In this section, we give our take on one of the most hotly-contested issues in US Soccer.
No Cooper. No Adu. No Altidore. Really? To the disappointment of many American fans (myself included), Bob Bradley continues to call up players like Brian Ching, Eddie Johnson, Frankie Hejduk, and Eddie Lewis over younger players. The most common excuse given by supporters of Bradley’s strategy is the experience argument. For those unfamiliar, the experience argument goes thusly: experience is more important than innate talent or form; furthermore, young and/or inexperienced players would struggle in hostile environments, such as Guatemala and Cuba (some go as far to say they would be “eaten alive”). We youth supporters are often accused of being trigger-happy, eager to push our best young talent into the spotlight before they’re ready. And we’re also accused of taking CONCACAF opponents too lightly–these games are far from settled and any opponent, especially when given a home crowd, is capable of upsetting us.
The last point is well taken. And I agree that our young talent shouldn’t be given rosters spots for their potential–if they aren’t more talented and on better form than their “experienced” counterparts, then they don’t deserve to play in a World Cup Qualifier. The problem is, particularly in the case of our strikers, I believe our youth have surpassed our experience.
This season, Cooper has scored 13 goals in 23 starts. Since joining the MLS three seasons ago, he has scored 28 goals in 68 games (64 starts). It should be noted that Cooper started his second season with 4 goals in 8 games, but suffered a broken right tibia and failed to score in his final 6 appearances (4 starts) after recovery. Over this three-season period, his strike rate is fairly similar to Ching’s (27 goals in 60 games). But Cooper is experiencing a breakout year. And if you look at Cooper’s career, you see steady improvement from year-to-year. In 2006, he scored 11 goals in 31 appearances: .35 gpg. In 2007, before his injury, he scored 4 goals in 8 appearances: .50 gpg (yeah…this stat is admittedly a little soft). This season, he has scored 13 in 23 appearances: .57 gpg. Over the same period, Ching has recorded the following strike rates: 2006: .52 gpg; 2007: .35 gpg; 2008: .47 gpg. So what do these stats show? First of all, Cooper isn’t a flash in the pan (Edson Buddle?). Not only has he scored more goals than Ching since joining MLS, but his current strike rate is better than Ching’s. In fact, it’s better than any strike rate Ching has ever posted over the course of a season (his .52 in 2006 was a career high). Kenny Cooper has everything we love about Ching–size (Cooper is 6-foot-3, Ching is 6-foot-1), strength, he plays well with his back to goal–and he’s a better finisher to boot. My point isn’t that Ching should be excluded from the lineup. After all, we’re fairly thin on good, attacking options. My point is that Cooper is arguably our most qualified striker, yet he’s nowhere to be found on USA rosters. So, if not Ching, then who should be dropped?
Ever since Eddie Johnson’s amazing run of form in WC 2006 qualifying, he has owned, at the very least, a spot on the USA bench. But let’s face it–he has done absolutely nothing since moving to Fulham. No goals. He never suited up this season before his move to Cardiff (note: Cardiff’s first choice was Kenny Cooper). Jozy Altidore has officially suited up for his top La Liga team (one time) more than EJ has for Fulham (not to mention, Altidore played regularly in Villareal’s preseason matches). Johnson has struggled to run at defenses at the national level for years now–he’s more interested in pulling the ball back and working it through the midfield than utilizing his speed and trying to find goal. There is a time and place for slowing play and controlling the build up, but that time is not “always” and that place is not “everywhere.” I, unlike many, still believe Johnson has something to offer. But it’s time Bradley sends a message to him (and fairly soon to Clint Dempsey): no one owns a spot on the USA roster. Let Johnson regain his form at Cardiff, then call him up.
I actually see value in experience, so this isn’t an outright declaration of “bullshit!” But I have to say “experience” (and some other “intangibles”) is overrated. Eventually we have to admit to ourselves that experience doesn’t make up for Eddie Johnson’s poor form. Experience doesn’t make Mastroeni a great possession midfielder. Experience doesn’t make Hejduk any less reckless. Experience doesn’t take away Ed Lewis’ grandchildren. Similarly, lack of experience doesn’t nullify Cooper’s knack for finding goal, Altidore’s innate and undeniable talent, or Adu’s skill on the ball.
We also need to admit to ourselves that our experienced squad struggled in Guatemala. The Guatemalans not only controlled possession, but over doubled our shots on target. We never looked like scoring a goal from the run of play. If it weren’t for yet another set play or some better-than-terrible Guatemalan finishing, we would have left with 1 or 0 points to show. Of course I’m happy that we took all 3, but let’s not pretend our team executed well. I’m not occupying the opposite pole here–I am not one of those who thinks we need to start calling up Charlie Davies, Lee Nguyen, Edson Buddle, and Charles Renken. But we need someone who can hold the ball and distribute effectively from the midfield. Why not give Adu a shot? We still struggle to score goals from the run of play. Why not give Cooper or Altidore a shot? Frankie Hejduk is still terrible on the ball and reckless in the challenge (what odds will someone give me on him getting a yellow card if he starts tonight?). Why not give someone…anyone a shot?
If experience is so valuable, I say it’s time we call up Clint Mathis. He’s just finished a brief stint at a low-level European club, so he’s due for his manditory Bradley call-up pretty soon…