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U.S. Soccer: After the Gold Cup, Where Do We Go from Here?

U.S. Men's Soccer Team (© MEXSPORT)

The United States men’s soccer team did what it was supposed to do, making it to the Gold Cup Final. Right? Jozy Altidore and Stuart Holden both were not available for the final due to injury, or it would have been a different game. Right? Steve Cherundolo’s injury was a deathblow and the U.S. was playing an away game on home turf, justifying a 4-2 loss to Mexico. Right?

Wrong, on all counts.

The failure of the USA to win the Gold Cup cannot be looked upon as a shortsighted setback. Yes, the Mexicans now seem to have the red, white and blue’s number in the Gold Cup. And yes, we will not see the U.S. play in the 2013 Confederations Cup, the tournament where in 2009, U.S. soccer fans reveled at the improbable victory over Spain. The loss to El Tri, and the way the loss went down, casts a shadow of doubt on how close the United States is to breaking into world soccer’s elite.

Head Coach Bob Bradley has been a man living on the edge ever since he was appointed the permanent gaffer. Many thought the failure to get out of the group stage in that Confederations Cup in South Africa, a group which included Italy and Brazil, would spell the end his tenure leading into the 2010 World Cup. But, there was the grit of Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, along with some luck, leading the U.S. past Egypt with the right goal difference to advance. At World Cup 2010, Bradley also faced a deserved sacking if not for Donovan’s heroic goal against Algeria. Even after another disappointing loss to Ghana in the World Cup, Bradley was spared and will lead U.S. soccer for the foreseeable future.

What the Gold Cup loss exposed is the failure of Bob Bradley and the U.S. Men’s National Team organization to develop a stable of players who can compete at the national level.

Any meat-and-potatoes sports fan who watched the Gold Cup final can come away with two definitive conclusions: Giovanni Dos Santos’ goal was something only a handful of soccer players in the entire world could pull off, and Jonathan Bornstein does not have the skill set to compete at the national level.

Now, while Bornstein’s defending, err, ball-watching, was diabolical, it’s not completely his fault. Bornstein looked like a nine-year-old Little League pitcher who was forced to pitch because his 12-year-old brother got chicken pox. He was put in a position to fail, and that falls on the shoulders of Bob Bradley. The sad fact was, there simply weren’t many options on the bench to play right back. Bradley’s solution was to move the surprisingly impressive Eric Lichaj, and we all saw how that turned out.

The re-emergence of Freddy Adu and the knowledge of the potential quality of Altidore, Holden and Juan Agudelo as a future attacking tandem makes my bloodpressure drop slightly. But simply said, the back four for the United States is a mess.

Oguchi Onyewu has not, and probably will never, fully return to 100% after his nasty knee injury. Carlos Bocanegra is quality, but on the wrong side of 30. Steve Cherundolo, the best U.S. defender, is 32. Clarence Goodson is 29. Lichaj needs significant playing time at the club level to reach his potential. Jonathan Spector doesn’t seem to have Bradley’s confidence. Bornstein, in the mold of Conor Casey and Chris Wondolowski, is not an international player.

To take the next step in world soccer, the U.S. needs to develop more talent. Also, its established stars need playing time at club level. Two of its best young players, Altidore and Michael Bradley, are not getting playing time except on the U.S. national team. Supporters are also waiting for some homegrown talent to emerge. The starting XI is starting to look like a group of mercenaries. The list of “naturalized” U.S. players is beginning to overtake the side. Agudelo (Colombia), Adu (Ghana), Timmy Chandler (Germany) and Jermaine Jones (Germany) are just a couple of foreign-born players now wearing the red, white and blue. I would hate to get into a situation where the only chance the United States has at major international silverware is to court a player with duel citizenship, something that’s becoming all too commonplace in Fifa.

When the final whistle sounded at the Rose Bowl, and about 85% of the crowd celebrated victory, USMNT supporters involuntarily entered a soccer purgatory until June 2014. Sure, there will be some high-profile friendlies, and the assumed World Cup qualifiers against Mexico will garner some attention, but there’s no substitute for playing in a final against a rival. Until then, most of the drama for the U.S. will happen off the pitch, as endless debate will rage on to see who will board the plan heading for Brazil and World Cup 2014.

Here’s a look at my grades for players who received playing time in the Gold Cup, and where each player goes from here in a U.S. kit:

Goalies:

Tim Howard – B+

Howard can only be responsible for the third Mexico goal, as the hard, low shot slid under him. He was also caught off his line for Dos Santos’ goal-azo. He had a decent tournament and is the U.S. number one until someone supplants him.

