It's easy for some to look at the recent eye-popping goal ratio of LA Galaxy forward Edson Buddle or Puebla's Herculez Gomez and think of one thing - a call-up for the U.S. national team.
After all, it's not as if the Americans have a wealth of riches in that position. In fact, the depth at striker has become downright fragile with injuries to Sochaux's Charlie Davies and Houston Dynamo forward Brian Ching. Players like Jeff Cunningham, Robbie Findley and Connor Casey were called into recent USMNT camps, and looked like possibilities to step up into greater attacking roles for the USA. However, they have faded somewhat in form of late, and in terms of goal production for their clubs, have been completely dusted by Gomez and Buddle.
Gomez has ten goals in fifteen games in Mexico's Primera Division. The numbers for Gomez are all the more impressive considering he has been a starter only occasionally - five times. The current total in MLS for Buddle is seven goals in four games - all victories for the Galaxy.
Their form has been such that top USA international Landon Donovan, a past teammate of Gomez and a present one of Buddle, has said if the decision were his, he would welcome the duo to a national team camp.
"Right now, Edson's just playing at a different level," marveled Real Salt Lake midfielder Kyle Beckerman. "Landon's always been at a top level and if those two are firing on all cylinders, they're a good team.
Despite both being 28 years of age and their mutual knack for getting the ball in the net of late, Gomez and Buddle aren't really similar as players. Gomez, though not lighting-fast, is tricky-quick, with an instinctive sense of when and where to move to get an open pass. He is a poacher, willing to apply a pestering defense effort up top, and while he has a precise finish on most goals (low, into the corner) he is also in possession of a rocket shot on set plays. Buddle is 6'1, strong, and able to tussle with towering centerbacks and physical defenders. He holds the ball up well for the Galaxy and has good timing in the air for crosses and corners.
Still, as impressive as their qualities may be in club play, an argument can be made that those skills may not translate well to the international level.
"The bar gets raised in terms of what the games will be like," said USA coach Bob Bradley in January of the difference. "The speed of the game; the tactics become more important, the mentality part of it becomes more important."
Bradley also stressed the importance of having players come up through the traditional ladder, which usually includes starting with playing well for clubs, then coming into a national team camp, before substituting or starting a few matches.
"The camps are important in terms of getting an idea of how things work and then from there, you have to get into games to show what you can do," Bradley said.
However, that timeline doesn't really allow room for either Buddle or Gomez, let alone serious consideration of both as World Cup possibilities for the USA. Though both have been capped for the USA, it's a negligible amount. Buddle's one and only international game was a friendly versus Venezuela in 2003, back when Bruce Arena was the coach. Gomez at least has experience with the current gaffer, having played for Bradley twice in 2007 at the Copa America.
Though some may scoff at the idea that strikers not based in any European team can make any impact on Team USA, Bradley, who developed as a league coach, is usually willing to give domestic-based players a chance.
"MLS has been really important for the national team," Bradley said. "Even a lot of the guys who are in Europe now started in MLS."
While Bradley travels regularly and tracks USA players in different leagues for callup possibilities, there's a school of thought that considers the World Cup roster generally pre-picked already, with little regard to any 'hot' players.
"You know what you're doing; you have an understanding of what you want to do with your roster," said Arena, when asked about what a national team coach thinks when preparing player choices for the World Cup. "
In fact, Arena warned that Bradley would do well to take no heed to any clamor by fans for particular players.
"The best thing you can do is ignore everyone's advice, unless you ask for it," said Arena. "The reason you're a national team coach is because you're confident. You don't need anyone telling you how to do your job."
For the USA team, chemistry is more important than most squads, as a cohesive effort is their trademark, or, if it is lacking, their downfall. The American players simply don't have the individual brilliance of stars on other team. In the disappointing USA effort at the 2006 World Cup, the player absence that was most lamented within the group itself was that of Frankie Hejduk. The tireless defender was injured and unable to add the inspirational leadership the squad depended on in difficult times.
While Bradley may not believe that either Buddle or Gomez has any negative attitude, it could be that the coach simply does not have the time to find out more about how the players fit in and work with the team on and off the field.
"One of the things that people need to realize is that building a team isn't always just about the individual pieces," said Jason Kreis, a young MLS coach who fairly recently made the transition from player to coach.
Kreis had an impressive MLS goal-scoring output in his day, becoming the first player in the league to reach 100 goals. Yet he never translated that form to the international level, was given only a handful of caps and scored one goal for the USA. However, as a coach Kreis is acutely aware of how many factors beyond good form are part of coaching choices.
"It can be about how [a new player] affects everyone else around him, team chemistry and everything else," Kreis noted. "In order to have any insight on that, you have to be someone who is in the team - or a coach. It's easy to be on the outside and say, 'This guy is playing great - he should go, he should get called up to the national team.' Truth of the matter is, that's kind of like being an armchair quarterback, a person who can say the next day, 'Oh he should do this or he should do that.' Unless you're on the inside, unless you're in the locker room, unless you're a coach of that team, it's really unfair to say."
The clock is ticking on Bradley's decision, even as Gomez and Buddle continue to rack up goals. As much as tactics in a match show a coach's willingness to take risks, so do the choices of who to name to the roster in the first place. A cautious choice could condemn the aspirations of both Gomez and Buddle.
Andrea Canales is Chief Editor of Goal.com North America and is trying to remember to update her Twitter account.
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