A year out from the World Cup, then and now

By Ridge Mahoney

The 2014 World Cup is about a year away. How does the U.S. team compare to its counterpart four years ago?

At this stage of the 2009 Hexagonal, the Americans had the same number of points, 10, that they do now. Crammed in between the fifth and sixth Hexagonal games were the Confederations Cup and Gold Cup. It made for an extremely busy year: in 2009, the U.S. team played 24 games, the most since U.S. Soccer employed players full time in 1993 (34 games) and 1994 (27 games).

The 2013 Gold Cup will commence in about three weeks and there’s considerable interest in which players head coach Jurgen Klinsmann takes from the 35-man preliminary roster announced May 31. Veterans Oguchi Onyewu, Carlos Bocanegra and, of course, Landon Donovan highlight what in the past few editions was more of a "B" team but this time around could include a few "A"-listers as well.

So a year out from the 2014 World Cup, is the U.S. better or worse than a year prior to the 2010 competition? This is not a comparison of the current team to the 2010 World Cup squad, but rather the national team pool that eventually topped the Hexagonal, finished second in the Confederations Cup, and lost to Mexico in the Gold Cup final.

GOALKEEPERS, THEN AND NOW. Not much has changed, at least at the top. Tim Howard, 34, has a lot more Premier League seasoning, and while his occasional gaffes inevitably prompt calls for a change, he’s the top dog. A very good season for Aston Villa and added experience does strengthen the No. 2 slot, and thus Brad Guzan is much better prepared to step in if necessary. The probable No. 3, Nick Rimando, is the same age as Howard and doesn’t seem to have lost any of his bounce nor exuberance.

Better or worse than in 2009? Better.

DEFENDERS, THEN. Bocanegra, in his second season in France with Rennes, was still toggling between left back and center back. Onyewu was at the top of his game, and Jay DeMerit had been playing for years in England and led Watford into the Premier League with a storybook goal at Wembley in the playoff finale. Left back was a problem spot; the much-maligned Jonathan Bornstein was beset by critics and challengers (though he did eventually play well at the 2010 World Cup). Right back Steve Cherundolo, the longest-serving U.S. player in a European league, was joined in the outside slots by Jonathan Spector, Heath Pearce and Michael Parkhurst. (Just a point of reference, a guy named Brad Evans played three games in 2009. Wonder what happened to him?)

DEFENDERS, NOW. There’s great potential in Omar Gonzalez, but his instincts at the international level have not yet matched his amazing physical attributes. Matt Besler is emerging as a steady, reliable defensive pillar who can be counted on. Cherundolo, another member of the 34 Club, hasn’t played for the SA yet this year, and behind him are Evans, Timmy Chandler and maybe Eric Lichaj. Likewise on the left, the ascent of DaMarcus Beasley is encouraging but not definitive, and Fabian Johnson and Chandler are among the alternatives. Geoff Cameron is also in the mix at right back or centerback as well as midfield.

Better or worse than in 2009? Worse.

MIDFIELDERS, THEN. The midfield mainstays for the World Cup qualifiers were Michael Bradley, Ricardo Clark, Donovan and Beasley though both Donovan and Clint Dempsey played forward as well. Pablo Mastroeni was still in the mix, as were Eddie Lewis, Maurice Edu and Sacha Kljestan. Though they didn’t play in many qualifiers, Stuart Holden (11 games) and Robbie Rogers (nine games) were pretty busy in 2009. Then-coach Bob Bradley played myriad midfield combinations with undulating success.

MIDFIELDERS, NOW. Uncertainty over Donovan’s future clouds the prospects in midfield, though the ascendancy of Bradley, improvement by Graham Zusi, recent play by Fabian Johnson on the left side and big-game prowess of Dempsey are major pluses. So, too, is the recent play of Jermaine Jones, whose propensity for cautions appears to be a chronic problem Klinsmann is willing to live with. And as for Eddie Johnson, it ain't broke, so .....

The return to health of Holden and emergence of Joe Corona are also encouraging, but what’s the long-term future of Jose Torres, Edgar Castillo, Brek Shea, Brad Davis, Edu and Kljestan? Will this be Donovan’s position if he gets out of Klinsmann’s doghouse? Danny Williams showed a lot of promise in 2012 but this year has played only one game and was dismissed from the current camp for lack of fitness.

Better or worse than in 2009? Better.

FORWARDS, THEN. Since debuting for the national team against China in 2007, Charlie Davies had grown in strength and confidence. His scrappy goal that triggered the 3-0 defeat of Egypt in the Confederations Cup personified determination, and being paired with a 19-year old Jozy Altidore or Donovan or Conor Casey offered lots of possibilities. This wasn’t the best phase of Eddie Johnson’s career, Freddy Adu had stagnated, and Brian Ching and Kenny Cooper were fringe players at this level.

FORWARDS, NOW. Altidore has only recently translated his club success into national-team production, yet his ability to hold up balls and battle center backs are valuable assets. He’s on the upswing. Finding a reliable partner for him among Herculez Gomez, Terrence Boyd and Eddie Johnson hasn’t happened, and none of them has the skill set of Dempsey, so deploying Dempsey in the hole seems the wisest move.

Better or worse than in 2009? Worse.
5 comments about "A year out from the World Cup, then and now".
  1. Joy Hottington, June 17, 2013 at 10:13 a.m.

    Sorry, how is the forward situation worse again? I don't believe it is. Altidore is a huge upgrade over himself in 2009. Dempsey is also better. Gomez is stronger than Casey was. The only difference is Davies. I don't think we are worse off on the forward line. I agree with the other assessments though.

  2. Allan Lindh, June 17, 2013 at 1:17 p.m.

    I agree about the forwards, we were very limited then, a little less limited now. Altidore was a boy with promise then, he's a man now. And Dempsey withdrawn into hole is better.

    In the midfield we are stronger now, no doubt. But in the end the Beautiful Game requires magic feet, and back then we had Donovan and Holden, both of whom sometimes have game. Now we have -- Donovan(?) and Holden(?) -- this is an improvement? How about trying a couple of the mids from the U-20 team in the Gold Cup if we exit early in Turkey?

  3. Chris Sapien , June 17, 2013 at 2:15 p.m.

    Magic feet or not, I'll take an attacking Bradley and a strong tackling roughrider, Jones, up the middle, over a "look to pass first" Donovan and a diminuitive coming back from injury Holden.......Agree otherwise with both of you on the forwards.....

  4. Robert Heinrich, June 17, 2013 at 7:29 p.m.

    While I agree that Altidore is starting to fulfill some of the early promise, I think Davies was a huge loss in terms of speed. His presence opened up a lot of space. Who do we have who can really threaten to get in behind opposing teams' backlines? Midfield is much better. We can hold the ball and there's been more consistent combination play. I suppose that's where the goals may come from. The back line is a real mess. I hope these guys are fast learners.

  5. tupac jawandor, June 17, 2013 at 9:28 p.m.

    To be honest the wisest move is to bring Charlie Davies back with the team. Us U.S. fans know the best partnership up top was Charlie Davies & Jozy altidore. Jozy hasnt been the same zince charlie got seriously Injured. It's not fair for Charlie to not have a chance thus far since his injury. We need him along with Donovan!!

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