The men's national team embarks on a very busy 2009 with a lot of players in contention for spots on the 2010 World Cup roster.
There's a full slate of games on tap but something less than a full plate of players.
The Americans will play at least 16 competitive matches in 2009, and probably more, since that number in-cludes only the 10 Hexagonal qualifiers and three games apiece in the group phases of the Confederations Cup and Gold Cup. Only in 2005, when the U.S. reached and won the Gold Cup final, and thus played six competitive matches in addition to the 10 Hexagonal games, has the U.S. team been handed an equivalent load.
Across the board, the U.S. has plenty of candidates for national team positions. Yet there's no assurance the 2010 World Cup squad, assuming qualification, will be either stronger or deeper than the 2006 edition.
"I'd say that after the last 12 months there are certain guys that have played well with their clubs and have moved up," says Coach Bob Bradley, who lists Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra in that category. "There are guys who in the past year have established themselves to the point you know what they bring and what they're about and that's positive. There's other guys you're constantly assessing in terms of where they fit in [now] and going forward."
This rundown assumes these definites, barring injury: Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Bocanegra, Onyewu, Jonathan Spector, Steve Cherundolo, Pablo Mastroeni, Michael Bradley, DaMarcus Beasley, Clint Dempsey, and Landon Donovan. The probables, 18 months out, are Jozy Altidore, Jimmy Conrad, Charlie Davies, Maurice Edu, Frankie Hejduk and Heath Pearce. That leaves everybody else, including Freddy Adu, Marvell Wynne, Kenny Cooper, Eddie Johnson, Ricardo Clark and Sacha Kljestan, among others, on the bubble.
That list totals 23 players, and doesn't include a third goalkeeper, so at least one prominent name won't be on the 23-man squad in 2010, assuming qualification. If promising youngsters Michael Orozco and Jose Francisco Torres are thrown into the mix there are too many pieces to fit into this puzzle.
FORWARDS.Ever since Brian McBride retired from the national team after the 2006 World Cup the search has been on for his replacement. That search continues. It isn't likely to find a perfect fit, since McBride embodied a rugged, relentless, resilient forward of solid build, capable feet, aerial prowess and unquenchable spirit.
Brian Ching has many of the same qualities and will be only 32 in 2010; thus he has a decent shot at repeating his 2006 representation. But he didn't play two years ago and is a backup at best.
The search also continues for a forward talented and prolific enough to offer Bradley the option of using Donovan in midfield. What the process has produced is a fleet of promising young players cut from different molds, none of whom may be fully
ready for World Cup rigors in 2010, but are additional options to Donovan, Dempsey and perhaps Ching.
At age 19, Altidore is still very much a work-in-progress and should come back from his first Spanish season at Villarreal a much smarter and sharper player, no matter how many games he gets. He gives the U.S. a muscular presence up front and is learning how to use his size and power to maximum effect. But he lacks seasoning and will be only 20 at the World Cup, so American fans shouldn't expect the world from him.
So far, Charlie Davies seems to be following the ideal track for a young American striker: get out of college, head for Europe, sign with a good team, play well at the Olympics, improve in the second pro season, and perhaps move up to a bigger challenge. The 14 goals he scored in 2008 for Swedish club Hammarby drew interest from French club Sochaux, among others. He can go at defenders with confidence and also get in behind them at speed. Regular time in the Hexagonal and selection for one of the summer tournaments should move him along the curve nicely.
Johnson has been mired in mediocrity for the past two years. He's not scoring for his club, Cardiff City (on loan from Fulham), either. As of mid-December he'd played 15 league and cup matches, with only three starts and no goals. Not good. Davies can pass him on the depth chart in 2009 just by staying the course.
Cooper played two games in 2007 and scored on his debut. FC Dallas refused to sell him to either Cardiff City or Rosenborg last summer, and he finished second behind Donovan among MLS scorers with 18 goals. Bradley brought Cooper back for the final semifinal-round qualifier against Guatemala in Commerce City, Colo., and he scored again as foreign inquires resurfaced.
The heavy diet of games in 2009 offers ample chances for Bradley to test Cooper under harsher pressure than two games against Guatemala and one against the Danish "B" team, all at home. He has size (6-foot-3, 190 pounds), a fair amount of skill and good instincts in the box.
