Thursday, March 4, 2010
Five U.S. storylines to watch
By Jeff Carlisle
Special to ESPN.com
With less than 100 days remaining until the U.S. men's national team opens its World Cup campaign against England, one would think the only task left for manager Bob Bradley is to engage in a little bit of fine-tuning. A tweak here, an adjustment there and the Americans will be as ready as they'll ever be.
If it were only that easy.
A combination of injury and inconsistent form has left Bradley with plenty of work to do in the roughly three months that remain, meaning there will be plenty of plotlines to follow as the start of the tournament approaches.
1. The battle for roster spots continues
MLS games in March and April aren't usually high-stakes affairs for players. The season lasts until November, leaving plenty of time to recover from any dip in form.
Not so on this occasion. Players on the World Cup roster bubble such as Sacha Kljestan, Brian Ching, Conor Casey and Robbie Findley will be playing with the kind of intensity usually reserved for the postseason, the better to convince Bradley that they deserve to be on the plane to South Africa.
Of course, the competition to get on the final roster isn't the sole domain of MLS players. Foreign-based performers like Eddie Johnson, DaMarcus Beasley and Jose Francisco Torres will be keen to prove themselves as well.
But complicating matters are the ongoing negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement between MLS and its players' union. The word "strike" has been hanging in the air ever since the union went public with its grievances on Feb. 19. A U.S. Soccer Federation spokesman admitted several weeks ago that contingency plans were being discussed in the event of a work stoppage, and while he didn't divulge specifics, these would most likely take the form of an extended camp. Still, such an arrangement won't come close to replicating the intensity of league matches and will give Bradley a headache he doesn't need.
2. Will Charlie Davies' comeback be successful?
The U.S. striker's battle to come back from injuries he sustained in an October car accident has been nothing short of inspiring. Davies sustained a lacerated bladder as well as fractures to his face, elbow, femur and tibia, resulting in a total of seven surgeries. Overcoming just one of those injuries would have been impressive enough, but asking Davies to recover from all of those ailments seems like asking for the impossible. Right?
Clearly, the odds of Davies making the final roster are still long, but the Manchester, N.H., native is making a race of it. His rehabilitation has commenced at warp speed, and he just returned to France to continue his recovery with club side Sochaux. Davies says he expects to be back playing by April.
Of course, it's one thing to get back on the field for his club, but achieving the kind of form needed to make -- and contribute -- to a World Cup squad is another level entirely. For that reason prudence demands that Bradley explore all possibilities in a bid to find an alternative, and given Davies' unique blend of pace, commitment and finishing ability, this is no easy task.
The magnitude of the difficulty Bradley faces is borne out by the list of available candidates. Both Findley and Jeff Cunningham have excelled in MLS but haven't always looked convincing at international level. The physical gifts of Johnson are without question, but it's been years since he last excelled at the international level with the national team.
There's always a chance that Bradley could opt for the "Twin Towers" approach and pair Jozy Altidore with Ching, but that would rob the U.S. of the kind of speed needed to really stretch opposition defenses. It all amounts to another difficult puzzle the U.S. manager has to solve.
3. What about the rest of the walking wounded?
While Davies' recovery has been the most arduous, he is by no means the only U.S. player to have been laid low in recent months. Oguchi Onyewu (ruptured patellar tendon), Clint Dempsey (sprained knee), Benny Feilhaber (damaged ankle cartilage), Steve Cherundolo (shoulder) and Ricardo Clark (calf) have all missed significant time with their clubs. Stuart Holden was added to the list when he sustained a leg injury during the Americans' 2-1 friendly loss to the Netherlands on March 3.
Then there is the saga of Jermaine Jones. Jones first announced his intention to switch his international allegiance from Germany to the United States last June, and his application was approved by FIFA in October, but a shin injury has prevented him from making his U.S. debut.
As it stands now, five of the players mentioned are either back in full training or will do so later this month. Feilhaber -- no doubt a significant loss -- is in danger of missing out on the World Cup, while Jones' lack of activity for German club Schalke could end with the same result. Holden's situation is unclear given the lack of information at the time of this writing.
But the bigger question for the others is: How close can they get to top form in the time that remains? For the likes of Dempsey and Cherundolo, their bid to reach their peak seems achievable, as their status with their club teams should see them return to the lineup as soon as they are deemed healthy. For Clark and Onyewu, the situation is a bit dicier. While their spots on the U.S. roster seem secure, it's unlikely they'll get the requisite playing time at club level needed to reach maximum sharpness.
All this could leave the U.S. far short of full strength come June.
4. Michael Bradley's midfield partner
Health issues aside, the chances of the Americans progressing to the second round rest heavily on the performance of their midfield, and while Bradley has been ever-present for the U.S. during this World Cup cycle, the question of who will fill the slot alongside him in the center of the park is still unanswered. This is due primarily to the wild fluctuations in the performances of Feilhaber, Clark, Torres, Kljestan and Maurice Edu. As for Jones, he was once thought to be the top candidate, but his lack of health has robbed him of precious opportunities to get integrated into the team.
With Feilhaber now sidelined for the near future, and after Torres struggled against the Dutch, it appears to be a battle between Clark and Edu. Of the two, Edu -- who scored a stoppage-winner for Rangers against bitter rivals Celtic last weekend -- looks to be closer to his peak, but the inconsistency shown by all these players indicates that Bob Bradley will likely wait until the last possible moment to make a final decision.
5. Who will stake a claim to the left back slot?
Almost as troublesome as settling on a central midfield tandem has been the conundrum that is the left back spot. Both Jonathan Bornstein and Heath Pearce have endured their ups and downs, so much so that Bob Bradley has looked to Carlos Bocanegra on occasion to fill that position.
It was thought that Bornstein had the inside track, especially since Onyewu's injury has forced Bocanegra back into the center of defense. But his utterly forgettable performance against the Netherlands, in which he conceded a penalty, has caused questions to be raised again. For that reason, the play of both players in the opening months of the MLS season -- Bornstein with Chivas USA and Pearce with FC Dallas -- will bear watching.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at email@example.com.