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Sharp form of unproven players complicates U.S. World Cup prep
by Ridge Mahoney, April 23rd, 2010 4:20PM

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TAGS:  men's national team, mls, world cup

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[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.



0 comments
  1. John Hofmann
    commented on: April 24, 2010 at 12:22 p.m.
    Ridge, apparently per other analyses of Hercules and Buddle over the past couple of weeks, there is a special factor in each case that makes more of a case for them, as opposed to simply they being "in form". Reportedly Hercules has been playing out of what he feels in his natural position, for a number of years including in MLS, and his recent 'hot streak' coincided when he was put back at what had been his natural forward spot. With Buddle, the reports about it seem to indicate that he may finally, at age 29, have matured enough to go beyond trying to get by on just natural talent. Reportedly he spent the entire off-season conditioning and working on form, something apparently out-of-character for him previously, and his early season MLS experience may well simply be reflecting the fact that he's recently put in the type of effort required to excel in top-flight soccer, notwithstanding natural talent. At think these reasons, not the fact that they have been on hot streaks, are the basis for bringing them both into national team camp and given them a serious look at.

  1. Mike Gaynes
    commented on: April 24, 2010 at 1:10 p.m.
    I must admit that I don't understand all the angst and speculation about the health of Ching and Davies. The painful fact is that both are irrelevant to the US chances of success at the World Cup, because neither is remotely a world-class striker even in top form. Ching is a rugged warrior, but he has scored only 11 goals in 44 US appearances, and none of them -- not one -- was against quality competition. Ching has netted only against minnows like Barbados, El Salvador and Trinidad/Tobago. And Davies has scored only four in 17 full internationals and is just 5-for-33 in US colors if you count U-20 and U-23 appearances as well. He's a hapless finisher even when healthy, which he won't be in time for the World Cup. Ching's leadership and Davies' speed may be valued intangibles, but the measure of a striker is putting the ball in the net. To me, it's not even a matter of league form. Gomez and Buddle are simply far superior players.

  1. Kevin Kilpatrick
    commented on: April 24, 2010 at 7:24 p.m.
    Excellent article. I do not Envy Coach Bradley. I would give Gomez the chance. Buddle i am not sure. I am a Galaxy season ticket holder and spent last season wondering why Buddle was on the field? This season I am wonder who this guy is. THe ball still dies with him most of the time , but he is finishing his chances. Much more than last year. He has the physical capabilities of a striker but is he World Cup level? Only one way to find out. Would I bey my career on it? No for Buddle, Findlay, or Cunningham. Maybe for Casey or Kenny Cooper, Yes for Gomez!

  1. Kent James
    commented on: April 26, 2010 at 9:42 a.m.
    Bradley does have a tough job, and the previous posters have made good points. One additional factor is how these players fit with their teammates. Since Donovan is probably the most important American offensive player, if he and Buddle have been able to connect well on the field, that might be a factor that would warrant his inclusion.


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