MIDFIELDERS.Beasley, Michael Bradley and Mastroeni top the midfield list regardless of where Donovan and Dempsey line up. Kljestan has first call on the right side, but his skills and cleverness aren't yet sharp enough at the senior level and he'll need more consistency and endurance to move up the ladder. He's done a lot, yet Bob Bradley, who drafted him for Chivas USA out of Seton Hall, still expects a lot more.
Clark can cover a lot of ground and is faster than Bradley, but is also prone to late tackles, fouls, and cards. After a great Rookie of the Year season, Edu stagnated somewhat at Toronto. He played in the back at the Olympics and isn't getting on the field much for Glasgow Rangers. As is the case for perhaps a dozen players, 2009 is a critical year for Edu, who has less than three seasons of pro experience.
Adu excelled at the Olympics, weaving through opponents and slicing balls over them to score and set up goals. He's far too talented to leave out of the mix but his temperament again came into question when he took a dumb caution in the Olympics that disqualified him for the final group game, then pouted after being substituted in October against Trinidad & Tobago. The Monaco bench isn't the place to upgrade his game.
Stuart Holden and Robbie Rogers contributed consistently for the top two teams in MLS, Houston and Co-lumbus, respectively, and gained valuable experience and guile at the Olympics. Holden and Rogers are dueling with Danny Szetela and Bobby Convey — two players marooned in stagnant European limbos — for the backup midfield slots.
The new face in 2008? Torres, a very young yet supremely talented left-sided player who gets regular playing time for Mexican powerhouse Pachuca. Beating out Beasley for the left-side starting slot, unthinkable a year or two ago, isn't out of the question if DMB stays stuck on the Glasgow Rangers bench.
Benny Feilhaber, a revelation in 2007, needs a tremendous year to get back in the picture.
DEFENDERS.Orozco played at left back in the Olympics and didn't light it up, so the search at that position continues. He plays centrally in Mexico for San Luis so rather than vying to start at left back he could be an understudy, along with Conrad, to Bocanegra and Onyewu.
Onyewu won a league championship with Standard Liege and Bocanegra moved into the Rennes' starting lineup, so the central pair reaffirmed their cases for the starting spots in the middle.
"I feel good about the improvement both have shown," said Bradley. "The first half of the year because Carlos was leaving Fulham, he was a little bit out of the picture. Certainly, Carlos has had a good, steady run with Rennes and they've had some success."
The enigma is Spector, known well by Bradley from their days in Chicago, when his son Michael and Spector would join the Fire for training sessions when not playing for their club team, Sockers FC. Injuries have bugged him the last two years. He suffered a concussion against Mexico in the 2007 Gold Cup final, and a thigh injury kept him out of the Olympics. Despite missing the first half of the 2008-09 English Premier League season because of the thigh injury, Spector was given a three-year contract extension by West Ham.
Pearce, 24, played nine games for the USA in 2008 without locking up the left-back slot and is playing Second Division ball with German club Hansa Rostock.
"He's always shown he has the ability when he's come in and he's held up okay," says Bradley, "but I think he's been frustrated with his situation at Rostock and that affects his fitness at times."
Wynne's positioning and passing sharpened in his third pro season, during which he played every minute at the Olympics, yet he starts the year still third at right back behind incumbents Cherundolo and Hejduk.
GOALKEEPERS.The transfer of Brad Guzan to Aston Villa deprives Bradley of a strong domestic backup to Tim Howard. Guzan's decisiveness may suffer unless the other Brad, Friedel, suffers a significant injury and Guzan gets significant playing time. At 24, he is still young enough, zealous enough and eager enough to train like a demon and exploit his playing opportunities to the hilt.
The 2009 schedule could limit Guzan to appearances in a couple of qualifiers, depending on his availability during the English season, and one of the summer events. Guzan and Marcus Hahnemann are clearly second and third behind Howard, though any one of several young keepers could edge into the picture between now and June 2010. That old guy Kasey Keller, signed by the Seattle Sounders FC, is still around, too.
