What does winning the Gold Cup, getting skunked at the Copa America, and reaching the quarterfinals of the FIFA U-20 World Cup mean for U.S. Soccer?
Answer: There's plenty of talent at hand, there are many questions yet to be answered, and much more work to do.
The federation won the tournament it wanted to win, the Gold Cup, with most of its national team regulars on hand and thus earned the regional title and a spot at the 2009 Confederations Cup. It treated the Copa America as a public tryout, sent a team of hopefuls and long shots, and took three losses by combined scores of 8-2. The under-20s pulled off inspiring wins over Brazil and Uruguay before a heartbreaking overtime loss to Austria eliminated them in the quarterfinals.
Filling slots for the 2010 World Cup is the primary need yet there's an Olympic Games next year that will serve a vital role in the development of players, including a few of the under-20s. The Freddy (Adu) Factor increases in importance as he matures and perhaps heads overseas. Retired veterans Brian McBride, Claudio Reyna and Eddie Pope need replacing, and grooming goalkeepers to back up Tim Howard is another issue.
The givens are attackers Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, ideal positions to be determined; Carlos Bocanegra in the back; and Howard in the nets. DaMarcus Beasley's confidence and aggressiveness, so glaring by their absence at the 2006 World Cup, regain him first call at left midfield.
Not seen so far in the summer of 2007 and by no means eliminated from consideration are right back Steve Cherundolo, midfielder Bobby Convey and forward Josh Wolff. Players who could have taken leaps forward in June and July but didn't were Justin Mapp, Eddie Gaven, Marvell Wynne, and Tim Ward. Those who did move up the charts included Jonathan Bornstein, Benny Feilhaber, Michael Bradley and Jonathan Spector with the national team, and Jozy Altidore, Sal Zizzo, Anthony Wallace, Bradley, and yes, Freddy, for the under-20s.
DONOVAN DILEMMA REVISITED. Nearly seven years after he debuted for the national team, there's no solution to the dilemma of where to play Donovan. Nobody is his equal as the second forward or at right midfield, and Coach Bob Bradley's experimentation with Dempsey up top - where he played in the final portion of the English Premier League season for Fulham - indicates how thin the Americans are at forward despite a slew of candidates. Without them at the Copa America, and no Beasley as well, the U.S. lacked creativity in the buildup and sharpness in the penalty area.
All four of Donovan's Gold Cup goals came from the penalty spot and he somehow whiffed on a sitter off against Panama, yet he prompted many of the most dangerous Gold Cup attacks and the assists he earned on goals by Eddie Johnson and Frankie Hejduk were of excellent quality.
The retirement of McBride merely accentuated the team's need to develop a fresh crop of strikers, especially one with size, finishing ability and prowess in the air. In the year since he departed, scant progress has been made.
The ideal candidate, Brian Ching, started two games (Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico) at the Gold Cup, and didn't play in the Copa. He fluffed a few chances against T&T but did put away a sitter provided by Mapp. As a sub, a great ball with the outside of his foot set up the other T&T, Taylor Twellman, to score on El Salvador. But Ching, who turned 29 in May, is at his peak and hasn't proven to be as effective for the U.S. as he is for Houston in MLS.
Johnson and Twellman also tallied at the Gold Cup yet neither excelled. Twellman botched far more chances than he converted. He does have the same rugged determination and willingness to battle as McBride, but lacks the strength and power, not to mention the ability to finish. Challenges that McBride withstood often knock Twellman off balance.
Twellman checks into space and shows for the ball and links well with teammates and is good in the air and pressures opponents. Of his numerous Gold Cup chances, the only one he converted resulted from a great pass from Ching that sent him one-v-one against El Salvador keeper Miguel Montes, and that shot just barely squeezed underneath the keeper's body. Johnson bagged a goal against T&T and converted a penalty kick against Argentina at the Copa America but rarely forced the issue.
"Brian is still an excellent competitor, you know what he's going to bring to the field every game," says Bradley. "Eddie's the youngest, physically, and the most gifted. With him, it's just continuing to mature as a player.
"Taylor, again, is a good competitor, but the transition so that his competitiveness, that works so positively in MLS in terms of helping his team in a variety of ways but getting goals - in some ways I think he's still pressing to find ways to get goals with the national team.
"They've all contributed but like a lot of positions on the field, you have to continue to see how guys move along."
Bradley says he'll continue to use Dempsey as a second forward. He scored a goal, assisted on another, had a header cleared off the line, and played a through ball to Beasley that resulted in a penalty kick while playing right mid as well as up top.
"I thought at the Gold Cup he played well as a forward," says Bradley. "For me, Clint has an aggressiveness in the box to find chances and finish chances that's a little bit unique. He's capable of sometimes creating a chance out of nothing, and he's willing to take those chances, so certainly those qualities fit well with playing up front."
THE FEILHABER FACTOR. Praised before and after his amazing strike against Mexico, Feilhaber, 22, has myriad tools, but only steady playing time - both for the U.S. and whichever club he winds up with - can ready him for the task of replacing Claudio Reyna. He's a different player than Reyna, who preferred a deeper role linking up with the attackers rather than a true playmaking or attacking slot closer to the forwards.
"Somebody's going to have to fill Claudio's shoes," says veteran goalie Kasey Keller. "Two or three guys will be fighting for that as well, and if Benny can get into a situation where he's playing week-in and week-out, he has a great chance to do that. He's got a lot of talent, no question about it."
Feilhaber, a member of the U.S. team at the 2005 U-20 World Cup, played nine first-team games for Hamburg in the 2006-07 German Bundesliga season but a coaching change sent him back to the reserves. The club released him for both the Gold Cup and Copa America and he played in seven (six starts) of the nine games. He is also age-eligible for the Olympic team.
