BRENT LATHAM – It’s late May, and we’re just about out of time for the 2010 World Cup cycle. This might or might not be Bob Bradley’s last month as coach, but whoever is in charge come August, there’s an important lesson that should be learned from this cycle he should not overlook.
You can’t figure out who can help out if he doesn’t play with the big boys.
In recent weeks, Herculez Gomez, Edson Buddle, and Robbie Findley have all joined the team for the duration. Jose Torres and Clarence Goodson have stepped up, and others like Heath Pearce and Jonathan Bornstein have pretty much proved once more that they’re no-gos.
Some look good, some don’t. One thing’s for certain: the verdict is still out on too many players. By this point in a cycle, a team should know what it can expect. Why is the U.S. in this situation?
It seems to me the principal culprit has been present since the begin of the cycle: a dichotomy of preparation, inclusion and mentality between the U.S. ‘A’ team and all others. Practically since day on, Bradley has been playing with an ‘A’ team for big matches, and a second team of guys hoping to break into the varsity for those deemed of less importance.
Look at the brief history of division in this cycle: 2007 Gold Cup, then 2007 Copa America. Qualifying the first few matches in 2008, and the 2008 qualifying group once the U.S. was in. Confederations Cup 2009, then – lest anyone forget- the Gold Cup.
Each time, two different teams, few shared points of reference.
Besides a series of humiliating losses by ‘B’ teams, the two-tier system has generated a good degree of problems in terms of getting new blood integrated into the first team.
Now let’s get one thing sorted out: this is not entirely Bradley’s doing. The U.S. is in a tough situation with the Atlantic dividing its best players from its contenders. But when a player like Robbie Findley doesn’t get a meaningful game with the full national team – the Holland friendly notwithstanding – until after he’s already on the World Cup 23-man squad, it makes his potential very hard to judge.
Players like Buddle and Gomez have only now caught fire, but Findley has been part of the process for almost a year. We still don’t really know exactly what or if he can contribute – and I’m not sure how certain Bob Bradley could be about it either. He’s not the only example on the final roster, much less the 30 called in to the final camp. The World Cup starts in 12 days.
This is not an easy problem to solve. FIFA match dates are few, travel is tough, and B-games are absolutely necessary. But in order to find out which players can add to the ‘A’ team, they really have to play with the full team, earlier and more often.
Of course there’s also the matter of determining which players might capably play a role at the highest level, and which will not, but you would hope the coach can figure out that part. Bradley seems to have sorted it out in the end.
When the team is closer to a full one, as we saw against Turkey, it’s easier to get answers. For example, Jose Torres can change the tide of the game alongside Michael Bradley, but maybe not alongside Sasha Kljestan. Robbie Findley up front with LD and Clint Dempsey on the wings can be a nice late game X-factor. But it doesn’t work with Robbie Rogers on one wing and Jeff Cunningham up top alongside him.
The only way to figure these things out is try out the best potential with the proven best. Having six or seven – or even eleven – X-factors on the field at the same time doesn’t prove much. But the selection of potential contributors and their integration processes, for a number reasons, hasn’t happened as frequently or early enough this cycle as it should have.
It’s a problem that will get worse next cycle, with more players overseas and difficult to get looks at. The first thing Bradley, or the coach taking over for him, needs to do when the World Cup is over is sit down and figure out the personnel process over the next four years.
How do you choose which players should get a look, and where? How can players that shine then get meaningful game action with the first team when they earn it? Even if it costs a few qualifying or Gold Cup points here and there, it will be well worth it to avoid a similar amount of unknowns headed to World Cup 2014.
What’s your answer? Is it Bradley’s fault that his standbys like Kljestan, Casey and Bornstein have soaked up so many minutes, while alternatives that are now World Cup bound were overlooked?