U.S. Soccer: Qualifying is Just the Start

The team that qualifies for the World Cup isn't the same team that actually goes to the tournament, and there are slots to be filled and problems to be solved before the USA sets up camp in South Africa next year.

At a press conference prior to the Hexagonal finale against Costa Rica in Washington, D.C., U.S. Soccer press officer Michael Kammarman pointed out that in 2009, the USA would play its 21st competitive match, the most ever in a calendar year.

To get through such a daunting schedule of competitive games, Coach Bob Bradley used a lot of players, a few of which clearly improved their World Cup prospects from where they stood last January.

Stuart Holden, Benny Feilhaber and Jay DeMerit are a few who moved up from possibles to probables for the 2010 World Cup.

More changes are likely. Injuries, peaks and dips in form, club situations, and other factors can alter a national team squad between October and early June, when the final roster of 23 must be submitted to FIFA.

Only in the Hexagonal - the six-team, 10-game final round of qualifying - did the Americans play road games in hostile conditions, where nerves and heart and skill can be severely tested, and very different squads were selected for the Gold Cup and Confederations Cup, which are short bursts of intensity that follow somewhat the World Cup format and cycle.

Projecting how the USA will do in the World Cup based on its Hexagonal finish isn't feasible. There's no real correlation between the two; the USA has finished atop the Hexagonal and sputtered in the World Cup, and it has finished mid-pack regionally and gone on to great things globally.

The exhausting grind of 10 Hexagonal matches provide a baseline of the team's current state and a starting point for comparisons to past teams. Assessing strong and weak points at this point provides insight into where changes and improvement may be needed.

TOP GUNS. Their solid performances individually and in tandem this year had virtually secured starting spots up top for Charlie Davies and Jozy Altidore, in spite of their youth. Davies is 23, Altidore turns 20 in November.

But Davies was seriously injured in a car accident on the eve of the USA's final match against Costa Rica. If he recovers to resume his promising career, it will be after next summer's World Cup.

That there is not another forward blessed with Davies' strength, pace, tenacity and nose for goal presents a great challenge for Coach Bradley.

Altidore's youth is a concern. A 20-year-old with limited pro experience is very vulnerable to the harsh treatment and excruciating pressure endured by goalscorers in the cauldron of a World Cup. He will need a partner of poise and savvy as well as pace and range, qualities that rugged yet limited Brian Ching and Conor Casey do not have in abundance. Neither does Kenny Cooper, and so Bradley may have to take another tack, perhaps experiment with Clint Dempsey - whose stints up top have been productive, though he's been starting most games as a wide midfielder - to use his guile and finishing ability as complements to Altidore's power and speed.

In the Hexagonal finale against Costa Rica, Bradley paired Altidore with Casey. Though neither scored, both earned and set up good scoring chances. Altidore floated outside at times, as he did in his final season with the MetroStars when he played some games wide, and thus stretched the back line to create space that Casey and Donovan exploited.

Casey nodded in a header and tucked away a Donovan through ball in the historic 3-2 road win at Honduras that secured qualification and broke his scoring duck as a national teamer after 14 scoreless games.

But Casey scuffed a few good chances against Costa Rica, including a wide-open chance from close range set up by Altidore that he hooked well wide of the top corner. Casey's been banging in goals regularly for the past season and a half in MLS, and could be hard to leave off the World Cup roster, though his touch and pace aren't truly up to international standards. He may be best utilized as an alternative to Altidore rather than a partner.

And if consistent scoring MLS gets you noticed, where does that leave the league's leading goalscorer, Jeff Cunningham, who last played for the USA in 2005?

Though Dempsey can be mis-positioned in midfield and isn't the physical match of Donovan, Casey and Altidore, he's a finisher and clever passer with World Cup - not to mention English Premier League - experience.

No doubt Bradley will tinker with formations and systems and combinations of attackers, but as the team stands, with Davies out, sending out the USA in a 4-4-2 formation against a good team would practically require Dempsey to play one of the forward slots, assuming a wide spot in midfield can be filled by Stuart Holden or somebody else. Another option is Donovan.

CENTER MIX. Central midfield is also short on experience. Unless Pablo Mastroeni resurrects his international career, the USA will head to South Africa without one center mid steeped in a World Cup.

Friendlies and the Confederations Cup have steeled Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark to some extent, but a long-term injury and stiff competition for playing time have stalled the progress of the more physically gifted Maurice Edu of Glasgow Rangers.

Benny Feilhaber and Jose Francisco Torres have flashed some promise in their limited appearances; with the World Cup eight months away, both would be a gamble as a 2010 World Cup starter but excellent prospects for 2014.

Feilhaber started and struggled against Costa Rica, and also worked hard but lost his bearings earlier in the Hexagonal against El Salvador. Steady playing time in Denmark for Aarhus will move him along, and his busyness and energy as well as vision and good feet are obvious attributes.

Torres is even better on the ball, a very calm, composed customer under pressure, and though there are concerns about the physical side of his game he's got a lot of it. Against Costa Rica he seemed better attuned to the differences of playing in the middle for the national team, and out wider for Pachuca in a three-man midfield it often uses.

