Perhaps it was fitting that on the day when Brian McBride was saying farewell to his career in England, the U.S. national team was at Wembley Stadium, starving for a forward who could provide anywhere near the impact he used to provide.
This was never more apparent than on Wednesday, when the tandem of Eddie Johnson and Josh Wolff, once a very promising American duo, struggled badly to so much as trouble the English center back tandem of Rio Ferdinand and John Terry (although Johnson showed more promise than he has in months). While that is no sin in and of itself -- Ferdinand and Terry form one of the best central defense partnerships in the world -- the credentials of the two Americans had to leave some English spectators scratching their heads:
"Let's see, one bloke is with Fulham but barely played, while the other chap was just released from a second-division club in Germany. Is the United States having a laugh?"
American fans certainly weren't laughing after watching a toothless U.S. attack, and the biggest complaints will be aimed at U.S. coach Bob Bradley for not including Jozy Altidore and Kenny Cooper, two of the more talented forwards in the U.S. pool. While it certainly would have been a more promising collection of forwards had Altidore and Cooper been called in, we can't ignore the fact that both players are in the middle of the MLS season. Cooper had a match on Wednesday night for FC Dallas (a match he scored in) and Altidore is already likely to spend considerable time away from the New York Red Bulls this summer on international duty.
The more-troubling realization from Wednesday is that, other than McBride, there isn't a single American forward who has established himself in a top European league. Clint Dempsey has done well at Fulham, but he has spent more time as a midfielder than a forward. The rest of the forwards in Europe are either not seeing much playing time with first teams or they're young prospects working their way through the youth- and reserve-team ranks.
Landon Donovan could have helped things look a bit better on Wednesday if a tight hamstring hadn't kept him out and forced Bradley to start Wolff, whose best national team days are behind him. Donovan has been a terror in MLS at forward this season and looked like he might be ready to carry the mantle of go-to forward, but even when he's healthy and playing, Donovan still needs a partner up top.
For the U.S., its lack of dangerous forwards is not a new problem, but it is one that is magnified against topflight competition. The same issue existed at the 2006 World Cup, when the lack of a second dependable forward left Bruce Arena to essentially use McBride as a lone forward. Donovan was supposed to play as a second forward in that scenario, but he often wound up playing more like a central midfielder instead.
Which brings us to another point: Dempsey and Donovan, arguably the two best forward options at Bradley's disposal, are not pure forwards. Both have appeared more comfortable in midfield roles and will often times slip into the midfield more often than they should when deployed as forwards.
So who will emerge to fill the major void up top for the U.S. team? Altidore has already been appointed the savior in some circles, but it is easy to forget that he's just 18 and still learning the game and how to be a professional. Altidore has all the tools to eventually be the type of dangerous target the United States is desperate for, but does Bradley rush him for the sake of some meaningless friendly results?
Cooper is the other appealing prospect in the pool. His size, skill and pedigree have always made him a player to watch, but he has really flourished as a goal scorer for FC Dallas this season and looks poised to force himself into the conversation after initially being overlooked by Bradley.
Whether it is Altidore, Cooper, Donovan, Dempsey, Johnson or even McBride coming out of retirement, the U.S. team needs to find two capable forwards who will do more than just go through the motions against top competition. The 2010 World Cup is two years away; Bradley will either need one of the aforementioned players to mature into a truly dangerous goal-scoring forward, or he will need to find some uncapped Brazilian forwards to naturalize for the national team.
Something needs to happen because if the pool of American forwards doesn't get better, ugly displays like Wednesday's will become the norm, as will shutout losses against the world's best.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.