[MY VIEW] It's been about a year since the USA closed out the Hexagonal with a spectacular 3-2 win in Honduras that clinched a World Cup slot and a dramatic 2-2 comeback tie with Costa Rica that earned it first place in the six-team group. As the team prepares for its second post-World Cup friendly, a match Saturday (8 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel) against Poland at Soldier Field in Chicago, the evaluation of talent for the cycle leading up to the next World Cup is underway. Compared to what Bob Bradley had a year ago, does the pool of potential players look better or worse?
Bradley has picked 18 European-based players for this game; Brek Shea and Heath Pearce of FC Dallas will join the team in time for a Tuesday match against Colombia. Aside from Landon Donovan, most of the principals from the 2010 team are in Chicago, and in a few cases they personify the difference between October, 2009, and the present.
The Hexagonal itself may be history; a revamped Concacaf qualifying format has been proposed that would consist of smaller groups. This would not only eliminate the Hexagonal, it could also abolish the home-and-away matches between the USA and Mexico that have defined the region’s bitterest rivalry. While that would deprive fans, sponsors, and television viewers of two sensational events, those games are not critical tests in the development of players.
Stuart Holden, for example, is best served by playing regularly for Bolton in the Premier League, whether or not he plays at Azteca Stadium in the next four years. The 2014 prospects of Alejandro Bedoya can be improved only minutely by wheezing and coughing in the smog-choked altitude of Mexico City. Jozy Altidore’s stagnation at Villarreal could persist no matter how many goals he scores against Mexico, or any other Concacaf team.
In the Hexagonal leading up to the 2006 World Cup, Revs’ midfielder Steve Ralston scored the goal in Columbus that beat Mexico and clinched a spot in the World Cup. He didn’t make the squad for Germany. Michael Bradley scored both goals in the 2-0 home win over Mexico last year, and Charlie Davies notched an historic goal in Azteca that didn’t stand up in a 2-1 loss, yet their performance in Europe – for Borussia Moenchengladbach and Sochaux, respectively -- did far more to further their careers.
A game against Mexico will always be a memorable occasion, but its competitive value on the international scale is grossly overhyped.
THEN AND NOW. Last October, both Davies and Oguchi Onyewu suffered long-term injuries. Their situations a year later are worse. Davies, seriously injured in a car accident, is playing in reserve games and could be ready for first-team selection in a week or two, but probably won’t be recalled to the national team until next year. Onyewu, injured playing against Costa Rica, healed in time to play in the first two World Cup games, but struggled badly and was benched. He’s back on the bench at Milan, as well, and is being closely watched by Bradley in training to assess his readiness.
If the USA had some depth and emerging young talent up front and in the back line, the clouds surrounding Davies and Onyewu wouldn’t be terribly troublesome. As the team currently stands, those are two large holes to be filled.
Of the forwards picked for the next two games, Clint Dempsey is doing great for Fulham. Otherwise, club teammate Eddie Johnson is back on the radar screen, barely, and Altidore’s prospects at Villarreal are grim. Among those not summoned this week, Edson Buddle and Conor Casey are already 29, and though Robbie Findley is just 25, he disappointed in South Africa. If he goes overseas and plays regularly, he can smooth out his flaws. Herculez Gomez (28) is a longshot; Marcus Tracy (24) is just getting his national-team career started.
The outlook is somewhat better on the back line, and it better be, since all – except for Onyewu and Jonathan Bornstein -- of the 2010 regulars will be at least 35 in 2014. A move to Saint-Etienne has worked out great, so far, for the French team and U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra, and Steve Cherundolo is still going strong at Hannover, but they are among those on the old side.
Jonathan Spector (24) didn’t see any time at the World Cup and has dropped down the depth chart at West Ham. Clarence Goodson (28) plays regularly for IK Start and probably can’t progress significantly without a move to a bigger club and/or league. Heath Pearce (26) has come back to MLS with FC Dallas and is getting the regular playing time he didn’t always get in Europe. Eric Lichaj (21) is nearing a critical phase in his development and has to establish himself at Aston Villa or look to move on.
Omar Gonzalez (21), Kevin Alston (22), and rookie Tim Ream (23) headline a fleet of young MLS defenders Bradley will summon at some point. Chad Marshall (26) hasn’t been able to establish himself in the U.S. pool, Edgar Castillo (24) has speed that might be better utilized in midfield, and Frank Simek (25) is finally playing regularly but in League One (third division) with Carlisle United (England).
In the midfield, the Americans are better than they were a year ago. Bradley (23), Bedoya (23), Holden (25), Benny Feilhaber (25) and Maurice Edu (24) give the U.S. a strong core and a wide range of qualities. Bob Bradley has also called up Jermaine Jones, though his chances for 2014 – when he will be 33 – are slim.
Of those not selected for the Poland game, Ricardo Clark (27) suffered through some rough stretches in South Africa but can’t be counted out just yet, and the skill and poise of Jose Francisco Torres (22) can only increase. Crew midfielder Robbie Rogers (23) has a ways to go, though his corner kick set up Bornstein for the stoppage-time equalizer a year ago against Costa Rica. But for him, like many players in the pool, the fact only four players currently with MLS teams made the 2010 team can't be ignored.
If Tim Howard retains his powers as goalkeepers often do, at age 35 in 2014 he should be more than capable. Yet a few alternatives to Brad Guzan (26), who is still stuck on the bench at Aston Villa, would brighten the picture in goal.