With the announcement of the US World Cup squad yesterday, the US will be taking its deepest ever squad to a World Cup.
I can already sense the disbelief among many US fans that I just said the US squad had depth. After all we are taking 3 very unproven forwards, we are plagued with injuries to the backline, and face a real void – as usual – at left back.
But this needs to be put into some perspective. The USA has never been deep. We are still a very young soccer nation. So by our standard this is by far the deepest USA squad ever.
This US World Cup team in stark contrast to past US squads, relies almost exclusively on foreign based players. In both 2002 and 2006 the US roster had 11 MLS based players and 12 European-based. In 2002, 11 of the 12 Euro-based players played in top leagues, while in 2006 just 7 played in top tier European leagues. The US this time has 19 of the 23 playing abroad and this does not count Landon Donovan, who played more games in the Premier League this calendar year than MLS. So even if you eliminate Jose Francisco Torres (Mexico), Herculez Gomez (Mexico) , Jay Demerit (England Championship), Benny Feilhaber (Denmark), and Clarence Goodson (Norway) as they don’t play in top European leagues (although Demerit and Feilhaber did play in the Premier League and the Mexican league is very good) that is 14 players playing in elite European leagues. This is not a knock on the quality of MLS, as 17 out of the 23 got their start in MLS. Instead this shows that MLS is developing real talent and that the pool players available to Bob Bradley to select from is not mostly confined to domestic based players.
US fans need to remember back in 2002 Jeff Agoos was the starting centerback or in 2006 Eddie Lewis started at right back. Against Ghana in 06 the US played with Damarcus Beasley in a defensive midfield role because Pablo Mastroeni got red carded against Italy. After Caludio Reyna got hurt against Ghana, Arena was forced had to bring on Ben Olsen – I love Olsen but he doesn’t compare to the midfield options Bradley has now.
Even at striker the US has significantly more depth than in the past. While many of the stated strikers may be green to the international game, this overlooks the fact that with Dempsey and Donovan the US – along with Altidore – the US has three solid options to play up top. But furthermore in Herculez Gomez and Edson Buddle, Bradley is taking two players that led or are leading their respective leagues in goals. That is not half bad. While one would take a McBride of 06 over 20 year old Jozy Altidore, the fact is that Jozy started more games at striker at Hull in the Premier League than other player. And at 20 he has all the tools to be a star.
At midfield, even if you assume Donovan or Dempsey start in a more advanced role, the US has tons of midfield cover both outwide and centrally, with players like Stuart Holden, Jose Francisco Torres, Damarcus Beasley, and Benny Feilhaber. At holding midfield, with Michael Bradley, Ricardo Clark, and Maurice Edu – the US has three quality young European based holding midfielders. If those three were English, I think Fabio Capello would even be giving them a look, given England’s lack of ball winners.
Where the US could now be seen as thin is in the backline, as injuries have taken their toll. Yet we are much better off here than in 06 or 02. In 06, Eddie Lewis disastorously started at leftback. This time around we have two guys that actually play leftback for their European club teams – Carlos Bocanegra at Rennes and Jonathan Spector at West Ham.
Moreover, we have three central defenders that – assuming all are fit – have to be considered among the best central defenders the US has ever had. Now health is a big if (yet I think probably slightly overblown), as is rust for Onyewu, and whether this group is as right as they were in the Confederations Cup will determine whether we sink or swim, but with these three, along with the very capable Clarence Goodson, the US has a very solid if not best ever central defensive corps. Some perspective – In 2006 our third central defender was Jimmy Conrad, this time its Jay Demerit – former and likely future premier league player. Additionally, our emergency fifth and sixth central defensive option Jonathan Spector and Maurice Edu (who is also likely the eighth defender) are capable options. While I shudder at Jonathan Bornstein seeing time at left back, he is no worse than Chris Albright who made the 06 squad.
The question US fans care about more however, is not whether this is the deepest US team ever, but whether it is the best team ever. It will be tough to surpass the 2002 World Cup team that made it to the quarterfinals and which combined break out young players (Donovan and Beasley) with players in their prime (Reyna, McBride, O’Brien and Pope). It may not all come together in South Africa, as it did in South Korea, but this team definitely has all the pieces to put together a similar run.