BY PATRICK MacDONALD
So the third round of 2014 World Cup Qualifying is now in the history books and it’s time for the U.S. National team to start preparing for the Hex.
Despite a solid finish against Guatemala, there are still far too many questions for the U.S. National team to feel comfortable about breezing through the final round of qualification. To do that, the U.S. will need far more games like Guatemala (sans the Ruiz goal), and far fewer games like the one in Kingston.
The biggest question at the moment facing the U.S. is the situation at centerback. Carlos Bocanegra looked like he aged rapidly over the past year and was not up to his usual standard. Playing second division soccer in Spain, surely isn’t doing him any favors. While chemistry between he and Cameron is nothing special, it’s not surprising as they haven’t played together that much. The most alarming moment for Bocanegra came when he and Howard totally blundered the communication on Ruiz’s goal. That’s something that just shouldn’t happen between two veteran players. Bringing a Bocanegra in that kind of form to start in Brazil would be a disaster.
The question remains, who will replace him? Clarence Goodson and Michael Parkhurst are solid options, but neither inspire tremendous confidence that they can shut down the opposition in Brazil. That leaves less proven options that the U.S. must be hoping will step up. Omar Gonzalez is the first name that comes to mind and he will most certainly get his chance to secure a future role on this team in the January camp. Let’s not forget, Cameron, Zusi, and Parkhurst first made names for themselves in last year’s January camp and are now regular call ups.
The other player, and probable better fit, is Tim Ream. Ream had a solid year in the EPL last season despite Bolton getting relegated. He began the season in the Championship as a starter before being benched after one awful game. Ream has worked his way back into the starting XI, but in his most recent match was responsible for conceding a penalty kick.
Ream is maddeningly inconsistent. One moment he’s stellar, the next, crap. If he can bring any sort of consistency to his game, he’s the perfect answer for Bocanegra, being left footed. Ream should get a shot in one of the future friendlies, especially if he stays in the starting XI at Bolton.
The whole Bocanegra conundrum, has to make many wonder about Steve Cherundolo. Cherundolo was by no means bad during qualifiers, in fact, hew as one of the best players on the field, but considering how sudden Boca’s drop has been, one has to wonder if the U.S. can afford to bring a 35 year old right back to Brazil. A replacement needs to be groomed for the Hannover 96 man because the U.S. can ill afford having father time catch up with him at the worst possible moment.
In November’s Russia friendly, this is when Klinsmann will likely call up Eric Lichaj. It’s time to bring the Aston Villa defender back into the fold. Klinsmann hinted as much in an ESPN interview. Of course there is also always the option of Timmy Chandler. Chandler was snubbed by Klinsmann for the final two qualification games, despite Chandler’s stated willingness to play in them. Chandler is the biggest question in the room. He’s a player who instantaneously makes the U.S. better, but can he and U.S. Soccer come to an understanding and put all this nonsense in the past. Chandler would certainly be a valuable asset for the next 10 matches that matter.
What of the attack? Oddly enough this is one of the more promising aspects of the team. Considering attack minded soccer is what Klinsmann was hired to bring in, it’s a welcome sight. The attack seen against Guatemala was the result of veterans stepping up as well as new players emerging. Graham Zusi is the first player that comes to mind. He almost made everyone forget about Landon Donovan, who recently put his chances of participating in the World Cup at 50/50 (Want to solve his “desire” problems? Sell him to Everton). Zusi placed a number of dangerous balls in the box and combined well with Steve Cherundolo on the right side.
Eddie Johnson is another player of note. He scored two fantastic headers against Antigua and was active against Guatemala. Though questions still surround him. He whiffed on a would be goal against Guatemala, something a striker simply cannot do (Robbie Findley). And one has to wonder, considering his two goals against Antigua, if MLS players were better suited to play against that side on that wretched field. Time will tell, as Johnson will certainly get his chance to solidify his spot in friendlies.
Another big answer for the future is that Michael Bradley certainly seems to be the future captain of the United States, both matches flowed through him as he displayed how extremely valuable he is. He’s also the epitome of a team player. When Dempsey poached a goal from Bradley in the first half, Clint apologized to which any beginner lip reader saw Bradley respond, “I don’t give a F—.” The friendly in Russia would be a good time for Klinsmann to give Bradley a test run with the armband.
And then there’s the coach. Klinsmann went into the final two games of qualification with many doubting his ability to even get out of that round. He took a huge gamble in leaving Jozy Altidore back in the Netherlands when the talented striker is on the best run of form in his career. At the time, the two strikers brought in over Jozy, Johnson and Gordon, were extraordinary head scratchers.
Sure enough, Klinsmann’s gamble paid off with Gordon and Johnson combining for the game winner against Antigua & Barbuda. Altidore has received the message loud and clear that he’s only going to get call ups if he brings 100% to the national team. He received a similar message last year in the Netherlands, look at how that worked out. Hopefully between now and when qualification starts back up in February, Klinsmann will have similar answers to the remaining questions. At least he has a few friendlies to figure it out.