Transition time for U.S. back line
The beginning of every World Cup cycle marks something of a transitional period for a national team. Aging players are nudged aside while a younger generation is introduced to see who is ready for the next step. As the Gold Cup approaches, it's no different for the U.S. men's national team, especially in relation to its defense.
At present, a few members of the U.S. back line, such as Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo, are over the age of 30, and assuming the U.S. qualifies for the 2014 World Cup, they are unlikely to be on the team. With the aforementioned duo still playing at a high level, however, and with a friendly against Spain on Saturday followed by the Americans' first Gold Cup match on Tuesday, the question remains whether the transition to younger players will accelerate or be stuck in neutral over the next month.
The compressed schedule of the tournament relative to a World Cup means that every member of manager Bob Bradley's roster will see the field at some point. But as the last cycle proved, the Gold Cup stakes are high, with a berth in the Confederations Cup on the line. So will young defenders Tim Ream and Eric Lichaj see significant minutes, or will Bradley be compelled to rely even more heavily on his veterans, especially given the absence of young right back Timothy Chandler? There's also the issue of the quality of those minutes. Is it better to throw players such as Ream and Lichaj into the proverbial deep end, or ease them in slowly?
"With every player it's different," said former U.S. international Gregg Berhalter, currently a player/assistant with the L.A. Galaxy. "Some guys respond right away; they assimilate quickly and get to that international level. Then there are other guys who aren't ready, where you have to be patient and give it time.
"Me, I was very young ," Berhalter said. "When I first came into the team there were a lot of guys that were carryovers from the 1994 World Cup. I think maybe it wasn't quite the right time for me. I was around the national team for about 15 games where I didn't play. But I just needed to be around the group more and needed more experience."
Bradley's tendency has been to bring players along slowly. Both Ream and Lichaj earned their first caps toward the end of 2010 and have garnered additional appearances this year. Bradley seems ready to give Ream plenty of looks during the month of June. Though the New York defender was partly at fault in conceding the only goal of the match in a March friendly against Paraguay, Ream's distribution made a strong impression.
"Our play out of the back through the middle of the field was very good on that day," Bradley said. "And it begins with Tim playing some really good passes out of the back to get the wheels moving. Now we're excited to see how that plays out."
As for Lichaj, in addition to his mobility and toughness, one of his greatest strengths is his ability to line up on either flank. And after spending much of his recent loan spell at Leeds United at left back, there was hope that he might end up being the long-term answer at a position that over the years has been notoriously difficult for the U.S. to fill.
But Bradley indicated he feels that the young defender is more effective on the right, meaning his likely role will be backing up Cherundolo, although Jonathan Spector's role remains unclear. That also points to Bocanegra manning the left back spot at least on a part-time basis, with Jonathan Bornstein backing him up.
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"In training, I've been rotating between both center back and left back," the U.S. captain said. "It's pretty standard now whenever I come into the U.S. team; wherever Bob wants me and wherever he feels I can help the team the most for that particular game, then I'm happy to play either position."
Playing Bocanegra out wide does have the added benefit of giving Bradley more time to sort out his preferred pairing in the center of defense among Ream, Oguchi Onyewu and Clarence Goodson. While Onyewu did manage to escape his AC Milan purgatory this winter by securing a loan move to FC Twente, the fact that he was forced to play left back leaves plenty of questions as to his effectiveness in the middle.
Goodson was the forgotten center back last summer at the World Cup, despite delivering some decent performances in several warm-up matches. And while he was slowed this spring by a broken toe, Goodson has continued his solid play with new club Brondby, meaning he's probably the most in-form of all of the available center backs outside of Bocanegra.
As for which combination will make this best pairing, Berhalter noted: "It's not necessarily a good thing to have a partner with similar qualities. They need to be more different. That way you can help each other a lot more. If you have two organizers, it's not going to work. If you have two different types of players, that definitely works best."
That kind of thinking points to Ream starting alongside either Onyewu or Goodson. If that happens, it would certainly count as progress toward the team's goal of getting younger before World Cup qualifying begins next year.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.