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Aug 30, 2008

Bradley opts for experience over youthful potential

Where are the kids? That was the loudest question echoing from American soccer fans when the roster for the U.S. men's national soccer team was released in advance of upcoming World Cup qualifiers. Where is the best young forward in Major League Soccer? Yes, the same impressive young forward who had European clubs bidding millions for him before FC Dallas ownership stepped and said it wouldn't sell. Where is the $10 million striker who looks set to see playing time for a Spanish Champions League squad? Where is the mercurial playmaker who showed so many flashes this past summer and creates like no other player in the national team pool? The omissions of Kenny Cooper, Jozy Altidore and Freddy Adu have left the U.S. team with a roster that proponents will call experienced and battle-tested. But opponents will call it unproductive and lacking potential for growth. Cooper's absence draws the most objections from U.S. fans. The combination of Cooper's impressive goal-scoring exploits in MLS and the relative ineffectiveness of the forwards earning U.S. team call-ups has led to a growing sentiment that the 23-year-old striker deserves an opportunity. While Cooper's absence attracts the most criticism, the omission that probably deserves more scrutiny is Altidore's. The $10 million striker has settled in at Villarreal and was certainly impressive in his last senior national team turn, scoring a goal in the February tie vs. Mexico. An ankle injury kept Altidore out of the national team picture over the summer, followed by Olympic team duty, but with the Olympics over Altidore was still left off the roster.

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Cuba
Sept. 6
Havana, Cuba
8 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic

U.S. vs. Trinidad & Tobago
Sept. 10
Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Ill.
8 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Why? Coming off an Olympic tournament that saw him play sparingly, Altidore had been rumored to still be dealing with the ankle injury. Altidore said those rumors were false and added that his lack of playing time was U.S. Olympic coach Peter Nowak's call (Nowak is also a senior national team assistant). "I know there were some things written about me being injured. ... I don't know where that came from because I wasn't injured," Altidore said on his New York Times-hosted blog. "Maybe my left ankle is not the greatest, but I was more than fine to play. How much I played was really a coach's decision. "I had a game plan for myself, but I guess it wasn't the same as the coach's plan. My playing had nothing to do with my ankle, it was just how the coach made the lineup." Altidore has been fit enough to see considerable playing time with Villarreal in preseason since returning from Beijing, but he still didn't get a call-up. The exclusions of Cooper and Altidore are made more puzzling by the continued inclusion of Eddie Johnson, who has been largely ineffective for the national team for the better part of three years. His statistics in World Cup qualifying are jaw-dropping; he has scored eight goals in eight qualifying matches, but six of those goals came in a four-month span almost four years ago. That goal-scoring explosion led former national team coach Bruce Arena to keep giving Johnson opportunities in the coach's final year at the U.S. helm. It seems that same potential has current U.S. coach Bob Bradley continuing to call in Johnson despite his ineffectiveness. On one hand, you can't blame Bradley for holding out hope that Johnson, still just 24, will tap into that potential he showed four years ago. But on the other hand, given the presence of some of the best young forward prospects in recent memory, it is becoming more and more difficult to justify calling in Johnson if he doesn't produce. Perhaps the absence of Cooper and Altidore wouldn't draw such a reaction if not for the recent struggles of Clint Dempsey, whose club struggles have carried over to the national team. His U.S. team performances this calendar year -- with the exception of the 8-0 drubbing of Barbados in World Cup qualifying on June 15 -- have been well below the standard he set in 2006 and 2007. Dempsey's lack of playing time at Fulham doesn't bode well for his breaking out of that slump. Another factor working against the U.S. team is the glaring lack of quality right-wing choices, with Landon Donovan slowly morphing into the team's best option. However, this is due to Donovan's ability to be a two-way player and to handle the defensive responsibilities of the position, as opposed to his actual suitability to play on the right flank. In the process, the U.S. team has effectively lost its most prolific goal scorer while he toils in a position that isn't his best for the sake of establishing some midfield balance. Once again, this sacrifice would not be as detrimental if not for the relative lack of production from the national team's other forwards. That same desire to create a balance in midfield is likely why Adu has yet to earn the call. He has dazzled fans at times with his creativity, vision and ball skills (traits that aren't exactly in abundance in the national team pool), but concerns still exist about his work rate and his willingness to do what is necessary away from the ball to be a truly productive midfielder. There is also the matter of how to integrate Adu as a starter on the national team. The lack of a dominant ball-winning defensive midfielder to pair with Adu in central midfield and cover for him defensively makes it difficult to envision him as a starter in Bradley's preferred 4-4-2. If and when Adu becomes a must-start player, he will need to improve his defensive effort enough to carry his weight in central midfield. Either that, or he'll have to evolve into such an attacking force that Bradley has no choice but to incorporate a 4-2-3-1 formation with Adu in the playmaking role. So how far away are we from seeing Adu, Altidore and Cooper integrated into the national team? That depends on all three continuing to develop and play well, and on the U.S. being able to secure qualification. There are no easy roads in qualifying, but if Bradley's experienced roster can secure wins against Cuba and Trinidad & Tobago, it will give Bradley the luxury of having three more qualifiers he can use to experiment as the U.S. team sits on nine points in the standings. Critics will point to those games as meaningless at that point, but they certainly won't be meaningless to the other teams trying to advance out of the group, or to the young players being given a chance to prove their worth. Ultimately, Bradley's first mission is fielding the team he feels is best equipped to secure qualification to the next round of World Cup qualifying. The notion that calling in every young prospect because the U.S. team "should" beat the likes of Cuba and Trinidad & Tobago without much difficulty is a misguided and reckless one. Bradley can't be blamed for wanting to stick with experienced players to secure qualification as quickly as possible. Now, if this group of veterans stumbles next week, Bradley will have no choice but to consider alternatives, and three names will be at the top of the list if that happens. 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.

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