U.S. Depth Chart
Landon Donovan (26)
Jozy Altidore (19)
Brian Ching (32)
Eddie Johnson (24)
Charlie Davies (22)
Kenny Cooper (24)
Clint Dempsey (25)
Pablo Mastroeni (32)
DaMarcus Beasley (26)
Michael Bradley (21)
Sacha Kljestan (23)
Ricardo Clark (25)
Maurice Edu (22)
Freddy Adu (19)
Danny Szetela (21)
Robbie Rogers (21)
Stuart Holden (23)
Jose Francisco Torres (21)
Oguchi Onyewu (26)
Carlos Bocanegra (29)
Steve Cherundolo (29)
Jimmy Conrad (31)
Frankie Hejduk (34)
Jonathan Spector (22)
Hearth Pearce (24)
Marvel Wynne (22)
Michael Orozco (22)
Dan Califf (28)
Jonathan Bornstein (24)
Tim Howard (29)
Brad Guzan (24)
Marcus Hahnemann (36)
Kasey Keller (39)
Cooper Looks Forward
For Kenny Cooper, 2008 was a great season personally as well as a great disappointment.
In his third year as a pro, he set a career high with 18 goals and earned honors as MLS Comeback Player of the Year. He'd played only eight games in 2007 before a broken tibia sidelined him. He also scored for the U.S. in his first appearance for 21 months.
Yet FC Dallas failed to reach the playoffs despite a midseason coaching change by which Schellas Hyndman replaced Steve Morrow 13 games and personnel moves that included the departure of midfielder Juan Toja to Romanian club Steaua Bucharest.
"It was a season of change," says Cooper. "Obviously, there was the coach, and we had a lot of players come and go. It wasn't hard to adapt to Schellas. I've played for different coaches and everybody's different. You just adapt to what they want."
Cooper had been the subject of summer inquiries from Welsh club Cardiff City and Norwegian powerhouse SK Rosenborg. FCD team management turned down those attempts to purchase Cooper, and over the ensuing months tendered several contract offers, each one richer than the one before it. It offered more than $300,000, a huge increase over his $85,000 salary, yet nothing close to what he could earn in Europe.
As the Christmas holidays drew near, no new deal had been brokered. His agent, Lyle Yorks, and his father, Ken Cooper Sr. — a former professional player and head coach — spent time in Europe to see if there might be interest for the young man who passed up a chance to play for Hyndman at SMU to try his luck at Manchester United as a 17-year-old.
"He's a great man and a great coach and I think we're very lucky to have him in Dallas," says the junior Cooper.
FCD's failure to make the playoffs did have a bright side. After Cooper had turned down a national team callup in October, citing illness and his team's crucial late-season schedule, U.S. coach Bob Bradley picked him again for a game against Guatemala.
Not since a March 2007 game against the same opponent had he played for the U.S. Cooper earned a starting spot and in the 54th minute crashed the goalmouth to slam a feed from Jozy Altidore into the net for the first goal in a 2-0 win.
"He did all the hard work," said Cooper of a low, driven ball from Altidore that needed only to be re-directed on frame. "He has so much ability and so much pace."
Cooper racked up the second-highest goal total in MLS – Landon Donovan led the league with 20 – but his greatest pride was starting every game and playing all but 78 minutes.
"I also scored a few goals very late in the games and that shows the coach had the faith to leave me in there," he says. "Sometimes games open up at the end and whether you're winning or losing you get opportunities. I don't know what that means for the national team, though."
Davies In 'Win-Win' Situation
When he left Boston College to play in Sweden two years ago, forward Charlie Davies envisioned a move to a bigger club in a more prestigious league as more or less inevitable.
Back home in the States, as the January transfer window approached with inquiries on the table from various clubs, he vacationed in Southern California and took a few minutes to reflect on how right, and how wrong, his preconceived notions had been.
"It was definitely a big change, because the style was so much different than anything I've ever seen or had played before," says Davies, who scored 24 goals in 37 games for Boston College and left after his junior season to play for Hammarby IF.
"For me, it took a long time to get used to it. Day in and day out, I had to perform, so on and off the field, it was really hard for me."
Off the field, Davies adjusted to life in Stockholm, a picturesque city that nonetheless presented obstacles, such as how to get around, how to spend his free time, and how to eat properly. At BC, Davies inhaled certain foods, such as pizza, as most people take in air.
