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May 25, 2008

Bradley still seeking answers at forward

Bob Bradley has critical decisions to make all over the park, and the power trio of friendlies starting Wednesday at historic Wembley will help sort out the choices. The intense season of World Cup qualifiers is nearly upon us, and Bradley has more enticing options than any U.S. manager before him.

But let's be clear: Not all sets of selections are the same, as we are about to see.

Bradley has plenty of reasons to like his situation at goalkeeper, defense and midfield. Along the back two-thirds, the U.S. boss presides over reasonable and sometimes intriguing options. As the Americans meet England, Spain and Argentina, he can plot solutions for more meaningful matches by establishing a solid depth chart of first, second and even third choices. Barring an implausible batch of serious injuries, he'll be fairly comfortable with that part of the roster moving into mid-June's qualifying opener against Barbados.

But the picture isn't as rosy at forward, where the selections come with a wholly different kind of challenge. Here, the U.S. pool of the moment simply lacks the same quality of depth.

The United States has seven goals in three matches this year. Defenders have four of them -- two by Oguchi Onyewu and one apiece from Eddie Robinson and Carlos Bocanegra. Midfielder Eddie Lewis has another one.

At other spots, Bradley can studiously pick and probe during the upcoming friendlies, identifying combinations that work and scanning for performers achieving peak level. At forward, he's just straining to pinpoint a couple of guys who can do the job. Period.

It's not that the cupboard is horribly bare. Rather, no names are screaming "obvious selection!" That's not good, because no one should underestimate the difficulty of scoring in CONCACAF qualifiers. In 16 matches during qualifying for World Cup Germany, the United States scored one goal or fewer nine times. The American team was shut out five times.

Central American and Caribbean hotboxes like Guatemala City, San Salvador and San Jose (Costa Rica) can be brutal. So who's up for the job? If someone can score against England at Wembley or against Spain a week later in Santander, Bradley can justify asking them to seize the moment later this summer in Havana, assuming that match happens.

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. England
May 28
Wembley Stadium, London, England
3 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic

U.S. vs. Spain
June 4
Estadio El Sardinero, Santander, Spain
4 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360

U.S. vs. Argentina
June 8
Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.
7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic

Really, it says a lot when the United States is still leaning on Josh Wolff, who recently was waived by Bundesliga 2 side 1860 Munich. Is Wolff truly still an international selection? He's 31 now and hasn't dented a net for the U.S. since 2005.

There is another side to the equation, of course. Though certain names are entrenched in goal, in defense and (to a bit lesser extent, perhaps) in midfield, a real opportunity exists here for a wannabe U.S. goal-getter. If a guy such as Wolff, Nate Jaqua, or Jozy Altidore -- really, any striker on the 33-man pool outside of Landon Donovan -- can somehow rise to the moment in the friendlies, he instantly will move up the fluid pecking order for coming qualifiers.

The likely pairing now is Donovan and Clint Dempsey, although it's not exactly a no-brainer. Only now are managers settling on the best way to utilize Donovan, as a second striker, running off a target forward.

But what if you don't have an effective target forward? Or, what if a certain match calls for greater attacking muscle, requiring Donovan in midfield supporting two true strikers? So even Donovan's selection creates its own set of complexities.

And speaking of a fellow whom managers still don't quite know what to do with, there's Dempsey. Debate has long raged about how best to deploy the Fulham man. Some managers believe the nearer they get Dempsey to goal, the better. Others think the Texan is better running at defenders from deeper spots. Steve Nicol liked Dempsey at attacking midfielder for New England. At Craven Cottage, he's been a second forward or outside midfielder.

He was playing on the outside in Nuremberg at World Cup 2006 when a cagey tug on a Ghanaian jersey gave him a step of separation for a telling run from midfield. He finished DaMarcus Beasley's cross with authority. That's the kind of decisive moment that helps make a career, the kind of moment Bradley would love to see Wednesday in London.

A true target forward may be the best pairing for Donovan, and Dempsey isn't truly suited as that guy. So, though they may represent the top choices, they aren't ideally paired.

Altidore may be the next best choice. But the Red Bull youngster, for all his undeniable talent, has shown some concerning signs of vulnerability to provocation. If he'll wade into needless confrontations in an April match before a few thousand fans in Giants Stadium, how will he react in the cauldron at Port of Spain, Trinidad, later this year? After all, he's still just 18 years old.

Each forward in Bradley's 33-man pool for the trio of friendlies comes with an asterisk. Brian Ching, although he has hit for two recently at Houston, is streaky. He can be really good, but he's prone to long stretches of "blah."

Kenny Cooper has great feet for a big fellow, and he strikes consistently in MLS. But he sometimes struggles to incorporate players around him into his game, and that issue is amplified in international play.

Jaqua is a big target but lacks international talent. Plus, at such an important spot on the U.S. calendar, is your answer a fellow who has just two U.S. appearances? Exciting young winger Robbie Rogers has been a bright spot for surprising Columbus. But two prodigious months in MLS hardly serve notice that he's ready to go large on the international stage.

We could debate night and day about how the U.S. needs to create better attackers, about how MLS and U.S. Soccer developmental mechanisms need tweaking. But that's an argument for another time. Right now Bradley needs a couple of guys who can find ways past defenses. He needs a striker to step up, grab the moment and be the Man with the Goal Scoring Plan.

They have three tough games to do it.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.

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