Posted by: mdegeorge | May 11, 2010

Striking concerns underscore USA World Cup roster announcement

The emotional aspect of Charlie Davies’ omission from Team USA’s World Cup roster may be grabbing headlines now. But when the third week in June arrives, it may be the tactical impact that garners top billing.

The dearth of a developing talent like Davies robs the Americans’ offensive attack of some much needed depth. While Bob Bradley’s provisional 30-man training camp roster includes a few surprises, it still lacks the finishing class required for a deep run in the tournament.

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The six front men tabbed by Bradley to take part in the pre-finals training camp have a combined 74 minutes of World Cup Finals experience, all from Eddie Johnson, who many regard the biggest long shot of the six to actually get on the plane to South Africa.

Three of the entries on Bradley’s team sheet—Herculez Gomez, Robbie Findley, and Edson Buddle—have a combined SIX caps and no goals. That leaves Jozy Altidore, the now well-traveled Johnson (two loan stints after a borderline anonymous stint at Fulham), and the recently-recovered Brian Ching as the only proven commodities in the Americans’ arsenal.

Davies’ injury underscores the potential the striking corps had a year ago and the way in which it has failed to come to bear. On the heels of the Confederations’ Cup success of last summer, it looked like the US attack was ready to finally turn the corner and become a legitimate force on the international scene. But look at the diverging fates of the groups’ key members:

– Sochaux striker Davies found the back of the net twice in his first eight league games before the catastrophic injuries in October that have sidelined him for the last seven months. He appeared to be on the verge of breaking through in one of Europe’s top five leagues after a successful but largely unnoticed stint in Sweden.

– Altidore’s move to the grand stage of the English Premier League after failing to break into the ranks at Villareal and on loan at Xerez looked like it could be his coming out party. And while his two goals in 30 appearances is skewed by the lack of overall quality in the relegated Hull City side and belies a number of strong performances he did have, it still must be viewed as an opportunity missed.

– Ching, one of the team’s offensive leaders in qualifying with four goals (although none after June ’08), has been oft-injured and only featured in two games for the Houston Dynamo this season.

– Kenny Cooper’s big money move to 1860 Munich in the 2.Bundesliga also looked likely to be his watershed moment. He picked up two goals early in the season, but fell out of favor and moved to Plymouth Argyle in the English League Championship, where he’s made a measly seven substitute appearances totaling just 137 minutes played (and just 15 since Feb. 20).

– Conor Casey, the hero of the key qualifying match against Honduras, has faded from the picture despite tallying 19 goals last season, good for second in MLS, and finding the target three times in seven matches this season.

– Jeff Cunningham, the other domestic star who could have cracked the roster, did his best, notching 21 goals in his last 34 MLS games (including four in six this season), but it evidently wasn’t enough.

The inability of these strikers to take the next step leaves Bradley in a selection conundrum. It’s pretty apparent that this team is at its best in a 4-4-2 formation (just look at the Confederations’ Cup last year and what happened when Team USA was forced to take a more attacking posture. It finally translated into entertaining soccer.)

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With this personnel though, Bradley’s hand might be forced back into the 4-5-1, stay-at-home style that the national team has been all too familiar with in recent years.

On the selection front, it means Bradley may opt to keep nine midfielders and just four forwards if his crop of unproven strikers fails to impress in camp. The ideal pairing, exemplified by what the Netherlands does playing off the center forward in their 4-3-3 set, is for strikers of differing styles. One guy—usually Altidore for most of last year—would be the target man to knock down balls played forward and allow the speedier striker to play off him (like Davies).

On this team, Ching, Johnson, and Buddle fall into the category of strikers playing with back to goal and Altdiore, Gomez, and Findley as the runners. It makes for interesting pairings that aren’t what they could have been.

Other thoughts on the team selection:

– No debate on the goalkeepers at all. As solid as Tim Howard has been in emerging as one of the top 10 goalies in the world, I’m not terrified by the prospect of Marcus Hahnemann deputizing in the event of an emergency.

– The backline selection is all about health. Can Oguchi Oneywu be productive despite not playing a competitive match at the club level since October? How healthy is Chad Marshall? If Bradley has his reservations about one or both, does that bolster the credentials of Maurice Edu as a midfielder who can also provide cover in central defense?

– I’m a little sorry to see there’s no place for Frankie Hejduk. A versatile guy who can be effective at either fullback spot and provide a more defensive-minded approach in the midfield as a late sub can be valuable. The occasionally misjudged aggression coupled with 35-year-old legs, though, apparently isn’t.

– I admire the decision not to pick Davies as a step forward by this program. It’s not what you’ve done but what you can do. But that attitude is undercut by selecting DaMarcus Beasley. He’s hit a lull in his career, he needs a change at the club level, and he’s not one of the eight or nine best midfielders in camp, though I guess he has done enough to earn a look. If he makes it to South Africa, I hope it won’t be for a rehashing of the ghostly performances he turned in during qualification.

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– The battle for the central midfield spots are the most intriguing, and perhaps most crucial when you look at the matchup with England’s all-world midfield. Michael Bradley has one of the presumable four spots sown up (I’d forecast four central midfielders and four wingers in the corps of eight). Ricardo Clark probably has the inside track on the other starting job, which leaves Benny Feilhaber, Edu, and Jose Torres to battle it out for two spots. I give the early edge to Feilhaber and Edu.

– On the wings, I would be delighted to see Robbie Rogers, Stuart Holden, and Alejandro Bedoya backing up Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. But the only way all three make it is if Bob Bradley opts for four forwards (and Beasley and Sasha Kljestan do what I think they will).

– This team does have a very speedy option if Bob Bradley chooses to go in that direction. Imagine a left side of Rogers and Josh Bornstein supporting Findley up front. That is one fast team.

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