[MY VIEW] In a few weeks, maybe sooner, U.S. coach Bob Bradley will make known his selections for a pre-World Cup training camp, and I don't envy his task.
Injured players in every position except goalkeeper (knock on wood for Tim Howard to stay healthy) cast dark clouds over the roster. The shadows are deepest at forward; the steady but slow progress of Charlie Davies has precluded him from playing for Sochaux this season and Brian Ching will be hobbled until next month. Clint Dempsey has just come back from an injury layoff and should be fit for the World Cup, but still there are open slots for the forward spots.
The excellent form of Edson Buddle and Herculez Gomez would seem to be reason enough to invite them into camp, at least, though neither has more than token U.S. duty on their resumes. Had this World Cup been played last year, the same din would have been heard for Robbie Findley, Conor Casey and Jeff Cunningham, who scored a combined 45 goals in MLS last year.
While form can be fleeting, class is intrinsic. A bad game or even a poor month doesn’t make Landon Donovan a stiff. After Brian McBride’s contributions in the 1998 and 2002 World Cup and his consistent scoring for the national team, there was no way he wasn’t going to the 2006 World Cup if healthy, no matter how good or bad his club form may have been.
When you have a player of class in great form, you get performances like Lionel Messi hitting all four goals in a 4-1 Barcelona rout of Arsenal, or Wayne Rooney running rampant. But when even a great player like Messi dips in form, he can be nullified by a good team, as Inter proved this week in throttling Barca, 3-1.
Like players, teams can hit peaks and valleys of form. Along with sound tactics devised by Jose Mourinho, who deployed Esteban Cambiasso and Thiago Motti to harass Messi whenever he got on the ball in midfield, Inter out-thought and outfought Barca all over the field. The roles could be reversed in the second leg next week at Barcelona, so transitory can be the form of players and teams, and sometimes, even coaches.
This is the conundrum faced by Bradley. If Buddle is picked for the World Cup but goes off-form, can he still help the USA? Dempsey and Donovan can contribute even on their mediocre days; can the same be said of Buddle, Casey, Findley and Cunningham, all of whom in the past two or three years have sparkled during hot streaks and also lurched through barren stretches?
Ideally, players will hit top form during the World Cup, but coaches can't count on this even though they strive for it. A player at his physical peak can struggle against top competition if his instincts, touch, vision and acumen aren’t up to snuff. Coaches cannot rely on a brief training camp and a few run-up friendlies to imbue players with talents and abilities and accomplishments they have yet to display and probably aren’t capable of.
Last year, the clamor for Casey and Cunningham grew deafening; Casey scored twice in the historic 3-2 triumph in San Pedro Sula, yet didn’t impress at all a few days later against Costa Rica at RFK. Findley’s regular-season and playoff goals for champion RSL last year earned him callups to the January and February camps; were his innocuous performances a function of offseason rust, or a true measure of his capabilities at the international level?
Since then, fans who trumpeted the cause of others have jumped on Gomez & Buddle Bandwagon. Fans and media pundits can focus on who’s playing well right now in their league, which is a neatly confined universe. Bradley’s task is to evaluate their past and present performances, and look into the vastly more daunting dimension of this World Cup: the world’s biggest sporting event that will be played in a Southern Hemisphere winter against fiercer competition and harsher environments than most of his players have ever encountered.
Without that proven international track record, any neophyte is a gamble. A great game, or run of games, in MLS doesn’t make Buddle even a good international player. Has the Gomez of Puebla truly transformed into something special, or is he simply hitting the best form, never to be duplicated, of his club career?
Twenty years ago, an intense public outcry prompted Azeglio Vicini, coach of the Italian national team, to pick a Sicilian striker named Salvatore Schillaci, who'd been banging in goals for Juventus. Schillaci scored on his international debut against Austria in the 1990 World Cup and led the competition with six goals. (Only the USA managed to keep him off the scoresheet.)
It turned out to be the peak of his career. He scored only one more goal for Italy, moved to Inter while battling injuries, and ended his career as the first Italian to play in the J-League (for Jubilo Iwata). Vicini had hit the jackpot on a player in great form, but Schillaci had been scoring in Serie A, not MLS or the Mexican league.
DaMarcus Beasley dazzled at the 2002 World Cup, and three years later, was in outstanding form as PSV Eindhoven lost a tough two-leg semifinal to AC Milan. But he played sparingly for PSV the following season leading up to the 2006 World Cup, and he struggled as the Americans went out after three games. Then-coach Bruce Arena picked Beasley on the basis of what he’d done during the course of his career, not just the last few months, and got burned.
Given the dearth of options, Bradley may well roll the dice on a Buddle or Gomez or Findley or Cunningham. He could also project the brief yet impressive performances of Alejandro Bedoya into the World Cup cauldron and judge him as worthy of a roster spot despite his youth and inexperience. Whatever he decides, he will use his decades of experience and the observations spread across the totality of a player’s career, and not just obsess on the past few months, as others are wont to do.