Should U.S. soccer fans be worried?
JOHANNESBURG -- As the U.S. national team left South Africa on Monday, attention naturally began to shift from the just-concluded World Cup cycle to what lies ahead. While there is talent in some areas, repair work is in order.
Of course, the first decision that needs to be made is whether coach Bob Bradley remains in his position. But regardless of who leads the U.S. team, he'll have to handle challenges that are quite different from those facing the team four years ago.
Back then, the international retirements of Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride, Eddie Pope and John O'Brien meant that the entire spine of the team needed to be rebuilt. The emergence of Michael Bradley and Carlos Bocanegra helped, although a clear hole at forward remains.
But a major priority for the next World Cup cycle will be revamping the back line. Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, and Jay DeMerit are all at least 30 years old, and aging defenders typically don't fare well at World Cups. A question mark surrounds Oguchi Onyewu as well, given the serious knee injury he sustained in October and the limited playing opportunities he can expect to get at club side AC Milan.
All four of those players likely will be involved in the near term as the team navigates its way through the transition period. Yet there are some longer-term solutions on the horizon. While Jonathan Spector's form fell precipitously in recent months, he's just 24 and can fill in anywhere along the back line. The fact that he plays in the English Premier League will continue to push him as a player. Clarence Goodson has performed well in limited opportunities and could play a part going forward.
In terms of MLS defenders, Chad Marshall likely will get more opportunities given his height and passing ability, although he needs to move overseas to grow his game. Omar Gonzalez of the Los Angeles Galaxy is a player for the future. New York Red Bulls defender Tim Ream has shown a composure on the ball that is lacking in most American defenders, so he will get some looks, too.
Former U.S. U-20 center backs Ike Opara and Gale Agbossoumonde, both of whom possess freakish athletic ability, are candidates for the national team as well.
At outside back, Jonathan Bornstein silenced his critics with two very good games at the World Cup. He looks set to continue his time in the national team setup. New England Revolution right back Kevin Alston and L.A.'s Sean Franklin likely will get consideration in the next World Cup cycle, as will Dallas' Heath Pearce.
In terms of U.S. players plying their trade overseas, Aston Villa defender Eric Lichaj has progressed nicely and could join the national team in the near future.
Midfield is probably where the least amount of movement will take place. Both Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey will be in their early 30s when the next World Cup takes place in Brazil, and if they can stay healthy, it seems almost certain that they'll remain key components of the U.S. attack.
The Americans are also blessed with young midfielders with eye-catching technical ability. Benny Feilhaber, Jose Torres and Stuart Holden are all established players on the national team who are playing in foreign leagues. Given their high degree of skill, they'll provide a solid level of depth in case Donovan or Dempsey isn't around. Sacha Kljestan also remains in the mix, and it will be interesting to see how his game develops now that he has moved to Belgian side Anderlecht.
Out on the wing, Alejandro Bedoya remains an interesting prospect given his willingness to take on opposing defenders and his ability to pull off quick combinations with teammates. The speedy Robbie Rogers will also remain in the picture, although it would seem that a move to Europe is needed for him to polish his game, as is the case with his club teammate Marshall. European-based players Jared Jeffrey, Sebastian Lletget and Mikkel Diskerud, all members of the U.S. U-20 team, could also emerge.
The U.S. continues to crank out defensive midfielders at an impressive pace. Maurice Edu is just 24, and given the European experience he is already getting, he should be in his prime when 2014 rolls around.
Yet perhaps the hub around which the team will be built is Michael Bradley. At just 22 years of age, Bradley looks poised to have a long career in Europe and with the national team. At first glance, his skills aren't eye-catching, but his entire game is greater than the sum of its individual parts. His iron will makes him a player to be counted on no matter the stakes.
The forward position is where some significant work needs to be done -- the U.S. hasn't gotten a World Cup goal from a striker since 2002 -- yet the cupboard looks bare for the most part. At age 20, Jozy Altidore will no doubt be in the picture, although some questions remain about his ability to excel at the highest levels of the game. While Altidore has improved his hold-up play and ability to link with teammates, his training habits remain in question, as does his ability to finish against the world's best defenders. His club future is in doubt, as well, as he has failed to crack the first team at Spanish side Villarreal and has been continually sent out on loan.
The questions don't end there. It remains to be seen if forward Charlie Davies can return to the level he attained prior to sustaining injuries in an October car crash. Freddy Adu's club career has been up and down; after so many false starts, he'll need to sustain that trend for a while before convincing skeptics that he can contribute at the international level.
This uncertainty could see the U.S. relying on known quantities like Eddie Johnson, Herculez Gomez and Robbie Findley -- a troubling scenario, particularly given how poor Findley has been of late. But it's also possible that some other forwards will begin to emerge, either in MLS or from a U.S. U-20 player pool that includes the imposing Stefan Jerome and the shifty Joseph Gyau.
The U.S. better hope so if it wants to stand a better chance at the next World Cup.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at email@example.com.