Stuck on the tracks: USA no better than in 2006?

This post originally ran on our sister blog, Fire Alexi Lalas. Since it is related to the USMNT, we thought we’d re-post it here on Project 2010.

Steve Davis recently had an article appear on Soccernet, “Current U.S. team no better than 2006 version.”The title alone was enough to make me re-open FAL.  Here are my favorite parts:

As the national program goes, the belief is that it’s long been on the incline.

Sounds about right.  And I’d add that this belief is supported by statistical evidence and common-sense evaluation.

Quick history review: The peach-fuzzed Americans defined “pedestrian” at the Italy 1990 World Cup. But, ciao! They were there! And that team was easier on the eyes than its gangly, mid-’80s siblings.

Mmhmm…

The Americans were unartful but certainly not terrible as World Cup 1994 hosts — although that faux denim kit certainly qualified as an all-timer in the long, sad history of bad ideas.

I’d take the faux denim over the Cameroonian unitard, but that’s just me.  Go on…

The daffy 3-6-1 formation and a poison locker room not withstanding, talent had improved by France ’98. Then things blossomed splendidly at World Cup 2002 in South Korea/Japan, as then-coach Bruce Arena’s boys exploited the quirkiness of a tournament off European soil.

I see where this is going and I have to step in before we get there.  World Cup 2002 holdsa special place in my heart.  Not only did we make it out of our group, but we came an uncalled hand ball away from a 1-1 game and a man advantage with the semi-finals on the line.  (Instead we got inaccurate lectures on intentional versus unintentional hand balls blah blah blah, I’m getting off topic.)  I understand why American fans look back so fondly, but to even suggest that that team was more talented than the current version is insane.  Let’s face it, people (I’m looking at you, Ives Galarcep ), you are really making comparisons to three of five games in the World Cup finals–not the team as a whole or their entire body of results.  Let’s take a broader look at the 2002 World Cup campaign.

QUALIFYING: The U.S. finished 3rd in the hex with 17 points, only three points clear of Honduras (who beat us 2-3 on our soil, our last home loss in qualifying, by the way!).

FRIENDLIES: 0-1 in Italy.  2-4 in Germany (Keller did an amazing job just to keep it this close).  1-2 in Ireland.  0-2 to Holland at home.  I’ve never liked assigning meaning to friendly results (nothing is only the line, coaches experiment with lineups, etc.), but 0-0-4 against European teams in the lead-up to the Cup isn’t impressive.

WORLD CUPGame 1:  Portugal – we go up 3-0 in the first half and come very close to dropping points.  3-2 W.  Game 2:  Korea – we manage a draw with a team that looked much better for most of the game.  1-1 D.  Game 3:  Poland – We get hammered by the group’s whipping boys.  Korea had a lock on the knockout stage, but decided to put in a late game-winner against Portugal anyway.  Thank god.  1-3 L.  Game 4:  Mexico – 2-0.  How many times has this happened since?  Game 5:  Germany – hard-fought loss.  Robbed of a penalty/red card that could have potentially put us into the semi-finals.  0-1 L.  It was a good campaign, but we were far from dominant and a little bit lucky.  Overall record: 2-1-2.  Goal differential: 0.

SQUAD:  People will point to players like Reyna, O’Brien, McBride, and Friedel as proof that this team was better.  All great players.  But let’s not forget some of the other World Cup participants:  Agoos, Berhalter, Regis, Llamosa, Wolff, Jones…  None of these players, even in their prime (which in the case of Jones and Agoos was certainly not 2002), would be starting today.  Most–if not all–would struggle to make the 23-man roster.  I’d throw Hejduk on that list if we didn’t have a coach that was so in love with him at the moment.  Current Hejduk is far behind Cherundolo and Spector (I’d even place him slightly behind Wynne).  Young Hejduk, like it or not, was not much better.  Still reckless.  Still bad on the ball.

