Goal.commentary: USA Reality Check

It’s time to take stock of where the real problems are for the U.S. Soccer team.

By Allen Ramsey

One of the great things about Goal.com, for me at least, is that we all get a chance to interact with soccer fans on a regular basis. Through the comments, the forums, and the blog, we get a regular chance to see what soccer fans, both here in the U.S. and our friends from around the world, have to say.

 Reading over the comments about the U.S. team since the beginning of the Confederations Cup has been astounding. There is so much negativity, so much finger pointing, and yet it seems that reality is finally setting in for some people.

 Two thoughts seem to dominate most of the comments. First, the idea that Bob Bradley needs to go seems to be on everyone’s mind. But the one that is starting to catch on, is perhaps a deeper truth that U.S. fans have to take to heart. The U.S. Men’s National Team just isn’t all that talented.

One commenter, Oranjepalooza from So Cal, made this point rather clearly when he said: “Serious question we need to stop and ask ourselves, and probably think before we just emotionally answer....... Are we (the US) really as good as we think we are?”

For years, there’s been this theory that the talent pool is getting deeper, that the U.S. finally has enough players fighting it out in Europe to put a good product on the field. But I just don’t see that as the case. More players are playing in Europe and the domestic league is improving slightly every year, but this has not correlated into more quality players in the pool, just into a higher quantity of players in general.

 In fact, the U.S. National is not as deep now as it was seven years ago. The 2002 World Cup squad boasted a number of qualities that the current edition does not have to offer. For one, the best striker on that team was not an inexperienced 19-year-old. It was Brian McBride, one of the most, if not the most, technically sound strikers the U.S. has ever produced. Behind McBride were more veterans in the form of Clint Mathis and Joe-Max Moore, who reiled on their tactical awareness more than their striking physical attributes the way that Charlie Davies and Jozy Altidore do.

 Compound that with the fact that the midfield in 2002 had Claudio Reyna pulling the strings, and the gap gets wider. There is no Reyna on the current squad. Michael Bradley may be a competent two way player, but a close look at Italy’s first goal- where Bradley was rushing forward to try and find a seam rather than recognizing the immediate danger- and any number of smaller mistakes over the last two matches, and you’ll come to the conclusion that Bradley has not replaced Renya.

 The same can be said all over the field. At only a few positions does the current edition of the USMNT compare to the 2002 squad. Seven years on, and things have not gotten better. In fact, they’ve gotten worse. The holes are glaring, and the fix will not be as simple as many would like to think.

 Reid, a regular Goal.com commenter from the USA summed things up like this. “We've regressed under Bradley. It used to be the signature of the USMNT to be greater than the sum of their parts, but now, even though we have more individually talented players than ever, our team remains sub-par. We used to be able to frustrate teams like Brazil by staying organized and disciplined and outworking them, but yesterday we looked totally lost. Bradley is a decent coach, but to have success on an international stage, we need an outstanding coach!”

 Calls for Bradley’s head have become the rallying cry of U.S. fans during this Confederations Cup run. While I tend to agree with this line of thinking, and have felt this way for awhile, I have to admit that it’s not all the coach’s fault. The list of mistakes from the man in charge is growing longer by the minute, but the thought that Bradley has the most talented group in U.S. history at his disposal is almost laughable. When the talent doesn’t exist, the tactics can only take you so far.

 While I have to agree that the U.S. has always been greater than the sum of its parts, the lack of quality “parts” on this team is amazing upon close examination. There are many ways to view the current squad, but no matter how one tries to glamorize it, certain facts will always remain.

 For starters, the U.S. Confederations Cup roster has exactly four outfield players on it who get any regular run on a team in one of the five biggest leagues in Europe. One of those four hasn’t played a single minute (Carlos Bocanegra) and another fought injuries all year before finding the field a few times in the late stages of the season (Jonathan Spector). Even those who would add Landon Donovan’s short time with Bayern to this list have to face the facts that the number of top flight players on the U.S. roster is absurdly low for any country with aspirations of being a world power.

 The majority of the players on the U.S. roster spend their year playing for lower level clubs in Europe or Major League Soccer teams. Sill others are stuck watching matches for their club teams, never finding the field for any meaningful amounts of time. And yet they are the best this country has to offer.

 Arguments about who should and shouldn’t be on the field happen for every country, but in the U.S. the discussion has gotten absurd. As a whole people want change, yet there is little if any proof that the changes would help at all.

 As Brad from NJ said: “It's time for new midfielders... bring on Adu, Torres etc.. and I don’t want to see Donovan at forward ever again, he plays better for USA at midfield. Use Davies, Altidore, Ching and Cooper up top. Enough said.”

