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U.S. poised to repeat '02 success

December 14, 2009
Young By Mark Young
Special to ESPN.com
(Archive)

Just prior to the 1998 FIFA World Cup, the United States Soccer Federation unveiled Project 2010. Its purpose was to revamp the existing national soccer programs with the stated goal of creating a structured American soccer environment that would result in the U.S. winning the 2010 FIFA World Cup. How far has the U.S. national team come since 1998? Well, judging from the amount of criticism directed at coach Bob Bradley during the qualifying campaign -- at least in public awareness, a very long way.

While it might not have been particularly pleasant for Bradley to be "advised" on his selections, strategy, substitutions and formations by all manner of media, old and new, he can take comfort in doing something no other U.S. national team head coach (at least on the men's side) has ever done: reach the final of a FIFA-sanctioned tournament. And the U.S. Soccer Federation can take comfort in knowing that most of the players who upended FIFA world No. 1-ranked Spain in the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup semifinals and gave mighty Brazil all it could handle in the championship game had benefited in one way or another from the Project 2010 initiative.

Landon Donovan
Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon SMIThe U.S. relies heavily on Landon Donovan to provide creativity on offense.

In addition to the historic Confederations Cup run, many of those players played key roles in the U.S. landing its sixth straight berth at the World Cup finals, and winning CONCACAF qualifying for the second consecutive time.

Landon Donovan, Oguchi Onyewu and DaMarcus Beasley were all members of the inaugural U-17 U.S. national team residency program established by Project 2010 in Bradenton, Fla., in 1999. Jonathan Bornstein, Michael Bradley, Jonathan Spector and Jozy Altidore are just some of the other Bradenton graduates who played important roles in the World Cup qualifying campaign. And Tim Howard, Carlos Bocanegra and Clint Dempsey are a trio of key players who benefited from the Project 40 program (now Generation adidas) also established under Project 2010.

Most of those players will form the nucleus of the U.S. team in South Africa next summer. Howard is one of the top goalkeepers in the EPL and would start on most teams at the World Cup. Onyewu is a tower of strength in the middle of the defense and his credentials were more than validated when AC Milan signed him during the 2009 summer transfer window. At Fulham, Dempsey has joined the small club of American outfield players who have become established starters on EPL (or old first division) teams. And Donovan, heading into the prime of his career, continues to burnish his reputation as the U.S. national team's best-ever player.

But can this team produce a best-ever finish for the U.S. in 2010? Like the U.S. experiences at World Cup finals since returning to the fold in 1990, the 2010 qualifying campaign had its ups and downs. Expectations for CONCACAF "hexagonal" domination were high, but a 2-2 tie in El Salvador and 3-1 humbling in Costa Rica saw an unprecedented outpouring of venom from the fans and media alike. U.S. soccer had finally arrived. And while the U.S. tendency to give up early goals was a disturbing trend throughout the campaign, the resiliency of the team in rallying for a result more often than not, demonstrated the character and fighting spirit on the team.

And at home it was fortress USA. Even in the meaningless last qualifying game at home to Costa Rica, with qualification already clinched, the U.S. rallied from a two-goal deficit to tie the game in stoppage time. While Jonathan Bornstein's late, late goal proved costly for Costa Rica, the game also proved costly for the U.S. Onyewu tore a patella tendon in his left knee that will keep him on the sidelines for at least four months. And that injury came on the heels of an automobile accident that left forward Charlie Davies with multiple injuries. The breakout star of the World Cup qualifying campaign (and the Confederations Cup), Davies had added speed, energy and clinical finishing to the U.S. front line. It seems unlikely that he will be healthy for the World Cup.

Onyewu and Davies are players the U.S. can ill afford to lose. The U.S. bench is not deep. At the 2006 World Cup and the 2009 Confederations Cup, the U.S. got in some yellow- and red-card jeopardy and simply cannot afford to do that again in South Africa. Bradley also needs to answer the perennial question: What is Landon Donovan's best position? It's tempting to use the versatile Donovan to fill weak spots on any given day, be they in midfield or on the front line, but the 2009 MLS MVP remains the player the U.S. needs to build around. And Dempsey remains the player whom Bradley most needs to reproduce his club form for the national team.

Reinforcements, though, may be on the way in the form of Jermaine Jones and Edgar Castillo, players who are now eligible for the U.S. after previously playing for Germany and Mexico respectively. They could add much-needed experience, savvy and steel to the defense and midfield.

But like a mid-major power in college basketball, the U.S. needs its stars to produce on the big stage if it is to make a deep run and upset the sport's long-standing balance of power. But unlike most teams at the World Cup, the U.S. is no stranger to conditions in South Africa and has had big success there already. If Onyewu can get healthy (and get some late-season playing time with AC Milan), Howard performs at his shot-stopping brilliant best, and Donovan and Dempsey fire on all cylinders for the U.S., then it's entirely possible that this Project 2010 team can replicate the 2002 quarterfinals run and dream even larger.

Mark Young is a World Cup writer and researcher for ESPN.