Friday, July 3, 2009
U.S. searching for quality depth at Gold Cup
Ives Galarcep, Special to ESPN Soccernet
For all of the positives that the Confederations Cup provided the U.S. men's national team, there was one glaring negative that the competition appeared to expose. Despite the strength of its core nucleus of players, such as Tim Howard, Oguchi Onyewu, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, the U.S. squad still lacks the depth it needs to contend on a consistent basis with traditional world powers.
Enter the CONCACAF Gold Cup, U.S. coach Bob Bradley's best chance in the next year to mine the U.S. talent pool for players capable of contributing to the national team heading into the 2010 World Cup. This year's Gold Cup squad is brimming with potential and several offensive-minded standouts who have a chance to solidify a place on Bradley's World Cup radar.
It is no secret that the U.S. team needs more attacking players contributing and more offensive options. This was clear in the substitution options (and the production of those substitutes) during the Confederations Cup. It isn't a coincidence that none of the eight goals scored by the United States in South Africa was scored by, or set up by, a substitute.
That is where players such as Stuart Holden, Freddy Adu, Kenny Cooper and Robbie Rogers have a great chance to step up in competitive matches and prove they are better options than the likes of Sacha Kljestan, Conor Casey and DaMarcus Beasley.
No player will be under more scrutiny on the U.S. Gold Cup team than Adu, who has had his moments for the national team but has yet to command a bigger role. He was on the Confederations Cup bench, but never played a single minute. If Bradley hands Adu the midfield reins in the Gold Cup, we might finally get to see Adu in extended national team action. It would give observers a better sample size to get a sense of just what sort of impact Adu could make on the full national team.
"It's important that Freddy can now, with his club team, make the next step. Certainly, we recognize that there is talent and, yet, it's not easy to come into a national team during a period when you're not playing and to play against the likes of Italy, Spain, and Brazil," said Bradley in a media conference call. "But having him in the group is a way of letting him know that we still want to push him forward. It's most important that he can push his way through with his club team so that that playing time, that experience, the lessons you learn from being on the field start to help him with our national team."
Questions remain about Adu's defensive qualities and the perception that he is a liability persists. Those questions can be answered if he is given significant minutes in the Gold Cup, particularly in the knockout round, when the competition will be stronger and pressure more tangible.
Cooper is another player who has established himself as a fan favorite, but has not found his way into the national team rotation. Questions about his defensive work rate, strength on the ball and speed on the international level have dogged him even as he has established himself as one of the best forwards in MLS. Ching's presence on the roster may cut into Cooper's opportunities, but the FC Dallas forward should still get his share of playing time and a chance to improve Bradley's opinion of him.
For Holden, the going is tougher because of the U.S. team's depth of options in midfield. That doesn't mean the Houston Dynamo midfielder can't make a strong enough impression to pass the struggling Kljestan in the national team pecking order. Holden has flourished since becoming a regular starter for the Dynamo and the increased playing time has made him a more confident and versatile player, which should serve him well in the Gold Cup, where he is expected to play a major role.
"Stuart has had experience with our Olympic team in Beijing last summer, we've had him in some national team camps," said Bradley. "I think along the way there's been some untimely injuries that perhaps interfered with him having opportunities, but we're excited to have him back for the Gold Cup. He's having a good run of late with Houston and he's a player that we rate."
As important as the tournament is for the young players on the roster, the Gold Cup is also vital for the U.S. team because it will allow Bradley to integrate some key veterans who are back from injury. Steve Cherundolo and Brian Ching were unquestioned starters a year ago, but when both missed the Confederations Cup, it opened the door for Jonathan Spector and Charlie Davies to step up and stake their own strong claims to those positions.
Cherundolo had been the team's top right back for the better part of four years, from 2005 to 2009, but he began to show a dip in form for the national team last fall, and a hip injury suffered last winter has kept him out of action all of this year. In that time, veteran Frankie Hejduk stepped in and played well in his place, but not so well that you couldn't envision Cherundolo winning his spot back. Spector, on the other hand, has put together a string of six starts that has shown him to be a player capable of taking the spot permanently.
Ching is in a similar position, having been forced to miss the Confederations Cup and watch young forward Altidore and Davies form an impressive partnership. Ching still brings unique qualities to the table, such as his ability to hold up the ball and deliver crisp passes to teammates running off him, not to mention defensive work that has yet to be matched by any American strikers in the pool. Will that be enough to hold off the youth movement at forward? The Gold Cup will be Ching's first step toward finding out.
For all of the aforementioned players, as well as U.S. national team newcomers such as Logan Pause and Jay Heaps, the test begins on July 4, when Grenada makes the trip to Seattle. The perennial underdogs don't figure to provide too stiff a test, especially since captain and midfield leader Shalrie Joseph is likely to be unavailable. The New England Revolution standout is battling a knee injury that looks to, at the very least, keep him out of the Independence Day clash at Qwest Stadium.
Joseph's injury may sound like good news for the United States, but his absence would be a downer because Joseph is just the type of player who could provide a tough test for players like Adu and Holden.
Grenada may provide more of a challenge to the U.S. team's defensive prospects, such as Chad Marshall and Michael Parkhurst. Blackburn striker Jason Roberts is one of the better forwards in the Gold Cup and former Bolton striker Delroy Facey could team with him to form a dangerous tandem capable of testing the American center backs.
The Grenada match is just the first of what the United States is hoping will be six matches. A half-dozen matches would give both young players and veterans a chance to remind Bradley that they're worthy of being a part of a national team that has established a higher standard after its Confederations Cup success. The U.S. national team's ambitions are growing, and it will need to be deeper to make those ambitions reality. The quest to find that depth begins with the Gold Cup.
|U.S. men's schedule
|U.S. vs. Grenada
Qwest Field; Seattle
9 p.m. ET
U.S. vs. Honduras
RFK Stadium; Washington, D.C.
9 p.m. ET
U.S. vs. Haiti
Gillette Stadium; Foxborough, Mass.
7 p.m. ET
Ives Galarcep covers the U.S. national team and MLS for ESPN Soccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.