Posted by: mdegeorge | June 30, 2010

World Cup fallout missing big picture of Team USA’s youth

It’s been five days and I’ve already grown tired of the endless speculation surrounding the future of the U.S. Soccer. As a consistent, almost fanatical, follower of soccer year round, it pains me to see the best attempts of writers who surface once every four years to rehash what they hear Alexei Lalas say on ESPN.

On one side of the argument, you have those opting for the pro-U.S. route which amounts roughly to taking a list of the U.S. under-21 team and stringing into paragraph form. Then there’s the tried and true approach to simply say that no one cares about soccer so there’ll never be enough talent for the US to compete. Sure, U.S. Soccer supremo Sunil Gulati can be disappointed, but at least he has a direction in mind.

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What’s lost in the shuffle is this vital fact: compared to some of the teams by which the Yanks measure itself, like England and Italy, the U.S. soccer program is much better equipped for the future.

If you asked me to bet on which players from the 2010 Italian national team will be on the Azzurri squad in four years time, who could I choose? I see three definites: Daniele De Rossi, Giorgio Chiellini, and Gianluigi Buffon (though this back injury could be career-altering). Riccardo Montolivo looked ready to establish himself as a permanent fixture in the side, though it’s still very much in the air. I would have serious reservations about including then 31-year-old forwards like Fabio Quagliarella and Alberto Gilardino, though players on the downside of 30 are rarely discriminated against in the Italian program. Gun to my head, I see five holdovers.Now, consider the same question for England. The answer: maybe four or five. Joe Hart and Robert Green could carry over, though two young goalkeepers from the 2006 squad (Paul Robinson and Scott Foster) didn’t make the cut this time around. The entire backline, with the exception of Glen Johnson, will have to be rebuilt for the trip to Brazil. For Ashley Cole and John Terry to each be in the picture at 33 would be some feat, leaving the defense to be built around Michael Dawson.

The likes of Frank Lampard, Gareth Barry, and Steven Gerrard will be finished internationally by 2014, leaving Aaron Lennon, James Milner, and the remnants of their successful under-23 squad to fill the gaps. Up front, Wayne Rooney may be next in line for the captaincy, while then 31-year-old Jermain Defoe and 33-year-old Peter Crouch are likely to have played their last World Cups each. At best, I see seven players returning.

So, what about the U.S.? Tim Howard, backed by heir apparent Brad Guzan will return barring catastrophic injury. In fact, Howard’s best years may be ahead of him based on the way American goalkeepers improve with age like fine Sonoma wines.

Jonathan Spector and Jonathan Bornstein will both be in their late 20s by then, and Clarence Goodson and Oguchi Oneywu will only be in their earlier 30s, all ages that make them eligible for realistic inclusion. It’s not completely out of the realm of possibility for Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, or Jay DeMerit to be fit for national team duty at 34 or 35, though unlikely.

The only changes to come in the midfield be based on performance, rather than age. Of the current crop, only Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, and DaMarcus Beasley will be just over 30; the latter’s performance may take him out of the running, but I would bet it on the other two making the plane to Brazil if healthy. I would even hazard to say that Donovan may be game for two more Cup Finals, if the American record of 164 caps (Cobi Jones) and world record of 181 caps (Mohamed Al-Deayea of Saudi Arabia) are within his reach.

Jozy Altidore still has a decade or so to lead the American line, and will have young stars like Robbie Findley (if his level of play warrants) and Charlie Davies (health permitting), who still won’t be 30. Edson Buddle and Herculez Gomez, both late bloomers, could also be in the picture even at 33 and 32, respectively.

Those holdovers will certainly be pushed by a slew of young Americans, especially midfielders, coming out a productive youth system that are currently playing in the MLS and on the verge of moves internationally. Sasha Klejstan already made his (to Anderlecht in Belgium), following Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark this season, and others are sure to not long from now. In total, I could see as many as 16 holdovers from this squad. And the luxury of the U.S. program is that most of those not traveling to another Finals have only their form, not their age, to blame.

The concern over the future is distorting what has long been known to those of us not making a journalistic cameo every four years. This team’s downfall of late has been the lack of a dependable striker, someone to gloss over the squad’s failures by bagging goals in bunches. The expectation that Altidore, still raw at 20, could fill that role has proven overly optimistic. But in four years, provided things fall into place with the defense, his development into a star striker could be what catapults them to the upper echelon.

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