Does the U.S. roster have the right blend?

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.”

13 comments about "Does the U.S. roster have the right blend?".
  1. beautiful game, May 27, 2014 at 10:42 a.m.

    Even coach K isn't sure about the blend, but his reliance on player stats made up his mind. Just to clarify about the stats, mental toughness, conditioning, skills, efficacy, and team concept.

  2. Ramon Creager, May 27, 2014 at 12:15 p.m.

    Teams like Brazil can afford to take a youngster like Ronaldo along for the experience (and Ronaldo even then was probably a fine player). They are stacked. And when The Bruce took Donovan he wasn't reaching. As mentioned, Donovan, while young, had just helped a professional team win a league title. This team on the other hand is thin, and I don't see Green or Yedlin as anything like what Donovan was at their age. Of course Brandley would say what he said, what else can he say? But not taking Donovan is too much of a sacrifice and cannot be justified when Green and Yedlin go along for the ride.

  3. Molly Wilsbacher, May 27, 2014 at 1:35 p.m.

    I'm tired of all articles about leaving Landon off the roster. What has he done recently? What about the games that were played last year? Gold Cup final, 1-0 against Costa Rica, and 2-0 against Mexico? Clarence Goodson played all of those and he was left off the roster too. I also really liked Michael Parkhurst who was also left off. There are other players on the national team that easily could have been left off besides Green and Yedlin. Personally, I'm glad they are in the team.

  4. Molly Wilsbacher, May 27, 2014 at 1:37 p.m.

    I forgot to mention this - wasn't Thomas Mueller only 19 in the last world cup? He won the golden boot for the tournament.

  5. Bruce Moorhead, May 27, 2014 at 3:30 p.m.

    Molly: Goodson has just publicly criticized JK for leaving him off. I think dropping Evans, Goodson and Donovan were three big mistakes we all may regret. I am also fond of Parkhurst.

  6. Mark Hardt, May 27, 2014 at 4:27 p.m.

    Donovan screwed himself by taking the sabbatical. To a workaholic German taking time off is a sign of weakness. So what now? Landon should officially retire from National duty. If he does not Klinsman will just use him in throw away tournaments like the Gold Cup and the Copa America. There is no way he is going to Russia. But he can still play. He should burnish the rest of his resume. The big hole is playing in Europe. With out national duty he can play every single winter break in the premier league for Everton or wherever David Moyes ends up.

  7. beautiful game, May 27, 2014 at 4:27 p.m.

    You bloggers sound more and more like MLS TV commentator Brian Dunseth.

  8. Andrea Hana, May 27, 2014 at 4:28 p.m.

    Ric Fonseca, Yes! I agree! Molly Wilsbacher, likewise! If you want to be in the World Cup, bring the stuff BEFORE they make the cut.

  9. beautiful game, May 27, 2014 at 5:42 p.m.

    Ric F, I watched that Galaxy v Union game; the Union squad was pathetic; and overall, the Galaxy performance was so-so. Can't say much about the TV commentary, which was so winded with so much yada-yada that it became painful. Colby Jones was a solid player, but behind the mike, he's terrible; his side-kick is soccer brain dead.

  10. Stuart d. Warner, May 27, 2014 at 7:01 p.m.

    Molly W. asks what about the games that were played last year. Well, September 10, 2013, USA v Mexico, LD assist on the first goal, and he scored the second. He was also dynamite in the Gold Cup. But if the measure is what he's done most recently, what about Altidore? Here's the question to ask: end of the game and we need a goal for a result--who would one rather have, Davis, Green, or a guy who has done it over and over again? One mark of a great parent, teacher, or coach is the disposition of not measuring the quality of the child, student, or player by whether that person is just like the authority in question.

  11. Bruce Gowan, May 27, 2014 at 8:51 p.m.

    I don't see why US WC history has any relevance to the current team. The US has a pathetic performance history in WC play. I think it would be more valuable to discuss how winning programs manage their team. I am very concerned about all of the MLS players who are on the 23 man roster. I am watching a MLS game right now (SKC vs NY) and it looks nothing like a WC game. I don't see success in MLS as a qualification for WC play. Maybe 2014 is a throwaway year preparing for 2018. The current 30 yr olds will not be there in 2018.

  12. beautiful game, May 29, 2014 at 5:47 p.m.

    Bruce G, you're the only one who has a clear perception of the USMNT & MLS. BTW, the KC v NYRB contest was an exercise in futility with countless turnovers; which the TV commentators call 'interceptions'.

  13. Rick Estupinan, May 31, 2014 at 2:13 p.m.

    Out of the 23 players selected , there is on who does not belong . Altidore , he is is to heavy .When he gets the ball doesn't have the ability to create any danger , let along score . He is a very inept , player , with no talent whatsoever . I just can't believe a coach like Klinsmann does not see this . K Dempsey might not be a world class player but deserves more respect from the coach . In an interview wit a reporter from the Wall Street Journal , Klinsmann trashes Klint so badly that I can't believe he has not said anything about it .

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