Much of the U.S. success at the 2002 World Cup stemmed from an ideal meshing of personalities and abilities in central midfielders John O'Brien and Claudio Reyna. The team's troubles in 1998 can be attributed in large part to a shakeup by which Coach Steve Sampson jettisoned captain John Harkes, and redeployed his formation into a 3-6-1 with Brian Maisonneuve and Chad Deering playing centrally.

Germany overran the U.S. in the first game. Sampson dropped the 3-6-1 and made five changes for the second game against Iran, but again the USA floundered in midfield and it never regained the cohesion and chemistry that had steered it through qualifying.

"That was diabolical," says Harkes, who obviously has a personal axe to grind with Sampson but still addresses team issues.

"You can't get to the point you're at playing one way with this set of players, and then just change so much of it going into a World Cup. The teams are too good and the stakes are too high. Sometimes you see a new coach comes in before the World Cup and he changes things and makes it better but that certainly wasn't the case with our team. We weren't a great team but we were good enough to qualify, with a game to spare I believe, playing a certain way and that should count for something."

Referencing the team qualifying in the penultimate game, which it has done in three of the last four Hexagonals, emphasizes the discrepancy between regional play and the big dance. In 2005, the USA thumped Mexico, 2-0, in the seventh of 10 games on its way to finishing tied with Mexico on top of the group, yet it garnered only one point in three 2006 World Cup matches.

Injuries knocked out former international Chris Armas out of the last two World Cups, and as the Davies situation confirms, one injury carries multiple effects. Bradley has options in the middle but his choices could be reduced if Edu can't get playing time once he's healthy.

"You're always trying to make sure you're improving, and the hardest part of it are the injuries," says former international Brian McBride, who played in the last three World Cups. "The first one in my mind is Chris Armas, who was such an integral part of the leadup to '02, and then getting injured, and then the same thing happening in '06.

"Those are the unfortunate situations that you have to overcome, and why the coaches and we as players always have to be working to improve. The World Cup presents challenges you don't see anywhere else. The Hexagonal is just the start."

OPEN QUESTIONS. More often than not, it seems, the USA ends the Hexagonal unsettled in several positions and once again, there's a big question mark at left back, where Jonathan Bornstein got the largest share of playing time. Some minutes were doled out to Heath Pearce and Bocanegra.

DeMerit's emergence as a central defender could prompt the left-back slot to be manned by Bocanegra, where he plays for French club Rennes, but both he and Bradley believe his best spot is inside.

Bornstein's atrocious clearance that led straight to a Salvadoran goal in a game the USA rallied to win, 2-1, didn't deter Bradley from starting him in the final three games. He got caught ball-watching when Bryan Ruiz stung an incredible shot into the top corner for the second Costa Rican goal at RFK.

The good news is he's left-sided, has pace, works hard, runs fast, and as a former attacker can get forward to hit crosses, take the occasional shot, and even head home a stoppage-time equalizer off a corner kick, as he did at RFK.

Pearce did enough this year to stay in contention but a move to MLS (FC Dallas currently) may not raise his stock between now and June. When and if Edgar Castillo, the New Mexico native who has changed allegiances from Mexico to the USA, can get sufficient opportunities to earn a spot may be a function of the limited number of games the Americans are likely to play prior to the World Cup.

The USA will play Denmark in Aarhus Nov. 18, the second date of the last double-fixture window of 2009. Federation officials are working to schedule a game for the Nov. 14 date as well. There is only one international fixture date in 2010, on March 1; other games will likely be played on short preparation, at least until league schedules are completed in the spring.

There may not be many chances for Schalke and former German international midfielder Jermaine Jones, who has completed the paperwork to change allegiances but is sidelined by injury for months, Castillo, and any other darkhorses who may come forth to make a strong case for inclusion.

As per late additions of the past, the overhaul of 1998 also introduced left back David Regis, whose naturalization - by virtue of marrying an American - zipped through the bureaucratic channels in time for him to play just two games for the USA prior to the World Cup. He eventually played 27 U.S. matches, so he wasn't a one-month, stopgap wonder, yet by the time 2002 rolled around, the left-back slot had opened up again.

At the 2002 World Cup, Frankie Hejduk played left back in a four-man defense during group play; the USA changed to a 3-5-2 against Mexico and Germany. He'd been stuck on the bench with his German club, but in 2002 the Gold Cup was played early in the year, and a few solid matches moved him back into the World Cup picture.

When Bradley called Hejduk to the team earlier this year, he set up a goal and scored the equalizer in a 2-2 comeback tie with El Salvador.

But with veteran Steve Cherundolo aiming for his third World Cup, and Jonathan Spector - knocked off the 2006 team by an injury - healthy, right back is already crowded.

Aside from a January training camp and perhaps one or two games in that time frame, the opportunities for players to impress the coaches in matches will be few. Predecessor Bruce Arena didn't solve the left-back issue prior to the 2006 competition; midfielder Eddie Lewis started in 3-0 thumping inflicted by the Czech Republic; Bocanegra played against Italy and Ghana.

Come June, who knows?

"Every Hexagonal is its own adventure," says Hejduk, "and they all end up pretty crazily. This one was intense and I personally thought it would come down to the last game, and I think everyone did. It was an incredible relief to get that result down in Honduras. This one was an intense one, I'll put it that way. You never know when you'll get called in, but that's why you always have to be ready."

(This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.) 



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