With Bob Bradley's selection for his January camp, he's chosen youth development at the beginning of 2011.
It's a shrewd decision as he will certainly need to replace a few aging U.S. players by 2014, and since the midfield is saturated with the most talent the U.S. has ever possessed in this area of the pitch, Bradley will concentrate on his attacking options and up-and-coming defenders.
Bradley has invited Zenit St. Petersburg striker Eugene Starikov and called up Juan Agudelo from the U-20 camp, so it looks as if his eyes are turned towards goal.
An understandable decision considering the dearth of goals scored by forwards in this last World Cup, but it may not be in Bradley's best interest to spend the bulk of his time searching for forward answers. When it comes to the world-class striker, the player isn't hiding underneath a rock or quietly honing his skills in the USL. If an elite American striker was available, he'd already be playing overseas.
What's most likely to happen over the next four years is something similar to what happened during the last qualification cycle (barring an automobile accident): a few viable options will emerge that complement the core of the current team.
A best case, realistic scenario is the emergence of a player with the ability to energize the attack and offer skills opposite Jozy Altidore in much the same way Charlie Davies did temporarily.
Perhaps that's Bradley's plan: Invite as many options into camp, get a number on the field during friendlies and see what emerges. A healthy competition never hurt anyone.
Unfortunately, the coach has a much more pressing matter. He must cultivate a pool of young defenders over the next four years.
An individual could look at this dilemma as one of predilection. Should the coach concentrate on attackers, thereby creating an attack-minded team, or build a defense for a more defensive approach?
But for the United States, the defense needs to be solidified before it can move forward.
This past summer, the U.S. defense was average at best.
It could be argued that one goal would have changed the Ghana game, and most fans would have preferred a goal before the 90th minute of the Algerian group stage game and stronger defensive play throughout the tournament.
A better read by Jay Demerit or Carlos Bocanegra on the long ball to Asamoah Gyan, and at the very least, the U.S. could have gone to penalty kicks.
Better defensive play against Slovenia, and an Algerian win isn't even needed.
What-if's could be discussed all day, but what is clear is that the U.S. got a defensive performance expected of a Championship-caliber player (Demerit), a player coming off a long injury (Oguchi Onyewu) and a French league starter lacking speed and intelligence (Carlos Bocanegra).
To steal from another sport, the U.S. defense was what we thought it was, and made the mistakes expected of players at that skill level.
If the U.S. wishes to improve upon its World Cup performance, it will need to improve its fullbacks, mostly because everything starts from the back. If the defense is porous, then the rest of the team tries to compensate for them, making desperate challenges, covering players and adding a general tension to the play.
Without a solid defense, the team can't press or push forward during the attack if it's always worried about recovering in time to stop a counter.
And of course, the offense begins with the defense. Be it distribution, extra attackers on free kicks, an incisive run or overlapping players, if the defense isn't secure, then a team's attack is limited.
Currently, world class defenders are at a premium.
There are a number of reasons: wing-backs are now required to be the most athletic on the team, covering ground outside midfielders use to cover. Likewise, this has put more pressure on the center backs, which now have to be adept at marking, winning in the air, making last second tackles and having the necessary ball skills to support the midfield.
It's no coincidence that Spain had a strong and stable defensive line when it won the World Cup, and the United States looked its best when pre-injury Onyewu won tackles, claimed balls out of the air, covered properly and reacted in a timely manner. When he needed the help, he had a partner either in Bocanegra or Demerit that kept track of all the off-the-ball activities.
It takes time to develop such players, and few ever reach such a pinnacle.
Unlike club teams, which can purchase the right piece of this puzzle, a national team must cultivate such players out of its available talent, a difficult task for any manager.
Maybe that's why Bradley covered his defense, had his midfielders drop back as far as possible and waited until the last second to close down the opposition. Maybe he realized his defense wasn't ready.
And the difficulty of rebuilding the U.S. defense can't be over-emphasized.
Bradley will need to find not only which players possess the requisite skills (as most center backs work in a tandem in order to cover for each others' faults), which players work well with what partners, recognize which players would be better employed on the outside and finally, after all this is done, incorporate the veterans defenders into the mix.
At the same time, these young defenders will need to catch up to the speed of the game at the international level; it's not like playing in the MLS (where most of these defenders currently reside).
The good news is that Bradley has had this team for four years. That means his philosophy and expectations are well known. Some of these players will have gotten an idea of their responsibilities, either through camps or involvement with the national team program at the youth level.
Still, Bradley can't get started soon enough. There are a number of potential replacements available: Tim Ream, Omar Gonzalez, Clarence Goodson, Gale Agbossoumonde, Marvel Wynne, Nat Borchers, Eric Lichaj, Michael Parkhurst, Ugo Ilhemelu, along with a slew of others. There are five players in the January camp not listed here that could feature in the Chile friendly and end up becoming mainstays during the qualification cycle.
As mentioned earlier, whomever stays healthy and in-form from the World Cup starting lineup will be considered. That's about 18 to 20 possible players, not to mention any other up-and comers, veterans or fringe players that can be of service over the next four years.
Mathematically, that's more combinations for Bradley than games allow opportunities.
Thankfully, that's not the case with the midfield. As long as Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan and Stuart Holden (with his meteoric rise in the premier league Bradley will find a place for him in the starting eleven) are healthy, they'll play. That leaves less positions up for grabs.
With the defense though, too many options can be just as problematic as too few. That's why Bradley will need as much time as possible with his potential replacements.
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