Nowak looking to find the right mix
The Beijing Olympics are more than eight months away, but Peter Nowak will need most of that time to mold together a U.S. Under-23 national team capable of pushing for a medal in China next summer. He knows he has some star talent capable of leading the team. The question is whether Nowak will be able to find some complementary parts to round out the starting lineup.
Nowak's first U-23 camp roster, which he announced Wednesday ahead of a two-game tour of China (commencing Dec. 13) against the Chinese Under-23 national team, is missing standouts Michael Bradley and Freddy Adu to European club commitments. That shouldn't matter after Bradley showed with the U.S. U-20s at last summer's U-20 World Cup that players of his quality can join a squad late when the team is right as long as the pieces around them are set.
Bradley, Adu, Maurice Edu, Benny Feilhaber, Jozy Altidore, Jonathan Spector, Chris Seitz and Nathan Sturgis should help form the nucleus of the Olympic team. Here is a look at how some of the position battles will shape up heading into this month's tour of China, and next spring's Olympic qualifying tournament:
Forward (Altidore, Robbie Findley, Charlie Davies, Adam Cristman)
Altidore is the class of this group and should be the key target up top. Nowak will be looking to see which of the speedsters (Findley or Davies) works best with Altidore. Findley has proved to be a quality finisher, and Davies is coming off a somewhat disappointing first season in Sweden.
Cristman enjoyed a good season with New England, but he still has his limitations, and his inclusion makes you wonder where forward prospects such as Gabriel Ferrari and Preston Zimmerman stand heading into Olympic qualifying.
The most appealing option for Nowak could be to pair Altidore with Adu playing in a withdrawn forward role. With the trio of Bradley, Edu and Feilhaber locks to hold down the two central midfield spots -- and Adu's talent needing to be on the field -- Nowak will have to consider whether to use Adu behind Altidore in a 4-5-1 formation or behind two strikers, which would mean forgoing having a true right wing player in the lineup. The second option would force a very good midfielder to the bench, which Nowak might not be inclined to do, given the relative weakness of his forward pool after Altidore.
Right wing (Feilhaber, Sacha Kljestan, Sal Zizzo, Stuart Holden, Eddie Gaven)
There is some serious talent in this group. Feilhaber has played on the right wing for the senior national team in recent matches, and you can bet that has been done, at least in part, with an eye toward the Olympics. Nowak will want to try to get Feilhaber, Bradley and Edu on the field together, but Feilhaber is struggling so much that it is hard to tell at this point whether the "Feilhaber as right midfielder" experiment will ever work.
Holden might wind up being the team's best option as Adu's backup in an attacking midfield role, so the real battle could be between Kljestan and Zizzo if Feilhaber falters. Klejstan reads the game better and is a better passer than Zizzo, but Zizzo's blazing speed and quality crossing him give him a chance.
Then you have Gaven, who followed up a disappointing Copa America performance with arguably the best soccer of his professional career in the final months with Columbus. He can play in so many different roles that Nowak might just choose to use him as a super sub, but don't be surprised if Gaven makes this position his own.
Left wing (Robbie Rogers, Arturo Alvarez)
This could wind up being one of the better battles of the bunch. Rogers enjoyed a good U-20 World Cup and improved his club form in the fall for the Crew. His speed and crossing make him a dangerous option, but that might not be enough to hold off the challenge from Alvarez.
Few young players enjoyed as good an MLS season as Alvarez, who blossomed for FC Dallas (his red card indiscretion in the playoffs notwithstanding). He boasts the type of technical ability and flair that fans enjoy, but his work rate defensively is still a concern. The talent is there, but is he willing to put in the work the international game requires?
Left back (Spector, Michael Harrington, Tim Ward)
Spector is the clear-cut favorite to hold this spot down come August, but there is no guarantee his club will release him for the Olympics, which is somewhat scary to think about, considering the drop-off in the left back pool after Spector.
If you watched Ward in the U-20 World Cup, you probably are trying to figure out how on earth he is still in the Olympic team mix. Well, Ward played well in the final months for Columbus, and there is a belief that he finally is starting to mature as a player worthy of the hype he received coming in to MLS.
Will that be enough to stay ahead of Harrington, who spent a full season as a starter for Kansas City (albeit mostly in a left midfield role)? The better question is how much consideration will U.S. U-20 defender Anthony Wallace get? He is young but showed well in the U-20 World Cup.
Right back (Marvell Wynne, Hunter Freeman)
Round 1 of this battle took place this past spring, when Bruce Arena decided Freeman was a better fit at right back for the Red Bulls than Wynne (to be fair, Wynne's significantly larger salary played a part). Freeman looked on his way to having a breakout season before torn ankle ligaments sidelined him, then a rushed return to the field cost him his job down the stretch.
This job is Wynne's to lose. As raw as Wynne looked for the senior national team in Copa America, he returned to Toronto FC and showed marked improvement with his touch and passing, which have long been his weaknesses. Wynne has extreme speed, and his presence on the right flank gives Nowak options in other areas of the field that Freeman's cannot.
If you are wondering why the battle for the starting central midfield spots (which will be between Bradley, Edu and Feilhaber) isn't listed, it is because that battle won't take place until spring at the earliest.
So what would a starting lineup for the U.S. Olympic team look like if the tournament were next month rather than eight months from now? Here is one possible group:
Altidore, Adu, Bradley, Edu, Feilhaber, Rogers, Spector, Sturgis, Patrick Ianni, Wynne and Seitz.
As strong as that starting 11 looks, there could be any number of variations in the actual squad that takes the field in the Olympics. Luckily for Nowak, he doesn't have to make these decisions any time soon. He has some very tough decisions to make, though, and this month's trip to China should provide Nowak with the first step toward putting together the right team to challenge for a medal next year in Beijing.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.