"You go to college and everything is handed down to you, everything is there that you need," he says. "You go straight to the pros and you need to do your own things and activities, and go out on your own. It took me seven or eight months to really feel comfortable."
On the field, coach Tony Gustavsson indoctrinated Davies, instructing him to play as high up the field as possible, which he did dutifully for months without getting much of the ball or scoring many goals in his first season.
"I'd be making all these great runs and never getting the ball and really getting frustrated," he recalls. "Then I got it in my head, 'Oh, my teammates don't believe in me,' and every time I touched the ball I was thinking about what I could do to please my teammates. It really messed with my mental state and I think that's why I had such a tough time."
In the last game of the 2007 season, Davies nailed a hat trick against GAIS. He came back for the start of 2008 training completely revived, and it showed. Davies led Hammarby with 14 goals and marked a brief 15-minute substitute appearance at the Olympic Games with a searing header that hit the Nigerian crossbar.
When the U.S. national team opens its training camp at Home Depot Center Jan. 4, Davies hopes to be on hand. But if he's not, it's most likely because French club Sochaux or another bidder has secured his services.
"I feel like I'm ready and not because I'm scoring goals and might be part of the national team," he says of a possible move. "I feel I can do that just as well in the next step, in the next league. If nothing happens in the January transfer window, I'll go back to Hammarby and just continue to keep adding on to what I've been doing. It's a win-win situation for me but obviously I'd like to have a new opportunity."
Marshall Nails Performances
"We all know how deadly Chad Marshall can be."
So spoke Red Bulls head coach Juan Carlos Osorio after MLS Cup 2008, in which a powerful header by Marshall negated a New York goal just 87 seconds earlier that had tied the match, 1-1.
An hour or so after scoring the winning goal in the 3-1 victory, in a raucous Crew locker room puddled a half-inch deep with ice water and champagne and other liquids, his teammates began chanting: "Naked cartwheel! Naked cartwheel! Naked cartwheel."
Marshall is 6-foot-3 and weighs about 190 pounds, and the locker rooms at Home Depot Center aren't all that spacious. Yet Marshall, who wisely wore socks and tennis shoes — but nothing else — to better land on such a treacherous surface, expertly performed the requested maneuver despite the slippery floor, tight space and other hazards.
Like most of his performances this season, he nailed it.
In 29 regular-season games, Marshall scored four goals, a career high, and received only two cautions. His 2007 season had ended when Columbus put him on season-ending IR at the end of August after he'd played just 12 games. He regained his form and confidence to lead a team that had missed the playoffs three straight years to its first MLS Cup.
"He had to overcome a lot of adversity last year but I think that adversity helped him," said former Crew coach Sigi Schmid. "It made him appreciate the game a lot more. This year, he's grown by leaps and bounds. His leadership on the field has grown and so has his willingness to handle the ball. His defending has never been in question. He's probably the most dangerous guy in the league on set pieces."
The goal, championship, and cartwheel followed his selection as Defender of the Year and first inclusion on the MLS Best XI. His friends and family were on hand to see the championship game at Home Depot Center; he was born about 50 miles east of HDC in Riverside, Calif.
A bagful of honors and awards seemed reason enough to kick back and savor the triumphs and wait for a return to the national team, for which he scored a goal on his debut in March 2005. Instead, he soon headed off for a trial with German club Mainz as a free agent, with the intent of finding a foreign club rather than sign a new deal with MLS, and hopefully, get back into the national team picture.
"I can't see Bob Bradley overlooking him any more," said Schmid. "He's got be a guy who gets to play in the national team."
Marshall debuted for the U.S. in a low-key friendly against Colombia at Titan Stadium on the campus of Cal State Fullerton, and he headed home one of the goals in a 3-0 win. He played four games for the U.S. that year but hasn't been summoned since.
Bradley is noncommittal, stating that Marshall is one of many players he and his staff are tracking.
"He's a tremendous player with a really big future, and as long as he believes in himself and the coach believes in him, he'll have a lot of success," said Schmid.
(This article originally appeared in the January 2009 issue ofSoccer Americamagazine.)