Sorry, Steve.  Go on…

Then came 2006. Arena kept saying all was OK, that conceding early goals just made things appear worse than they were — never mind that his team was, in fact, conceding those early goals. You could argue that qualification had come easier, that breaks had broken unfortunately in Germany and that the player pool was, despite it all, deeper than ever. None of that would have been an absurd stretch.

Agreed.

I see no reason to believe that the national team has improved even a smidgen since 2006. Beyond a Lady Luck-blessed, cinchy draw, I simply can’t find evidence to suggest that South Africa 2010 will play out any more favorably than the stumble through Germany 2006. And how’d that work out for everyone?

Here we go…

You could even argue that things have regressed a bit.

Yes, if you ignore the improvement of our core players, use Pablo Mastroeni as a point of comparison, and conveniently ignore past results, you could definitely make that argument.

…the Yanks were one big, brave Carlos Bocanegra moment from being perched way too precariously [in the Hexagonal standings].

That’s one way of putting it.  Another: the U.S. was some competent finishing away from a comfortable win.  Want to talk individual results?  In the first game of the semi-final group of qualifying, the U.S. was an 89th-minute goal away from losing to a team that didn’t even make it to the Hex!  What does this mean?  Not much.  Just like cherry picking one mediocre result from this year doesn’t say much about our current crop of players.

There is really no spot on the field where the Americans look even marginally better than 2006.

Do you really want to go there?

Essentially, three members of the back four are the same in Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo and Oguchi Onyewu. If you argued that Cherundolo and Bocanegrahave benefited from another three seasons in good leagues, I’d retort that they both turned 30 this year. So we’d call it a wash — then probably find our neck muscles aching from nodding in agreement that left back remains the same sore tooth it’s always been.

Onyewu and Bocanegra look far better than they did in 2006–they have, after all, had the benefit of playing side-by-side for three more years.  I’m not a fan of our reliance on set pieces, but both have also improved significantly on scoring off corners and free kicks.  On Cherundolo–I’m willing to call that one a wash, but Jonathan Spector (not to mention Simek, when healthy), a player who gets starts in the Premier League, is a significantly better backup than we’ve had in the past.  Left back is still a problem, but Bornstein is showing promise.  And how about this line-up:  Bocanegra (LB), DeMerit (CB), Onyewu (CB), Spector (RB).  Since Bocanegra had an outstanding season at LB for Rennes, I think he’s more than capable of solving our problems.  Unfortunately, Bradley doesn’t seem interested in this.  I’d argue that DeMerit is a better defender than Eddie Pope was three years ago–let’s not forget that he was our starter in the World Cup.  Or how about this lineup (when Cherundolo is healthy): Spector (LB), Bocanegra (CB), Onyewu (CB), Cherundolo (RB).  Let’s be honest–our left-back woes have been largely a result of Bradley’s unwillingness to move past Pearce.  We have the tools.

Michael Bradley has no doubt matured as a player in three years. That’s one of the pluses. In fact, it’s gotten to the point that the United States feels his absence; he was suspended for Saturday’s game because he had collected too many yellow cards.  Ricardo Clark was a force Saturday, a testament to how effort and simplicity can rule. But Bradley’s passing and his instinctive midfield drive would have nicely complemented Clark’s rangy ways.

You could make that argument about the top players of almost any team.  Take for instance Brian McBride during the 2006 campaign.  It is actually quite clear (as demonstrated by your praise of Clark) that we can cope with the loss of Bradley now better than we could have coped with the loss of McBride then.  The central midfield is easily our deepest position–players like Maurice Edu, Ricardo Clark, Benny Feilhaber, and if you’re willing to play slightly more offensive soccer, Sacha Kljestan, Jose Francisco Torres, and Freddy Adu can all fill in (not to mention newly acquired destroyer Jermaine Jones).  Who were the attacking subs from WC 2006?  Eddie Johnson (who had a downright awful 2006 MLS season), Josh Wolff (undersized, never that good), and Brian Ching (decent player then, better player now).