Said Bocanegra after Feilhaber's 22-yard volley of a partially cleared corner kick buzzed past Mexican keeper Oswaldo Sanchez, "He's going to be a big part of our team. He's got good skills, good instincts. Obviously, you saw the strike today on the goal but besides that he's intelligent out there."
Another of Feilhaber's assets is a keen knack of knowing when to push forward off the ball, which he did in the friendly against China to score his first U.S. goal. At every level of the game, the opposition often ignores players once they release the ball in the neutral third, and Feilhaber caught China unawares when he raced through to reach a bouncing ball from Sacha Kljestan and lifted it over advancing goalkeeper Chen Dong.
Ricardo Clark, Pablo Mastroeni and Michael Bradley all lined up with Feilhaber in the Gold Cup and Copa America, and he'll get more experience in the next year with the Olympic team, as will Adu and Altidore and many of the under-20s.
A central midfield slot is another option for Donovan's pace, guile, endurance and audacity, yet Bob Bradley is overloaded with choices for the middle. Mastroeni is the oldest (30), and at the other end of the age spectrum is Bradley's son, Michael (20 as of July 31), who displayed incredible range and unlimited work rate in the U-20 World Cup.
Michael Bradley played a less prominent yet just as vital role in the Gold Cup: keeping the middle secure, jamming up passing lanes, usually playing a safe, short ball rather than charging up field or booting it long. He played 21 games for Dutch club Heerenveen last season, most of them off the bench, yet even with a steady diet of club and international games expecting him to assume a starting slot by 2010 is asking a lot. Ditto Adu, Altidore, et al.
Altidore scored four goals at the U-20 World Cup, Adu hit a hat trick against Poland and set up several other goals with excellent serves. Yet those are signs of progress, not arrival.
Mapp's positional and tactical confusion and stretches of invisibility marred the glow of his exhilarating runs, one of which set up a goal for Ching against T&T. Gaven played the last 28 minutes against Argentina and the second half against Colombia to little effect other than letting Lionel Messi glide by him to set up the winning Argentine goal.
CASE FOR THE DEFENSE. Among the U.S. highlights at the Gold Cup and Copa America were several tenacious displays by Bornstein, who faced the likes of Mexican speedster Nery Castillo, Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Messi less than two years after playing college ball.
With Cherundolo resting for the summer, Frankie Hejduk's frenzied runs again lit up the Gold Cup. He scored a great goal in the 2-1 semifinal victory over Canada, his first goal for the national team in seven years, but also picked up his second yellow card of the knockout round.
His suspension for the final against Mexico moved Spector into his slot, and in turn, Frank Simek came in after a fearsome collision left Spector sprawled on the grass. But when Omar Bravo replaced targetman Jared Borgetti late in the first half, the American defense labored to stop Castillo, Jaime Lozano and winger Jose Guardado.
"I'm learning how Gooch reacts to situations and he's learning how I react," said Bocanegra of playing in the middle with Onyewu. "I'm playing alongside Jonny Bornstein. We're starting to get more comfortable with each other and our tendencies. We're growing as a team, we're still pretty young, and it's still a transition."
Bocanegra, 28, could be surpassed, perhaps, but Jimmy Conrad will be racing the clock - he's 30 - and the strongest candidates among the younger players are outside backs: Bornstein and Simek are 22, Spector is 20. Spector has played in the middle occasionally since being converted from a forward during his time with the under-17s. His size (6-foot, 180 pounds) wouldn't be a hardship playing centrally, but a bit more height wouldn't hurt.
Mastroeni has played in the back for Colorado and could be tried there if better options emerge in midfield. Few U.S. defenders are comfortable on the ball. Touch is one of Mastroeni's attributes.
Jay DeMerit (27) played two capable games at the Copa America against Paraguay and Colombia. The confusion and poor positioning that sometimes plague Onyewu are seldom seen with DeMerit. Dropping down to the League Championship from the Premier League won't help DeMerit's cause, though, and he simply may not be good enough, given his physical and technical limitations.
New England defender Michael Parkhurst did little wrong in his two Gold Cup games but will need sterner tests to move up the ladder. He did save a goal against T&T with a desperation recovery after a mix-up gave Andre Toussaint a free run at goal.
At the Copa America, Messi ran wild in the second half to torment everyone, but especially debutant Wynne. Drew Moor replaced him at right back for the final two games against Paraguay and Colombia and not having to deal with Messi surely helped him settle in.
The scintillating showing by Messi, though, didn't fully explain the difference in performance between Moor and Wynne. Moor, certainly less of an athlete than the faster, stronger and bigger Wynne, is at this point a better player. He's still learning the position with FC Dallas as well as the national team, and isn't age-eligible for the Olympics, but he's not tiny at 6-feet and 170 pounds, and at right back can display a bit more of the skills he showed in college at Indiana and Furman.
Unfortunately, Moor's two Copa appearances included an appalling failure to put away a header against Paraguay with the score 2-1 for the South Americans. Clark's cross looped perfectly for Moor, starkly unmarked at the edge of the goal area, but the header went right to frozen keeper Aldo Bobadilla. The sight of Jaime Castrillon overpowering him to score Colombia's goal is emblazoned in the mind as well. Still, he's in the mix.
In their wildest dreams fans can imagine Wynne as a stronger version of the great Brazilian right back Cafu, and he's definitely in the Olympic plans of Bradley and assistant Peter Nowak. Yet Wynne's steep MLS learning curve with the MetroStars and Toronto cloud his chances to improve significantly by 2010.
"The World Cup is three years away," says Feilhaber. "That's what you want to try to be involved in."
(This article originally appeared in the August 2007 issue of Soccer America magazine.)