 While this thought is certainly one that holds weight with many fans of the U.S. what does it offer other than a bit of hope? Bringing on Freddy Adu and Jose Torres just adds more youth to a team that clearly has problems with the mental side of the game. Would they possibly add a different element to the team? Sure, but only if the rest of the team decided that keeping the ball was a priority. Without a mentality to try and hold possession from the whole team, a few players who hold possession well aren’t going to make that much of a difference. And what do these two add on the defensive side? Would they have kept the Brazilian midfield from skipping merrily around all afternoon? Probably not.

 Wanting Brain Ching on the field is also something that has drawn mixed reactions over time. But his absence is noticeable, and that in itself is a problem. The bigger picture shows a team that is struggling to replace players who wouldn’t even be in consideration for many national teams.

 Still others are calling for Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan to be put on the pine.

 Franco from San Jose said as part of his comment on what went wrong “The US needs another coach, and Landon Donovan needs to take a hike.”

 In fact, Goal.com’s Noah Davis and Greg Lalas are two of the those who think Dempsey needs to be taken off the pitch, at least for the last match of the competition. 

 From my perspective that would solve very little, especially when viewing the problems this team is facing. Would it be alright to run out some of the young players for the final match of the Confederations Cup just to get them experience? Sure, there’s nothing to lose. But would the team get better if Donovan and Dempsey weren’t part of it? Be serious, that’s absurd.

 For all the negativity splattered at these guys for not leading the team to glory, there are no two more capable players on the roster. Like it or hate, until the rest of the team is on par with the type of game these two play, Donovan and Dempsey will continue to look extremely frustrated on the field.

 Donovan seems to deal with it better at times, but then again he spends his seasons chasing down hopeless balls for the Los Angels Galaxy. Dempsey at times seems to be waiting for the rest of the squad to figure out how to play the ball around the pitch on the ground like his Fulham side does, and if that's so, he may be waiting for quite some time.

In the end, Donovan and Dempsey are still the most talented players on the roster, and figuring out how to get the most out of them collectively is the managers job. Both players are still putting in long shifts and doing plenty of running, but their time on the ball has been extremely limited do to U.S.'s inability to hold the ball as a team. Taking them off the field is not the answer. Finding a way to bring the rest of the team up to their level is.

 Questioning the effort of players is something I refuse to do. Too many things get overlooked, and it’s presumptuous to think that anyone other than that player actually understands how hard he is pushing at any given time.

What I will comment on is talent, and that’s where the U.S. is lacking.

As always with U.S. soccer, hope seems to be just around the corner.

 For all that Bradley has done wrong, he wasn’t exactly handed the keys to a Ferrari. It was more like a Chevy that needed some work. The 2006 World Cup team was an aging group. Three years later only five players made the trip to the Confederations Cup. The U.S.’s Confederations Cup roster has an average age just under 25-years-old, and they are the youngest squad in the competition.

 Bradley has put players on the field that fans and media may not agree with, but you can’t question that he has given many young players some run. His system has been dull at the best of times, but if a new coach is brought in, he won’t have to bring in many players that haven’t already been in the fold.

 With an unfortunate injury to Maurice Edu, who was rounding into a high quality player at Rangers, and injuries to Ching and Frankie Hejduk, Bradley’s side was always going to be playing catch up with Brazil and Italy. That’s not to say a fully fit U.S. squad would’ve won, or even lost by fewer goals, but it never helps an already thin squad to be missing some of the higher-end players in its talent pool.

 Knowing that the team wasn’t at full strength may be a consolation to some, and realizing how young the team is only bodes well for potential growth.

 The U.S. faithful also have the hope that comes from Jermaine Jones, the German-born midfielder who has decided to play for the U.S.A. Jones will, if nothing else, add a high quality player in the middle of the pitch.

 But with just a year left to figure things out before the World Cup, the Confederations Cup has served as a reality check of sorts, a tapping of the breaks for those who were hopeful of wonderful things in the near future.

 It takes time to rebuild a team, and the U.S. is not even close to Brazil or Italy who just seem to reload. With time and the proper guidance this group pf players could turn into a solid international team, but it’s not going to happen overnight.

 Recent results are proof positive that this team is nowhere near where it will have to be to climb out of the group stages in 2010. New coach or not, prospects for World Cup success don’t look great. Like so many fans of so many teams, the U.S. faithful will have to keep living by the motto “wait ‘till next year.”

 Allen Ramsey is an associate editor for Goal.com

For more on the U.S. National Team visit Goal.com's U.S. National Team page.