Pablo Mastroeni is 32 and looked every bit of it on Honduras’ goal Saturday, hopelessly chasing the play from behind. So you really can’t look at the central midfield as a whole and stamp it “improved.”

Let me get this straight.  Your argument for ’06’s midfield being better goes as follows: 1. It would suck if Michael Bradley didn’t exist.  2. Our second best central midfielder from ’06 can’t hack it any more.  Point two is completely correct.  The problem is our second best central midfielder from ’06 is now sitting about sixth best among defensive midfielders alone.  Most American soccer writers agree that his international career is (or should be) over.   And let’s not forget, you’re using a guy who didn’t even make the Confederations Cup roster as a point of comparison.  Let’s also not forget who our number three was in ’06–Ben Olson.  Really?  ’06 Ben Olson would be around #11 on our central midfield depth chart today.

In fact, given coach Bradley’s continued dependence on Mastroeni, and considering Claudio Reyna isn’t around to slow pace and create space, there probably has been a decline.

I would agree that Bradley holds us back in some ways, but this doesn’t diminish the progress we’ve made elsewhere.  Regarding Claudio Reyna, there was a time when he could control the pace of the game and distribute the ball precisely.  That was not the Claudio Reyna at WC06.  ’06 Claudio was a liability.  I’m sure you can remember the constant injury and fitness worries and his giveaway that led to Ghana’s game-winner.

But something happens when [Clint Dempsey] slips into a U.S. shirt; he never quite seems to figure out what he wants to be.

I agree to some extent.  Part of the problem is that Bradley has him playing a different position for country than he plays for club.  But you have to admit–Clint Dempsey is a far better player now than he was 3 years ago (when he took part in the 2006 World Cup).

Landon Donovan is the same player from four years back.

Landon Donovan playing for the MLS Cup champs in 2005: 12 goals, 10 assists.  Landon Donovan playing for the worst team in MLS last year: 20 goals, 9 assists.  Pretty clear sign of improvement

Jozy Altidore shows promise but will be only 20 at the South Africa World Cup. Beyond prodigies named Messiand such, teams just don’t spring into a World Cup leaning on 20-year-old strikers.

Jozy would be the second best striker in the 2006 pool and would have contended for a starting spot alongside Brian McBride.  You’re right that world-class teams don’t often enter World Cups relying on 20-year-olds, but we aren’t a world class team.  I would guess that Jozy, by 2010, would be good enough to get called up by most teams participating in the World Cup–obviously not Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Italy, or any other elite team, but most teams (like the USA) that occupy the lower tiers of world soccer could use him.

Part of the problem has been Bradley’s curious reliance on a core of certain individuals — regardless of their form. Bradley has strained so diligently to make things predictable around the U.S. camp — including an effort to shrink the first-team pool to help fuse familiarity — that he hamstrings himself.

Totally agree, but I don’t think this demonstrates a lack of progress in American soccer.  It’s simply evidence that Bob Bradley is a mediocre coach.  Familiarity is important, but E.J. and Pearce–to name two–have been given far too many chances.

How else to explain Eddie Johnson’s previous, repeated call-ups when he was playing about as often as Franz Beckenbauer — and The Kaiser retired 25 years ago!

Zing!

How else to explain why, during last week’s dreadful, ambivalent 3-1 fiasco against Costa Rica, we had to watch guys like Beasley,Altidore and Freddy Adu, none of whom were playing regularly with their clubs? These were the conquerors who were somehow supposed to muster the confidence, rise to the moment and tame a place called the Monster’s Cave?

Altidore started because Ching was injured and he didn’t do too bad.  Adu came off the bench and put in a solid performance.  Beasley sucked, so I’ll give you that one.  But I’d just like to point out that we lost 3-0 last time we played in the Monster’s Cave during the 2006 qualifying cycle.  2002 cycle?  2-0 loss.  You could argue that that shows a lack of progress.  I’d say it can just as easily be explained away by our injury problems and Bob Bradley’s questionable formation/squad selection.  The true American first team would have been competitive in this game against a better Costa Rica team than faced in the 2006 cycle.

