualified is an entirely different matter.

I’m going to review the World Cup qualifications of the U.S. to support an argument I’m about to make. 1990: No talent, no chance at making any noise. 1994: Support from the home crowd, shock upset over Colombia. 1998: Expectations high, utter disaster. 2002: Generation peaks at the right time. Shock upset over Portugal, advance to the quarterfinals. 2006: See 1998.

See the pattern? It’s literally been back and forth, and if you believe in symmetry, the U.S. is due to shock a powerhouse in South Africa next summer after flopping in Germany. However, much like they lost to Romania in 1994 and Poland in 2002, they may also be scheduled to drop points against lesser opponents.

Why am I telling you this? Because just as the U.S. was on the proverbial brink of embarrassing elimination from this past summer’s Confederations Cup, I saw something from them in the Egypt match that I can’t ever remember seeing from them before. They stood together as a team and basically willed their way to a 3-0 win before stunning No. 1 Spain and coming up just inches short against Brazil.

That Confed Cup performance absolutely counts as clutch, and we’ve seen it a few more times during CONCACAF qualifying. Down in the second half at Honduras, a team which had a 100 percent home record coming into the match? No problem — they rally and put three very important points into the bank.

Down 2-0 to a Costa Rica side which did everything they could do win a match that would have secured their World Cup berth? No worries — let’s put our never say die spirit on display for the world to see and rally from two goals back in the final 20 minutes.

I’m praying to God, Allah, Buddha, Jobu from Major League and anyone else I can think of that their fighting spirit carries over with them to South Africa. At least Bob Bradley seems to know how to summon it from his players, which is key since they can ride that kind of momentum a great distance. Anyone in the mood to see the U.S. do what Greece did in 2004? If we get a kinder draw, we have a serious chance at making some noise next summer. I’m completely sold.

Let’s revisit your question in about nine months, Sly.

I wanted to know if a shot that hits frame is counted as a shot on goal? Along with that, I also wanted to know what is considered an official ‘shot’ (not on goal), the kind you see on stat sheets Does it have to be within 6 yards of the goal in any direction (left, right or above)? Many times you see someone take a rip at the goal from a long ways out and miss by quite a ways.

Michael of Kansas

John: Actually, a shot on goal is defined as a ball that would have gone into the net had it not been saved by the ‘keeper or a defender. So no, a shot that hits the woodwork technically does not count as being on goal since the ‘keeper or defenders weren’t a factor in stopping the ball.

As far as what counts as an actual shot (even if it’s not on goal), that’s up to the discrection of the scorekeeper to determine intent as he marks down the stats. Sometimes, balls which were intended to be passes turn into shots, and vice versa. Yes, I’ve seen some “shots” even hit the corner flag before.

Maybe as recently as when I watched Burnsy warm up before a Fox FC match. Har.

Robert: The sad part is that I might have actually pulled that off during a game as well, but usually I was thrown into the defense where the guys thought I couldn’t do as much damage.

I’m glad that the interminable international break is over…I’d like you guys to do some EPL team grades up to this point in the season for some of the top teams and teams of interest to US fans. How would you grade Chelsea, Man U, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, Man City, Fulham, Hull, and Everton. Plus and minus grades are allowed. Thanks!

Red of Des Moines, Ia.

Robert: As much as I don’t like to admit it, no team is better assembled for winning the Premier League title than Chelsea. I have great fear that the current Man United midfield is simply too thin or not dynamic enough to haul in some silverware this season. Well, when I say silverware, I mean meaningful silverware (Spurs fans won’t like this one bit).

Liverpool? A great team on paper but far too dependent on its two biggest stars — Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres. The Reds had their best shot for their first Prem title in 20 years last season, but failed. It also appears that losing Xabi Alonso hurt the club more than expected.

The Gunners appear to have finally come of age, at least when it comes to beating the teams they’re supposed to beat (a problem in years past). However, their two losses this season have been to title contenders Man City and United, so a little work still needs to be done.

Spurs have been the best club of the season for me. They’re fun to watch, boast some quality talent, and should compete for a Champions League spot this year. I still think that Martin Jol was hard done by the club, but it’s water under the bridge at this point.

Like Chelsea about five years ago, Manchester City is dealing with the pressure that comes with the ‘nouveau riche’ tag. If you spend a lot, you’re supposed to get a lot in return. It’s a nice theory, but it doesn’t work all the time in sports. It takes a while for a team to gel and understand how to play together. That being said, I still like what I’ve seen from Mark Hughes’ team so far this season. I don’t think they’ll win a trophy this year, but I could see them really taking the next step up in 2010.

Fulham overachieved last season, so they’re exactly where they should be at this point. The Toffees had a dismal start but appear to have righted the ship (outside of Thursday’s 5-0 debacle in Lisbon). However, a poor start will be punished in England and David Moyes’ men will stil be hard-pressed to earn a European spot this year.

Hull? They started on fire last season, but reality caught up to them and now it’s back to the school of hard knocks. There always seems to be one promoted team that defies the odds in their first top-flight season, only to falter and fade during their second year. It was Reading a few years back and, unless the Tigers show some dramatic improvement with Jimmy Bullard finally healthy (and maybe an Altidore injection by Phil Brown), it wil be Hull this season repeating the feat.

John: That’s quite a bit of grading, Red. But I’ll play.

Chelsea/Man U: A — The Premiership already looks like it has turned into a two-horse race, and the fixtures between these two clubs will probably go a very long way toward determining who finishes on top.

Arsenal: A- — When they’re on, they’re really on and seem like they enjoy running up the score. But they have also dropped some points they shouldn’t have. What hurts the most is losing 2-1 at Man United when they were up 1-0 at halftime. Take a look at how different the table would be had they held on and won.

Tottenham: A — Who could have expected this? Too bad it won’t last.

Man City: B — It takes more than a bottomless checkbook to assemble an elite squad, but for how much they’ve spent on players, they should be doing better than clinging to fifth place in the table.

Fulham: C — About what you could have expected from them.

Hull: D — Will probably bounce in and out of the relegation zone all season long, and they’re conceding way too many goals.

Everton: C- — Recovered nicely from a potentially disastrous start, but the highlight of their season may wind up being Liverpool’s impending financial collapse.

Who will be the best footballer of the year among the two key players that play to be ronaldo of real madrid and messi of barcelona?

Quareeblaiee of Llorin, Nigeria

John: Messi played such a huge role in last season’s Champions League run that Barcelona had. He finished third in voting in 2007 and second in 2008. I think that pattern follows form, and we’ll see him finally win his first Ballon d’Or.

Although it’s going to be incredibly fun to watch those two duel in La Liga. If you don’t get excited for those upcoming fixtures, I have no idea what to tell you.

Robert: I don’t think there’s any question that Lionel Messi will win the trophy as FIFA’s best this year. It basically boiled down to who won the Champions League final in Rome back in May, and Messi’s brilliant header over Van der Sar sealed it for the little Argentinean.

I still believe that Ronaldo is a more complete footballer, but Messi had the better year after leading Barcelona to the treble. That resume won’t go unrewarded.

Robert Burns is the senior editor of and John Juhasz is a fantasy writer for