By Ridge Mahoney
When quizzed by journalists regarding the decision by head coach Jurgen Klinsmann to drop Landon Donovan from the World Cup roster, the subject of taking untested younger players also came up.
The wisdom of selecting players like DeAndre Yedlin (20) and Julian Green (19), for example, has been debated for decades. Every cycle of roster selection has included the principle of taking young players unlikely to play just so they can sample the experience. Green and Yedlin are not necessarily just on the plane to soak in the sensations, since not many people believe the USA roster is strong enough to afford such a luxury.
“The group is really young,” said midfielder Jermaine Jones, 33. “I was in the Gold Cup team and there was like Carlos [Bocanegra] and the older players. This group is a young group and maybe this group is not only the group for this World Cup but they have for the next years so they can say they have a small group of a very good national team.”
Other nations have often used a roster spot or two to further groom a young player. One of the most extreme examples came during World Cup 1994, when the roster of world champion Brazil included a powerful, buck-toothed 17-year-old listed as Ronaldo, who didn’t play a minute in that competition yet in the next three set an all-time record by scoring 15 World Cup goals.
Former USA head coach Bruce Arena didn’t take a bold step by naming Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, both 20 at the time, to the 2002 World Cup team. He believed they could contribute and both had already proven themselves at the pro level. In picking them, he also added to the mix of youth and experience that every head coach prefers.
As a rookie the year before, Donovan had helped San Jose win the MLS Cup title, and in October 2000 -- while playing for Bayern Leverkusen’s second team – he scored on his debut against Mexico. Beasley debuted for the Fire in 2000 and was a regular by the following season. Yet despite their presence, the average age of players on the 2002 USA roster was 28.9, the oldest such figure since the country got back to the World Cup in 1990 after a 40-year absence.
(To simplify the math for the following calculations only a player’s birth year, not the actual birth date, is used. Thus Graham Zusi, who will be 27 when the tournament is played, is counted as 28 because he was born in 1990.)
Average age of USA World Cup rosters:
1990: 24.1. Range of ages: 21-28.
1994: 25.6. Range of ages: 21-38.
1998: 28.5. Range of ages: 24-37.
2002: 28.9. Range of ages: 20-34.
2006: 27.2. Range of ages: 22-34.
2010: 27.4. Range of ages: 21-38.
2014: 26.3. Range of ages: 19-35.
The youth and inexperience of the 1990 team rendered the Americans extremely vulnerable though they did battle heroically in a 1-0 loss to host Italy. Former Indiana University star John Stollmeyer, who like many teammates was playing a lot of indoor soccer at the time, was the oldest player on the team at age 27, which is an average figure for many teams at a World Cup.
The old man on the 1994 team? Defender Fernando Clavijo. If you don’t recall, he played pretty well. Thomas Dooley wasn’t embarrassed at age 36 in 1998, either.
Goalkeeper ages sometimes tilt the average a bit high, and on the 2014 roster both starter Tim Howard and backup Nick Rimando are 35. Yet they are not at one end of the extreme all by their lonesome. Jones is next at 33, Beasley and Kyle Beckerman are 32 this year.
Marcus Hahnemann, who is still active, was 38 when named to the 2010 roster. Kasey Keller topped the 2006 roster at 36; he was not yet 21 when he went to Italy in 1990.
At age 19, Chris Henderson made the 1990 team without playing in the competition.
The average age of a team’s World Cup roster is always cited and discussed but as the players pointed out last Friday, it’s the blend that counts most. A team that is too young doesn’t have enough experience at the pro level, a team that is too old will run out of gas.
Donovan’s exclusion deprives the team of a three-time World Cup veteran and leaves just five players who have stepped on the field. Yet Michael Bradley, who first encountered the pressure and intensity four years ago at age 22, doesn’t regard his background as irreplaceable.
“I think it’s important in any team to have guys who have been there and guys who have experienced playing in the World Cup,” he said. “But I can speak from my own personal experience in 2010 in South Africa it wasn’t like you’re running around on the field thinking, ‘I’ve never been in a World Cup, this is all new to me.’
“I also look at it from the other standpoint, to have some younger guys, to have some guys who almost aren’t even kind of really understanding what it’s all about yet, and kind of use the enthusiasm and excitement and push the group on in that way. That helps. In any team you want to have balance and I think we have that.”