March 18, 2013
By Michael Lewis
The weakest U.S. WCQ roster I can remember
I take a good look at the United States National Team roster and I am not impressed at all.
I have never been confused with Chicken Little, but I fear for the U.S. in its next two World Cup qualifiers -- against Costa Rica on Friday and at Mexico on Tuesday, March 26.
In fact, it is one of the weakest rosters I can remember in years for a qualifier, outside of times when the U.S. used a weakened lineup after they had clinched a berth.
This roster has got me worried.
There is little veteran leadership on this team, especially in the back.
There is no goalkeeper Tim Howard (broken bones in his back).
There is no central defender-left back Carlos Bocanegra (not enough playing time with Racing Santander in Spain's Second Division).
And there is no midfielder-forward Landon Donovan (on a self-imposed hiatus to recharge his batteries and rediscover his passion or the beautiful game).
Earlier today I was thinking of U.S. National Team performances of present and recent past.
With another confrontation at Azteca Stadium that really, really means something -- three points instead of an international friendly -- I look back to the summer of 2009.
You might remember those glorious, halcyon days.
The Americans started it off with an incredible run through the FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa.
Needing a 3-0 result against Egypt in the final group-stage match, the Americans did just that to scrape through to the semifinals. There, the U.S. stunned top-ranked Spain, 2-0, on goals from Clint Dempsey and Donovan. Then came the a near-perfect first half and a 2-0 advantage against favored Brazil, which fought back for a 3-2 win. Combining the Spain game and the first half of the Brazil encounter, it was the best 135 minutes of U.S. international soccer I can remember.
Entering the Mexico WCQ at Azteca Stadium that Aug. 9, the U.S. was brimming with confidence and it showed on the field as the visitors grabbed a well-earned 1-0 lead on Charlie Davies' goal. The Americans wound up dropping a 2-1 decision
As it turns out, the U.S. peaked that summer. It really has not gotten anywhere close to those performances since.
The Americans essentially chased game after game at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and that type of performance eventually caught up with them in the second-round against Ghana.
The U.S. did not look like a premier CONCACAF side during the 2011 Gold Cup and despite taking a two-goal advantage against Mexico in the final at the Rose Bowl, El Tri struck for four unanswered goals in what turned into an embarrassing 4-2 rout.
Several weeks later, head coach Bob Bradley was out of a job.
German great Jurgen Klinsmann was brought in to transform the team with a new playing style, something I have been waiting for to see, for more than a year and a half. The team has looked rather ordinary and at other times, much worse (please see the WCQ loss in Honduras on Feb. 6).
Mexico, on the other hand, has gotten better, rediscovered its confidence and and its swagger behind a generation of gifted players and a younger generation, a golden generation, if you will, that could fuel the team for the next five to 10 years, thanks to victories at the Olympics and FIFA Under-17 World Cup.
The U.S. also has had a special generation of players, but notice the verb tense is more toward the past and not the future. The Americans' biggest problem has been finding someone who could come close to replicating what Donovan can do -- ie. -- perform magic passing the ball and creating and scoring goals.
Klinsmann has got hearty midfielders in Michael Bradley and Maurice Edu, but no one with the creativity that Donovan brings to the field.
Klinsmann has plenty of firepower up front in Clint Dempsey, Herculez Gomez, Jozy Altidore and Eddie Johnson, but he has to find the right combination to especially make up for the shortcomings in the back.
Due to injuries and player availability, Klinsmann was forced to pick six defenders with a total of 12 qualifying matches of experience under their belt.
On Monday, Klinsmann called Friday's home game against the Ticos a must win game -- for so many reasons. You certainly don't want to walk into the cauldron called Azteca Stadium with only one or worse, no, points from your first two qualifiers in what is a 10-game season. Walking out of Azteca with one or none would be devastating.
Besides, if that occurred, there will be a lot of people calling for the coach's head, a distraction Klinsmann would not need.
No question the U.S. needs three points against Costa Rica, which has looked like the weakest team of the hexagonal (if not the weakest, definitely in the bottom three). That game is at home and you worry more about securing wins and points at home (the Americans have lost on U.S. soil in WCQ only twice in the last 28 years -- vs. Costa Rica in 1985 and vs. Honduras in 2001).
Hard work at Azteca against El Tri, the smog, altitude and a volatile and intimidating crowd will get you only so far. This team, this roster is not good enough for an upset this time, unless the Mexicans woefully underachieve or serve an own goal or two on a silver platter.
Translated: the USA could be in for a long night down there.
I can live with a home win and a road defeat, especially at Azteca, especially with four of the remaining seven qualifiers at home.
What I really fear is one point after three games.
The Americans would not be in a very good place and again they would be chasing the game from a slightly different perspective.