BRISTOL, Conn. – The United States national team coaching staff knows MLS well. It just doesn't trust its current crop of players at the highest level.
Few groups can boast this staff's breadth and depth of knowledge of the American top flight. U.S. coach Bob Bradley includes 124 MLS wins and one MLS Cup title on his resume. Assistant coaches Lubos Kubik, Jesse Marsch and Mike Sorber excelled in the league at various points over the past 15 years, with Marsch adding contemporary intelligence after ending his career this winter. Throw in the significant number of matches viewed on tape and in person over the past few seasons and there isn't much the four coaches don't know about the league in its past or in its present.
Bradley relied those findings to invite nine MLS players into a 30-man training camp to compete for a spot in the final 23-man roster. Six of those players took the field in Tuesday's 4-2 friendly defeat to the Czech Republic in a last ditch effort to make the World Cup roster.
When the U.S. revealed its squad on Wednesday afternoon, only four MLS players made the final cut. The meager allotment isn't particularly surprising given the proliferation of foreign-based options and the systematic exportation of MLS luminaries over the past few years, but the projected roles of the four players reveals a deeper concern.
Aside from the talismanic presence of Landon Donovan among the quartet, the MLS players will likely fill peripheral roles off the bench in South Africa. Edson Buddle offers a physical presence up front, Robbie Findley provides the defense-stretching speed lost in Charlie Davies' absence and Jonathan Bornstein supplies the necessary cover at left back. With the niche roles pegged for three of the four players, there is a very real chance that Donovan could stand alone as the sole MLS contributor to the American World Cup efforts.
The paucity of MLS stars involved represents a marked change from the previous World Cup squads in the MLS era. All three of those delegations – 1998 (16), 2002 (11) and 2006 (11) – included a double-digit player contribution from the U.S. first division.
MLS will undoubtedly point to the 13 former domestic players in the squad to suggest its role in developing top-notch talent played a part in its reduced presence in South Africa. While the contention deserves strong consideration because of the success MLS players have enjoyed in rigorous European leagues, it does not obscure the fact that Bradley and his staff passed over several MLS Best XI-caliber talents to fill out a roster few would indicate is particularly deep for the highest levels of international football. In the face of increased competition for places, the current MLS candidates did not meet the required standard.
The talent produced and retained domestically, at least on this evidence, doesn't quite match the offerings in previous World Cup cycles. Given the exodus over the past few years and the offseason departures of former Houston stars Ricardo Clark and Stuart Holden, it's hard to expect MLS to produce a corresponding number of players to fill the talent vacuum. That fact, however, does not diminish the disappointment of the modest contribution after years of supplying integral players to the American World Cup efforts.
The key for increasing the MLS presence in time for Brazil in 2014 rests with finding a way to wade through the expansion-imposed dilution to increase the level of play and restore the talent pipeline. Until MLS can accomplish those goals, the league may have to remain content with cheering on its alums and offering a smattering of players to the national side.
With the more global findings on the MLS influence on this roster dispensed, here are a few more specific notes on a few of the MLS players involved in the roster unveiling:
Ching's dismissal prompted by injury and form: Few observers expected Bradley to leave veteran target man Brian Ching off the roster because of his unique ability to facilitate play and serve as the counterattacking hub with his hold-up play. Bradley confounded the so-called conventional wisdom by omitting Ching and keeping the inexperienced trio of Buddle, Findley and Herculez Gomez as his reserve forwards.
Ching's recent recovery from a left hamstring injury and his 28 minutes of MLS action since April 1 seemed to tip the scales against him when compared with the claims of the in-form Buddle, his closest like-for-like competitor for a spot up front.
“Plain and simple, Edson and Herculez have had real good stretches and scored a lot of goals,” Bradley said. “Brian has been such an important player, but it’s tough when you have an injury at an inopportune time.”
Dropping Ching places pressure on Bradley to find a reliable option to perform in a target role, particularly in the event the U.S. needs to kill off a game. Clint Dempsey probably makes the most sense with his ability to keep the ball and solicit fouls, while Buddle will have to significantly improve his buildup work in order to vie for minutes in a similar role.
Buddle leans on confidence and positive attitude to seal World Cup spot: Improvement isn't a foreign concept for Buddle based on recent evidence. After scoring five goals in 23 injury-plagued matches in 2009, the Los Angeles forward vaulted into national team contention by notching nine goals in as many matches to start 2010.
“I've had a lot of ups and downs in my career,” Buddle said. “I just tried to stay positive so I could maximize my potential as a soccer player. By doing that, this opportunity came around at the right time. Health is a big part of it.”
Buddle helped his case by shaking off those persistent injury concerns and forming a potent attacking partnership with American attacking fulcrum Donovan. The burgeoning relationship between the duo may have helped Buddle earn his first national team look since his lone cap as a substitute in a 2003 friendly, but Donovan said Buddle showed he deserved his World Cup opportunity.
“It's possibly helped Edson get into camp,” Donovan said. “Once you're here, you have to do it for yourself and you have to earn it. Believe me, Bob doesn't name people on the roster just to name them. Everybody who is on this team deserves to be.”
After scoring goals for the Galaxy and distinguishing himself in other facets of the game during the training camp held in Princeton, N.J. last week, Buddle believes he has earned his place in the American squad.
“I'm not intimidated by being here,” Buddle said. “I would say that I feel like I should be here. Not once in the camp did I feel like I was out of place, even though the fitness [work] was pretty hard. On the field, I felt comfortable. I was able to push, stay positive and do some of the little things that he likes.”
Findley survives lineup omission to make roster: While Buddle enjoyed one last chance to impress Bradley on Tuesday night, Findley remained rooted to the bench wondering whether his World Cup chances were finished.
“There were only two things: I was either staying or I was going,” Findley said. “I felt like I did what I could do during training and during the camp to give myself an opportunity. It was out of my hands at that time.”
It was out of Findley's base of knowledge, too. Bradley didn't tip his hand until the wee hours of Wednesday morning, so the Real Salt Lake striker spent a few agonizing hours contemplating his future as the team returned to its hotel to consume a late-night dinner. Fortunately for the speedy striker, the final decision went his way.
“I really didn't know what to think,” Findley said. “I was a little bit discouraged, but then again, it could have been a good thing. There were a whole bunch of thoughts going through my head. It turned out the way I wanted it.”
A pair of roster-related MLS stats: Los Angeles is the only team to send a player to all four World Cups in the MLS era after Colorado, D.C. United, Kansas City and New England missed out this time around, according to Climbing the Ladder, a statistically-focused MLS blog. … FC Dallas, Philadelphia, Seattle and Toronto are the only MLS clubs to never send a rostered player to the World Cup.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSnet.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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