(Friday, June 20, 2008) -- United States men's coach Bob Bradley called his American-based players into a training camp January 5. Since that time, the U.S. has played six friendlies, culminating in matches against England, Spain and Argentina, and then its first World Cup qualifier against Barbados last Sunday.
Having defeated Barbados 8-0 in Carson, Calif., in the first leg of the CONCACAF second-round qualifying series, this Sunday's trip to Barbados is pretty much a formality for advancement to the semifinal round which will likely begin August 20 against Guatemala at Estadio Nacional Mateo Flores in Guatemala City.
For the past six months, Bradley has been looking at players to determine who might be available to help in qualifying -- both those based in Europe and Major League Soccer. He has looked at combinations of players, who plays well with whom. This search process is now essentially over, though Bradley will have the CONCACAF Gold Cup next summer to view his players prior to the six-nation, qualifying finals.
Bradley went into the last six months with three big problems. He needed to find a left back, a problem spot for the U.S. over the last several years. He had to find a central midfielder who can hold the ball and organize the team. And he had to find a target striker, one who could play with his back to goal, create chances, and finish. On the last two counts, he essentially has been looking for replacements for Claudio Reyna in midfield and Brian McBride on the front line.
Halfway through this series with Barbados, it looks like Bradley has found only one of his three answers.
Germany-based Heath Pierce has emerged as the left back the U.S. has been seeking for some time now. A former member in the U.S. under-17 residency program, Pearce spent three years at the University of Portland before signing with FC Nordsjaelland in Denmark. Last year, he moved to Hansa Rostock in the German Bundesliga, where he has made only a few appearances. He is still a young professional and he seems to be getting better with each match.
"Our big challenge with Heath is getting him in a situation where he is playing every week at the highest level possible," Bradley recently told SoccerTimes. "After this summer, we have to look closely at his situation at Rostock."
Bradley still has no final solution for his other two problems, although there is a glimmer of hope emerging from the first Barbados match.
The most glaring problem has been the lack of a target forward who can find the net. The basic problem right now for the U.S. is all of its best players essentially play the same position -- attacking midfielder\withdrawn forward. Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Clint Dempsey, Freddy Adu -- the list goes on -- all are attacking players, but more comfortable coming out of the midfield. None are the kind of target striker who can lurk near the box and stretch a defense.
Eddie Johnson has his good moments up top, but they have been few and far between. As his new English club Fulham found out quickly after giving him a couple of starts, he is still a project who has a long way to go before he is a reliable scorer.
Jozy Altidore has the raw talent, but he also is just learning his trade. His move to Spain should accelerate his progress and by 2010 he might well be the man. For now, he is a work in progress that will be watched closely.
Brian Ching has emerged as another possibility. The take on him has been that he is neither fast enough nor technical enough to be a starter against world-class opposition. Yet, he a tenacious forward who lurks around the box and causes problems for a defense and he certainly has more than enough talent to face opponents in CONCACAF, the region of North America, Central America and the Caribbean
It will be interesting to see how much he helps, once qualifying starts in earnest in August. The Gold Cup could be an important determining factor.
In the midfield, Bradley has tried to mold his son Michael into the organizing role. The results have been mixed at best. Michael had an exceptional season with Heerenveen of the Eredivisie in the Netherlands, but there he was used in a more attacking role and did not have a responsibility to hold the ball and organize.
The U.S. failed to score in its last three friendlies, including shutout losses to England and Spain in Europe and a 0-0 draw with Argentina in New Jersey. In compiling a 2-2-2 record and outscoring opponents 7-5 in the matches leading up to the Barbados qualifier, most American goals came from dead-ball situations and few from the run of play. Bradley hopes a healthy Beasley running with Donovan will pick up the scoring load with an attack coming down the wings.
The U.S. defense is solid and will only get better as Pearce, Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu and Steve Cherundolo work together more. They are emerging as a dependable unit and have good backups in Jay DeMerit, Jonathan Spector, Frankie Hejduk and, if needed, Eddie Lewis.
Goalkeeping is the least of Bradley's worries.
Is this team as good as the one that went deep into the World Cup in 2002? It clearly is not. Is it even as good as the group that stumbled in Germany four years ago? Probably, not yet. Even though Onyewu, Donovan and Beasley were a big part of that team and have all improved in the interim, the retirement of Reyna and McBride have left a hole that will be hard to fill.
As badly as the U.S. underperformed in Germany 2006, it flew through qualifying without a misstep. It might not be as easy this time around.
Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.
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