After winning the Gold Cup, the U.S. conceded 13 goals while losing five straight games in the Copa America and against Sweden and Brazil in friendlies. Yet the defeats did serve the purposes of Coach Bob Bradley, who is testing veterans as well as young players to upgrade the backline.
Defending is about far more than defenders, especially in the modern game, where commitment to tackling and tracking is often assigned to forwards and midfielders as much as the men in the back.
Still, as often as not, a game depends on a defender making the crucial tackle, or running down a speedy forward breaking clear, or clearing a wickedly bouncing ball with an attacker crashing the goalmouth. In a congested attacking zone, the opportunities for crosses may fall to the outside backs. They are vital figures on set plays, either shutting down the opponent or heading on the opposition goal.
In the 16 matches played this year, Coach Bob Bradley has used 19 defenders. Some were strictly stand-ins, such as Houston captain Wade Barrett and D.C. United's Josh Gros and eventually age may rule out players like Frankie Hejduk (who will be 33 in 2010) as Bradley narrows his choices for the next World Cup.
LEANING LEFT. Just at left back, Bradley has tough decisions. So desperate was the U.S. for a left back at the 2006 World Cup former head coach Bruce Arena sent out midfielder Eddie Lewis for the opening game against the Czech Republic and he was caught upfield when the Czechs scored in the fifth minute. Carlos Bocanegra took over against Italy and Ghana.
Jonathan Spector is more comfortable on the right, but is it better to play him on the left and, say, Steve Cherundolo at right back to make for a stronger unit? Jonathan Bornstein has good speed, can run all day and is dangerous getting forward, but is he rugged and smart enough to take care of the defensive duties? Will Heath Pearce's move to the Bundesliga (Hansa Rostock) be a platform for regular national team duty?
Pearce's two U.S. games this year weren't easy assignments: 1-0 loss to Colombia in the final Copa America match, and a 4-2 defeat against Brazil at Soldier Field. He came into the January training camp leading up to the 2006 World Cup and despite not making that squad did play four matches last year.
Projecting who will progress faster - Bornstein playing regularly for one of the best teams in MLS (Chivas USA), or Pearce on a team destined to battle against relegation - is one of those nettlesome coaching decisions. Bornstein proved his quality, and also showed his shortcomings, in the Gold Cup and the Copa America. Pearce is behind him on the depth chart yet will get more looks to monitor his progress.
"We have had Heath in a few camps," says Bradley. "We are just trying to continue to push him in his ability to close down a little bit faster, to be a little bit harder to play against. He can be effective at times going forward and recovering a little faster. When he gets the ball and has a little bit of time, his passing is OK.
"Like many of our players, it's just, can everything get a bit better? That's what we talk about with all our players."
Spector, who was converted from forward to defender by former U.S. under-17 coach John Ellinger, has played in the middle as well as at both outside slots. Last season he help West Ham escape relegation.
"I played mostly right back this season," said Spector prior to the Gold Cup, " and at different times, the entire back four. That's been great for me, to be able to play along the back four. It opens up a lot of opportunities for me.
"At my age, it's great to play that number of games in the Premiership, and because I've been able to play so many positions, it's been a big help for me personally."
He and Bradley know each other well from Bradley's stint coaching the Fire; Spector and Bradley's son Michael, youth club teammates, often attended Fire training sessions. Michael started off in MLS and played for the MetroStars before heading off to Dutch club Heerenveen; Spector bounced to Charlton Athletic on loan from Manchester United before sealing a deal at West Ham.
"I played with Michael with the Chicago Sockers, we went to the same high school, and then we were in the residency program together, so we've known the family for quite some time," says Spector. "The great thing about Bob is how clearly he gets his points across. There's a structure to things and you know exactly what he wants and what he expects. It's difficult to get across in such a short period of time as well. Sometimes you come into the national team and you're together five days at most. You play a friendly and you're back to your club. It's important that the communication is there and that's definitely one of his strong suits."
CENTRAL THEMES. Communication confusion has afflicted the central duo of Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu, which has been used most often in 2007, because Jimmy Conrad missed the Gold Cup with a fractured jaw. Sooner or later, Bradley must decide if costly errors can be significantly reduced, especially in the case of Onyewu.
A central defensive pair must not only win individual duels when squaring off against an opponent but also work in tandem: shifting and moving together as they press up, or sliding laterally or dropping back, pouncing on knockdowns and second balls, and covering when the other is beaten.