Defense:

Eric Lichaj – B

Lichaj looks like a keeper. He was a little out of place in the final, but that’s understandable considering he was out of position and it was the biggest game of his life. His calmness on the ball is a welcome sign. We’ll see if the Aston Villa player gets playing time at Villa Park or is loaned out again. He seems to be the future at left back for the USA.

Steve Cherundolo – A-

Like scotch, he just gets better with age. A threat going forward and solid at the back. The U.S. obviously missed his presence in the final, and the Hannover captain will be ruing the timing of his injury. He’s the best right back option currently, but will be 35 in 2014.

Carlos Bocanegra – B

The captain and perennial leader on the pitch, Bocanegra again showed his versatility, moving to center back when needed. He had a satisfactory tournament, but remains one of the only reliable defensive options. Again, age is an issue going forward.

Clarence Goodson – B-

Goodson looks like an old school United States player. Big, lanky, and decent on the ball. He seemed out of his league in the final vs. Mexico, however. Goodson scored in the loss against Panama, but, at 29, is he the future at center back? Hardly.

Jonathan Bornstein – F

We’ve been over Bornstein. He may give it 100%, but he doesn’t have the size, speed or awareness to play fullback at the international level. Let’s hope we’ve seen the last of him in a USA shirt. He now joins the unenviable group of players who failed on a big stage. I’m talking to you Michael Orozco.

Tim Ream – C

We didn’t see much of Ream, and he didn’t get a look in the knockout rounds. He’s an MLS product and is just 24. That said, he has a lot to prove to get caps at a frequent pace.

Midfielders

Michael Bradley – B

Bradley showed flashes of brilliance and flashes of mediocrity. His name will continue to be one of the first penciled in the starting XI. He needs playing time at the club level this year. Two questions remain in my mind; why not give him a run out in the hole behind a striker? Could he show that goal scoring form we saw in Holland a few years ago?

Jermaine Jones – B-

It seemed to be feast or famine for Jones. In some games, he bossed the midfield. In others, he seemed disinterested. Jones is always on the edge, which is why my brother nicknamed him Captain Insano. You love to have a guy like that on the pitch…until he makes the wrong move and gets red carded. Going forward, Jones will continue to be in the mix, though many supporters would like to see more of this next player.

Maurice Edu – B+

Edu didn’t get much playing time during the tournament. Edu is a player who scored some massive goals for Rangers in Scotland (evidenced by the video here, goosebumps included). Edu has proven to be a quality holding midfielder and attacking midfielder, and it would shock me if he wasn’t featured in the next World Cup.

Sacha Kljestan – C

Kljestan, in my mind, continues to show that he should be a fringe international player. Rarely does he show high-quality dominance in a match. Bob Bradley seems to think he’s a factor, so he’ll remain in the mix.

Alejandro Bedoya – C

The jury is still out on Bedoya. He had decent spells of play in the Gold Cup, but was invisible against Mexico. I don’t see Bedoya as a factor going forward, once Holden returns from injury.

Freddy Adu – A

There’s not much to say about Adu’s appearances besides magical. On this subject, Bob Bradley got it right selecting the one-time “Next Big Thing” for the squad. He has a presence on the ball that the U.S. has been lacking. It’s impossible to predict where Adu goes from here in terms of U.S. involvement, but if he plays they way he did in the semifinal and final he’ll get a lot more caps.

Forwards

Jozy Altidore – B

Altidore imposed his will in two of the group stage games and scored a pair of goals, one of which was probably the goal of the tournament save, for Dos Santos. It’s unfortunate that Altidore was injured and unable to play in the final as he could have made a difference holding the ball up top and drawing fouls. He remains the best striking option for the U.S., but like Bradley, needs playing time this fall.

Chris Wondolowski – D

As mentioned before, he’s not an international quality player. Like Casey and Edson Buddle before him, he was selected for his MLS form. Whoops.

Juan Agudelo – C+

Agudelo shows a lot of promise, but isn’t there yet. He needs games. The 18-year-old was put in a tough position having to step in for the injured Altidore. It’s too early to tell how good Agudelo will be, but it should be fun to watch his career unfold.

Clint Dempsey – B+

Dempsey proved in the Gold Cup why he’s a leader and the most successful European-based U.S. player. He sprayed balls to Donovan and Altidore, and shows a toughness that’s tough to replicate. He’s no spring chicken, but has plenty of good years left.

Landon Donovan – B

Donovan scored a wonderful goal in the final, but disappeared for much of the match after that. He was placed on the bench for two straight games because of his sister’s wedding, but sparked the U.S. forward when he came on. He’ll be penciled in every starting XI for the foreseeable future.

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