By Kevin Koczwara
It has been over a week since the United States Men’s National Team was humbled by a young Ghana squad – the youngest team in the World Cup Finals – in extra time at the World Cup in South Africa. I have had enough time to soak in the pain, the misery and the confusion of seeing my country lose at the World Cup when I truly thought it could advance in the tournament and make major strides, you know, kind of like how the Italians, Argentines and Brazilians must feel right about now.
Then I got to thinking about the future of U.S. soccer and how bright it may be. The squad that went to South Africa was a good mix of veteran players and up-and-coming talent. The roster manager Bob Bradley took with him had a good mix and set a good framework for the next World Cup – 2014 in Brazil.
The Yanks will have major questions to answer during the qualifying for the 2014 World Cup: who will their core defenders be? And who will supply the much needed goals?
The Americans will hope that some young defenders will come through the ranks to replace the aging center backs from this year’s World Cup, Jay DeMerit and Carlos Bocanegra. Both Bocanergra and DeMerit will be 35 when Brazil rolls around and will surely need to be replaced as their legs begin to fade. Neither player is fast by any means. They are hard nosed and positionally sound, that will help them with longevity, but eventually age and a lack of quickness catches up to you on the club and international level, just ask Fabio Cannavaro.
Ideally, Jonathan Spector and Jonathan Bornstein will continue to develop and be first choice right and left backs come 2014. Neither player played much this World Cup, Bornstein was virtually ineffective and exposed when he did play, and Spector struggled to regain the form of last year’s Confederations Cup. Spector is 24 and has a number of strong years ahead of him, especially if he keeps developing in the English Premier League at West Ham or another club. Bornstein is two years older, and hasn’t improved much in the last few years, but he can still step up his game and make an impact if he keeps getting playing time, which he should in the MLS.
Spector and Bornstein will need to improve because one of the U.S.’s best outside backs, Steve Cherundolo, is the same age and DeMerit and Bocanegra and also on his last legs. He was virtually forgotten by the media before the tournament roster selection, but poor play from both Spector and Bornstein saw him become Bob Bradley’s first choice on the right side of the Yanks defense.
Oguchi Onyewu will have to be the leader of the defense come 2014 because he will have a relatively new crew around him. Onweyu’s form at this World Cup was not his best. He was injured in a meaningless qualifier against Costa Rica in November and was not able to play once for his club, AC Milan, before being selected to Bradley’s 23-man World Cup roster.
One thing going for the U.S. is the number of quality keepers they have waiting in the wings. Tim Howard surely has a number of great years ahead of him. They say goalies are like a fine wine, they age to perfection then go to vinegar when their time is up, Howard still has some aging to do at 31.
If Howard for some is injured in 2014 or decides to hang up the boots from international duty then the U.S. is not short on goalkeepers. Waiting in the wings is 19-year-old phenom Bill Hamid of D.C. United. Hamid became the youngest goalkeeper in the MLS to win a game and has been touted as America’s next best keeper for some time as he worked his trade on the D.C. United developmental teams.
Defenders to Watch:
Frank Simek (Sheffield Wednesday, Football League One, England), Omar Gonzalez (Los Angeles Galaxy, MLS, USA), Edgar Castillo (San Luis, Primera Division, Mexico), Kevin Alston (New England Revolution, MLS, USA), Gale Agbossoumonde (Sporting de Braga, Portuguese La Liga, Portugal).
In Search of Forward Thinkers
Landon Donovan, the United States’ all-time leading goalscorer, will be 32 come 2014 and surely out of his prime. He has been the anchor for the American attack, no matter how many times he turns the ball over with a bad pass, and his shoes will have to be filled come Brazil.
Donovan has been the Yanks’ most consistent scorer during his time with the team, whether it is from free kicks, rebounds, strong runs into the box or penalty kicks. And at 32 it is not realistic to imagine him securing a spot on the next World Cup team as a first team member. If he is selected by the USMNT’s manager then it will have to be as a substitute player, we hope, because the U.S. needs some younger players to show up on the scene and make things happen if they want to move further than the round of 16 at the next World Cup.
Donovan will more than likely grab a spot on the squad in 2014 even if it is as a bit player, Clint Dempsey may not be in the same boat.
Dempsey will be 31 in 2014, and the way he plays from day in and day out on the field – all or nothing, risking life and limb – makes him a tough selection for any manager no matter what he does with the ball at his feet. Dempsey plays in the English Premier League and takes a beating each season, and in four years you just can’t say he will be ready to go again after all the soccer he plays.
Dempsey and Donovan have the been two of the most consistent goal-scorers for the U.S. National Team and some players will have to fill their vacant slots and some other players will have to emerge from the ashes to add another dimension to the U.S. attack.
