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Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Left out: Who starts on U.S. back line?

By Jeff Carlisle

What do quantum mechanics and the lineup for the U.S. men's national team have in common? In a word, uncertainty.

It was back in the 1920s that physicist Werner Heisenberg first came up with his uncertainty principle, in which he attempted to explain the relationship between the position and momentum of subatomic particles. Eighty-something years later, a slightly less daunting task has U.S. manager Bob Bradley dealing with his own uncertainty principle. In his case, he'll attempt to determine the position and form of the defenders who will comprise his back line at the World Cup.

Clearly, there are question marks pertaining to other parts of the U.S. lineup. Michael Bradley's midfield running mate is still to be determined, as is a strike partner for Jozy Altidore. But no other part of the field has as many pieces in motion as the back line, with the left back position coming under particular scrutiny.

Carlos Bocanegra
Carlos Bocanegra will be in the U.S. starting lineup ... somewhere.

Of course, the search for a left back is nothing new. During the run-up to the 2006 World Cup, so desperate was then-manager Bruce Arena that he drafted nominal midfielder Eddie Lewis into the position. While Lewis enjoyed some solid outings during qualifying, his unfamiliarity showed in the Americans' opening World Cup match against the Czech Republic. Just five minutes into the game, Lewis sprinted up field while the rest of the back line stayed behind, allowing the Czechs to exploit the vacated space and score from a Jan Koller goal on their way to a 3-0 victory.

The good news for Bradley is that the candidates this time around have far more experience at the position than Lewis had, with Carlos Bocanegra, Jonathan Spector, Heath Pearce and Jonathan Bornstein all in the mix. Not surprisingly, Bradley views having so many choices as a positive, even though it also reveals that for whatever reason, no player has been able to nail down the position as his own. But sifting through Bradley's comments, it would appear that Bocanegra -- who was the starting left back by the end of the 2006 tournament, but has since logged considerable minutes in the middle -- is his first choice. That said, the situation remains fluid.

"You need to have versatility," Bradley said last week via telephone. "And the bottom line is even with a player like [Bocanegra], at times when we've had either injury or suspension issues in the center of the back, we still have taken advantage of his experience there. So when we move him that may open up a position for somebody else on a given day.

"But we've got some different options [at left back], and I think all have shown at one time or another to perform well for us."

At a World Cup, however, performing well at one time or another won't be enough, which is why Bocanegra's consistency, leadership and tackling are in demand out wide. The fact that he's left-footed, and has played there extensively for French club side Rennes, also gives the U.S. a player who is at least capable of playing the ball out of the back. As for any tactical differences that might crop up, Bocanegra feels they are manageable.

"At Rennes, we're not quite as direct as we are with the national team," he said. "It's different roles. Here, I'm asked to get into the attack and overlap quite a bit. I do that as well with the national team, but not quite as much. Honestly, at left back, you've just got to do what the game calls for. If there is space to overlap and you can take it in a good moment, you take it. If it's not on, you don't force it."

Yet the U.S. captain lacks the recovery speed that both Bornstein and Pearce possess, and the Americans' opening game against England could see Bocanegra going up against a speedster like Theo Walcott or Aaron Lennon. Then again, the defend-and-counter style the U.S. has adopted against the top teams may afford Bocanegra some protection.

"I think there will be points where the U.S. will be absorbing so much pressure that the space behind isn't going to be as crucial," said Alexi Lalas, former U.S. international defender and current ESPN studio analyst. "[Bocanegra] can get away with it then, but the problem will be when he gets in an open field with a lot of space behind him and no help. At times he can recover, but he's certainly not as athletic as some of the other guys."

The health of Oguchi Onyewu will largely define Bocanegra's ultimate role. If the AC Milan center back can recover fully from the torn left patellar tendon he sustained in October, then Bocanegra will be free to play out wide. Onyewu is back in full training, but will likely be well short of match practice. If it proves to be too great an obstacle for him to start, then Bocanegra will man the center of the U.S. defense alongside Jay DeMerit, leaving Bradley to pore over his other options.

For much of the current World Cup cycle, that has meant choosing between Bornstein and Pearce, each of whom have treated the starting role as if it were radioactive. Both have the speed to get into the attack and keep up with pacy attackers. Yet the performances of both players have been characterized by precipitous peaks and valleys, with Bornstein's subpar play in the March friendly against the Netherlands just one example.

That has Bradley considering Spector, another player who has seen extensive time at left back for his club, West Ham United, although he too has struggled mightily of late. The move is palatable given that Bradley has the experienced Steve Cherundolo to man Spector's usual right back spot. But Spector has yet to play on the left for the U.S. during this World Cup cycle, and the capable performances he delivered during the Confederations Cup would seem to indicate that the right side is where his greatest level of comfort lies.

That leaves Bradley with a potentially tricky situation. Do you go with the experience and pedigree of Spector, or the more natural fit that Bornstein and Pearce would provide?

"No disrespect to [Bornstein] or Pearce, but it's different playing in the EPL every week than it is in MLS," said former U.S. international defender Marcelo Balboa. "I think you go with experience. You go through good, and you go through bad; that's part of soccer. But overall I think you've got to go with the guy in Spector that has been there, knows what it's going to be like, and who's not going to be intimidated playing against England."

More will be revealed beginning on May 17, when between 26 and 28 players will convene for the team's pre-World Cup training camp. And Bradley can only hope that the certainty he craves in terms of his lineup choices will come to pass.

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 can be reached at