"This week helped us a lot, working in training, every day," said Bocanegra of the camp leading up to the Brazil game. "Today I thought we were good together with our line and our communication. Sometimes it's difficult with one forward [Afonso] up there, both of us think the other is taking care of him. 'You have him.' 'No, you have him.' I thought we did good with that today and stepping up. We're definitely becoming more comfortable."
Accurate balls played over the top to speedy strikers will test the best central defenders but squelching dangerous situations when the back line is breached is something the U.S. hasn't always accomplished. Against Mexico in the Gold Cup final, and several times in the Copa America, one breakdown led to a total collapse, and eventually, a goal.
Against Sweden, the American defenders couldn't contain Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Kim Kallstrom ran the midfield. In its 4-2 win, Brazil swept downfield a few times with some amazing interchanging sequences, one of which produced an unfortunate Onyewu own goal after an excellent Tim Howard save, yet Brazil scored its other three goals on set plays: a Lucio header on a corner kick, a Ronaldinho free kick after a questionable foul call on Bocanegra, and a penalty kick whistled when Michael Bradley grabbed Julio Baptista in the penalty area.
"There's always somebody in the right space and they stretch you out," said Bocanegra after the Brazil match. "You really have to concentrate for the entire game, which is difficult, because they have such good vision and they're such good passers so any time you switch off, they just dink one over you and they're in.
"We didn't play bad. We made a few little mistakes and they punished us. But we can take a lot out of this game and move forward."
Jay DeMerit, who spent a few summers in Chicago during his college career to refine his game, attended training camp for the Brazil game but didn't play. He had replaced Bocanegra for the final 14 minutes of the Sweden game and played against Argentina and Colombia at the Copa America. He ranks in the second tier of central defenders with MLS products Bobby Boswell and Michael Parkhurst and ex-Galaxy defender Danny Califf, who is in Denmark playing for Aalborg.
Said Bradley of the Sweden and Brazil performances, "The Sweden game, the first half was a solid enough effort. Second half was not good. Today [against Brazil], we were pretty solid for 90 minutes.
"When you play against Brazil, there's Afonso, Kaka, Ronaldinho, Robinho. The way those four move around and, at the right times, the way Maicon and Gilberto come forward, your challenge is to keep track of a lot of things at the same time. It's a little bit like the shell game; they keep moving things around and they wait for you to go for the wrong shell.
"I use the expression, radar screen, where you have to keep track of a lot of things. I thought in those ways we did a pretty good job."
RIGHT-SIDE ROLES. Cherundolo did a good job against Brazil, beyond setting up Clint Dempsey for the second U.S. goal by cutting a ball back from the byline after he'd been played into space by Landon Donovan.
Counting the Brazilian substitutes, Cherundolo faced a half-dozen players on his flank and won more than his share of duels. Onyewu's own goal came on the rebound of a ball Kaka shot from Cherundolo's neighborhood, but that attack caught most of the Americans out of position, not just the defenders.
Also called into camp for the Brazil game but staying on the bench was Frankie Simek. Like DeMerit at Watford, he plays in the League Championship (English second division) with Sheffield Wednesday.
Simek started against Trinidad & Tobago, and twice came on as a sub, in the Gold Cup. He replaced Spector in the Gold Cup final for the last 18 minutes after a midfield collision left Spector concussed and for the most part shored up the right side. In friendlies against Guatemala and China earlier in the year he showed a propensity to get forward.
Bradley has more choices at right back than on the left side: Chris Albright (Galaxy) should be healthy by October; Hejduk (Crew) outshone many of his teammates at the Gold Cup; Drew Moor (FC Dallas) played two games at the Copa America in relief of Marvell Wynne (Toronto FC), who endured a rough first cap against Argentina. Yet at this point, Cherundolo - who also played the full 90 minutes against Sweden - and Spector are well ahead of the others, pending Albright's return to fitness. Spector is bigger and stronger, but has less experience. Physically, Albright is a hybrid of the two - a good crosser who is also strong and tough in the air - but playing in MLS limits his room for development at age 28.
Wynne's amazing physical prowess has yet to be imbued with the skill and savvy necessary to play for the national team consistently, but as a member of the U.S. Olympic pool, he can test himself at a step below the full team. Moor, too, faces a long path to the national team level but possesses good soccer instincts.
"I still feel eight months into this cycle we are a work-in-progress," says Bradley. "What we talked about lately was that we had a very good month throughout the Gold Cup. There were a lot of positives, ending with a successful defense of our title.
"But now to take the foundation that works in a tournament like the Gold Cup and make it better and stronger when we play in Europe, against Sweden or soon, Switzerland, or big teams down the road, or when you play against teams like Brazil, that's what we need to focus on."
(This article originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of Soccer America magazine.)