We’ve come that far from Arena’s decree that players who were fit, in form and on the field at club level would earn caps?

Arena was better than Bradley when it came to favoritism, but you can’t tell me he was immune.  He ignored much of our European talent in favor of MLS-ers (Chris Albright?  Eddie Pope?  Really?) and continued to give E.J. time long after his hot streak had cooled.

Clark was Bradley’s best player Saturday, yet he was called only when Maurice Edu was revealed injured. The Houston Dynamo’s buzz-saw midfield has been most responsible for the club’s May resurrection. And yet, BennyFeilhaber had been dusted off and granted the original call, ahead of Clark.

Clark’s performance demonstrated our depth at the “unimproved” central midfield.  I understand point, but you have to admit we have an awful lot of options and Clark hadn’t exactlyproven himself at the international level before Saturday (and he’d been given plenty of opportunities).  Benny Feilhaber, on the other hand, was one of our most promising players before he performed his disappearing act.  Now that he’s getting regular minutes again, I’m all for him getting call-ups.

Previous American versions wore a useful chip on their shoulder. Other countries didn’t respect the Yanks, and every match day was a fresh opportunity to stick it in their soccer snob faces. That will seems to have wandered…The talent pool hasn’t improved significantly since then.

I’m not sure we’ve earned the respect of other countries yet, but I have to ask…What exactly did this magic chip do for us?  I’ve already discussed our performance in the 2002 cycle (widely regarded as the pinnacle of American soccer to date).  How about the 2006 cycle?  Some results from the lead-up to the 2006 World Cup: 1-4 at Germany, 1-1 to Jamaica at home, and 0-1 to Morocco at home.  World Cup results?  0-3 to Czech Republic, an impressive 1-1 draw to Italy, and with the opportunity to advance, a 1-2 loss to Ghana.

As for the talent pool, I think this argument would be best hashed out with a game.  Let’s pretend the World Cup were starting next week and we were able to pick a roster.  Everyone is healthy.  All of the players from the 2006 team are put in a time machine, transported to today, and considered in the squad selection.  Here’s who I think we should take (2006 players in bold):

GOALKEEPERS: Tim Howard, Kasey Keller, Brad Guzan

DEFENDERS: Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu, Steve Cherundolo, Jay DeMerit, Jimmy Conrad, Jonathan Spector, Jonathan Bornstein, Eddie Lewis

MIDFIELDERS: Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu, Jose Francisco Torres, Claudio Reyna, Clint Dempsey, Freddy Adu

FORWARDS: Brian McBride, Jozy Altidore, Charlie Davies, Brian Ching

PLAYERS LEFT BEHIND FROM 2006 ROSTER: Chris Albright, Gregg Berhalter, Bobby Convey, Marcus Hahnemann, Eddie Johnson, Pablo Mastroeni, John O’Brien, Ben Olson, Eddie Pope, and Josh Wolff.  (Not to mention the younger versions of Howard, Bocanegra, Onyewu, Cherundolo, Donovan, Dempsey, and Ching.)

Even if you regard repeat players as “washes,” we’re still taking 10 new players to just 5 of the old group (8 repeats, of which I’d say only one (Beasley) has failed to improve/gotten worse).  Of those 5, I would say only Brian McBride is a lock to start–Beasley and Reyna would also have had solid cases.

We aren’t there yet.  There’s plenty of room to improve.  Despite what the FIFA rankings might have led you to believe before the 2006 World Cup, we were never among the world’s elite.  Although we haven’t improved much (at all?) on the coaching front, our talent pool has continued to deepen, and it looks to continue on that path with a steady stream of new young talent (Gyau, McInnerney, Renken, Adu, Altidore, Torres, etc.) still developing.  We may not have world-class talent yet, but we do have the proper pieces to make a talented team capable of a run like Turkey’s in the last European Cup.  Whether or not Bradley’s brand of defensive soccer will get us there is another question…

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