Up for the cup — the U.S. team

Last night, I promised to write about the prospects for the U.S. team in the upcoming World Cup. I’m not sure that I have much to add to the conventional wisdom, though. As most observers say, this appears to be the strongest U.S. World Cup side ever — better than even the 2002 team that made it to the quarter finals. It contains veterans who have played together in the national team for years — Kasey Keller, Eddie Pope, Eddie Lewis, Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride; young veterans with lots of international experience — DeMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan; and at least two breakthrough candidates — Bobby Convey and defender Oguchi Onyewu.

When judging any soccer team, I always focus on its spine — the extent to which it is strong up the middle. Our team is solid up the middle with Keller, Pope, Onyewu, Reyna, and McBrike, but not outstanding by World Cup standards.

It also annoys me that we still don’t have a left-back. In 1998, we had to use an average French player (David Regis) who had recently married an American and reportedly spoke little English. In 2002, it was Jeff Agoos, by that point in his career a center-back. When his nightmare of a Cup ended, we turned (if memory serves) to right-back Frankie Hejduk. This time we’re going with Lewis, a left-winger.

We’re a country of, what, almost 300 million people and we can’t produce a true quality left-back? Is this what President Bush means when he talks about jobs Americans won’t do?

The other part of the conventional wisdom is that we’re in the toughest group in the tournament — a proverbial “group of death.” While I rate the U.S. one of the top 16 teams in the world, I rate the Czechs and the Italians comfortably in the top 10. And Ghana may not be bad either. But the Czechs are getting old and have had some injury problems. And the Italians sometimes have trouble getting their act together at this level. Nonetheless, if one wants to talk about spines, we’re also-runs compared to these two sides. Between them they have, in my view, the two best goal keepers in the world — Buffon and Cech. The rest of the Italian “middle” includes Cannavaro, Pirlo, and Del Piero. For the Czechs, it’s the likes of Ujfalusi, Rosicki, and the giant Koller. So we have our work cut out for us.

In terms of tactics, I’m inclined to defer to our excellent coach, Bruce Arena. However, it seems to me that against the kind of fire power we’re up against we should consider abandoning the diamond midfield — which takes Landon Donovan, more of a forward, and places him behind the two frontrunners. In its place, I might use a traditional four-man midfield anchored by a strong defensive player, Pablo Mastroeni, in the center alongside Reyna or John O’Brien, and Beasley and Convey or Dempsey on the wings. Donovan would then play off of McBride up front. However, this approach may be too conservative for Arena, whose aggressive tactics have almost always paid off for his teams.

For an in-depth look at our team and its prospects, check out Right Wing Nuthouse.

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