Jozy Altidore has shown what he can do on the national stage, but his club progression has not gone hand in hand and he needs that to improve come the next World Cup as he hopes to get enough playing time and take his game to the next level.
Altidore is still young, yes, but soccer player’s primes come earlier than most other sports, at by the age of 22 players are expected to be close to their pinnacle of physical ability and skill. Yes, there are always late bloomers, but for the most part players begin to become world-class players around 22. And Altidore still has a long way to go. He is 21, but he needs to start to show some maturity at the club level, get some more playing time and begin to score goals.
The Yanks need a pure goalscorer on the field if they want to move farther than the Round of 16 at the next World Cup. When the ball is put into the box, or an opportunity arises, the United States needs someone who sniffs goal and puts the ball in the net. Altidore can and should be that man in four years. He should be in his prime and he will have plenty of skilled midfielders and a fully fit Charlie Davies to supply him the ball in good space and open the field with positive movement.
Davies missed this World Cup because of a horrific accident he suffered off the pitch on Oct. 13, 2009. He was a rising star for the USMNT. He is fast, skilled on the ball and a smart player who knows how to get open and open up space for other players to play through. His recovery was admirable and inspirational, but he was unable to fully recover and be effective if he did make it on Bob Bradley’s roster.
Bradley was never really able to find a replacement for Davies and went searching for strikers who could create the same kind of partnership that Davies had with Altidore. Nothing panned out.
Robbie Findley has a worst strike rate (0 goals in 7 appearances) than center back Clarence Goodson (2 goals in 14 games). Herculez Gomez never really looked comfortable when he was asked to do more than poach in the box – he is the United States closest player to a pure goalscorer, he just scores goals and asking him to do much else is almost a lost cause. Edson Buddle just was not good enough to succeed on the international level. He’ll be 33 when Brazil rolls around and won’t likely receive any consideration any major national matches at that point.
A major disappointment has been the development of Eddie Johnson. Once a regular in the U.S. side and a budding star, Johnson was 2006 World Cup team’s Jozy Altidore. He was young, fast and promising. But his form has dropped and he has move around Europe, never getting a foothold on a starting position and never really becoming the goal threat people thought he would be.
Johnson plies his trade, or tries to, at Fulham FC in England, where Dempsey plays, but he has been sent out on loan the last two years. He spent a year at Cardiff City in the lower divisions of English soccer and struggled to score. Johnson scored 2 goals in 30 appearances while on loan at Cardiff, so Fulham decided to loan him out again. He met up with former budding phenom of the U.S. soccer world Freddy Adu, on loan from Benfica, at Aris Thessaloniki FC in Greece.
Neither has succeeded in making much of an impact, but they have a few years ahead of them to shine and improve their game. Adu was once the starlet of the Under- 20s World Cup, and now he is struggling to find a home and a regular place on any team, nevermind his national side. If Adu and Johnson can prove their doubters wrong and come back strong for 2014 then the Yanks will have two skilled and experienced players in their attack, something they will need.
The great thing for whoever the U.S. manager happens to be come 2014 is that they will have a sturdy, experienced midfield. Michael Bradley has made his name known over the last two summers – 2009’s Confederations Cup, and this World Cup – as the Americans best box-to-box midfielder. He has scored a handful of great goals while wearing the red, white and blue and matured into a sturdy holding midfield anchor.
Along with Bradley the American midfield has a young Maurice Edu to watch mature into a top-notch holding midfielder at Rangers. Edu quickly settled into play for the United States when it played Slovenia, Algeria and when he came on against Ghana. The team looked confident when he was passing the ball out of the back, and his positional play was great, he forced a lot of bad passes and turnovers.
If Bradley and Edu can stay healthy, the United States should catch them when they are 27 and 28 years old and in the middle of their primes. Both play for good clubs in Europe and have started to make a name for themselves while playing for their clubs.
Benny Feilhaber will be 29 in four years and will have to become a leader for the National Team. The Brazilian born American is the best passer on the squad and the best play maker they have from the attacking midfield role, he along with Edu and Bradley should make the United States a formidable side in 2014.
Youngsters José Torres and Alejandro Bedoya will have to continue to progress and be impact players for years to come if the Yanks want to have a deep bench and make a strong run in the Finals next time around. Both showed they have the make up to earn a place on the squad and impact matches (Torres made Bradley’s final 23-man roster and started a match in South Africa this summer, while Bedoya made the initial 30-man roster).
One thing is for sure, in 2014 the United States National team will look different than the 2010 version, very different. Just because many of the players that will make the squad are unknown to us now does not mean that they will be unknown for very long. It is time to pass the baton and move forward. New players, new managers and a new look is all apart of the game. So get to know some new faces and thank the old ones for their time spent representing the red, white and blue.
Kevin Koczwara is a contributing editor and writer for The Soccer Guys. He can be reached at email@example.com.