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Jun 8, 2009

Current U.S. team no better than the 2006 version

It is a quintessentially American trait to believe things are always on the rise. Even in these days of coupon clipping, Americans are generally a bunch of red, white and blue optimists, forever convinced that tomorrow's haul will be more bountiful than today's in a world of blessed plenty. This certainly applies to the U.S. soccer team. As the national program goes, the belief is that it's long been on the incline. The U.S. Soccer tree grows a little more each year, sprouting ever more green and full. It's been this way for more than 25 years -- or so we thought. Quick history review: The peach-fuzzed Americans defined "pedestrian" at the Italy 1990 World Cup. But, ciao! They were there! And that team was easier on the eyes than its gangly, mid-'80s siblings. The Americans were unartful but certainly not terrible as World Cup 1994 hosts -- although that faux denim kit certainly qualified as an all-timer in the long, sad history of bad ideas. The daffy 3-6-1 formation and a poison locker room not withstanding, talent had improved by France '98. Then things blossomed splendidly at World Cup 2002 in South Korea/Japan, as then-coach Bruce Arena's boys exploited the quirkiness of a tournament off European soil. Then came 2006. Arena kept saying all was OK, that conceding early goals just made things appear worse than they were -- never mind that his team was, in fact, conceding those early goals. You could argue that qualification had come easier, that breaks had broken unfortunately in Germany and that the player pool was, despite it all, deeper than ever. None of that would have been an absurd stretch. But here we are now, and it's high time to see this assumption of perpetual ascendancy for what it is: wishful thinking. Me? I've seen enough. I see no reason to believe that the national team has improved even a smidgen since 2006. Beyond a Lady Luck-blessed, cinchy draw, I simply can't find evidence to suggest that South Africa 2010 will play out any more favorably than the stumble through Germany 2006. And how'd that work out for everyone? You could even argue that things have regressed a bit.

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Italy
June 15
Tshwane/Pretoria, South Africa
2:25 p.m. ET, ESPN, ESPN360 U.S. vs. Brazil
June 18
Tshwane/Pretoria, South Africa
9:55 a.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360 U.S. vs. Egypt
June 21
Rustenburg, South Africa
2:25 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360
Coach Bob Bradley's men are bearing down on a spot in South Africa, so it's not like the program is on the skids. On the other hand, the Yanks were one big, brave Carlos Bocanegra moment from being perched way too precariously. There is really no spot on the field where the Americans look even marginally better than 2006. Essentially, three members of the back four are the same in Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo and Oguchi Onyewu. If you argued that Cherundolo and Bocanegra have benefited from another three seasons in good leagues, I'd retort that they both turned 30 this year. So we'd call it a wash -- then probably find our neck muscles aching from nodding in agreement that left back remains the same sore tooth it's always been. Michael Bradley has no doubt matured as a player in three years. That's one of the pluses. In fact, it's gotten to the point that the United States feels his absence; he was suspended for Saturday's game because he had collected too many yellow cards. Ricardo Clark was a force Saturday, a testament to how effort and simplicity can rule. But Bradley's passing and his instinctive midfield drive would have nicely complemented Clark's rangy ways. Pablo Mastroeni is 32 and looked every bit of it on Honduras' goal Saturday, hopelessly chasing the play from behind. So you really can't look at the central midfield as a whole and stamp it "improved." In fact, given coach Bradley's continued dependence on Mastroeni, and considering Claudio Reyna isn't around to slow pace and create space, there probably has been a decline. The outside midfield spots? It's time to admit already that DaMarcus Beasley peaked four years ago? Clint Dempsey is an industrious, reliable worker at Fulham. But something happens when he slips into a U.S. shirt; he never quite seems to figure out what he wants to be. (Although he can certainly still muster a big moment or two, as we saw Saturday.) Landon Donovan is the same player from four years back. That's not bad. But is the United States any closer than four years ago to identifying his best spot? Donovan is most comfortable in MLS as a second striker, operating off a target man. But Bradley isn't using him there. The talent at forward is a bit like a turkey sandwich -- it's a calorie provider, but not much to get excited about. Brian Ching is what he is. Jozy Altidore shows promise but will be only 20 at the South Africa World Cup. Beyond prodigies named Messi and such, teams just don't spring into a World Cup leaning on 20-year-old strikers. Part of the problem has been Bradley's curious reliance on a core of certain individuals -- regardless of their form. Bradley has strained so diligently to make things predictable around the U.S. camp -- including an effort to shrink the first-team pool to help fuse familiarity -- that he hamstrings himself. How else to explain Eddie Johnson's previous, repeated call-ups when he was playing about as often as Franz Beckenbauer -- and The Kaiser retired 25 years ago! How else to explain why, during last week's dreadful, ambivalent 3-1 fiasco against Costa Rica, we had to watch guys like Beasley, Altidore and Freddy Adu, none of whom were playing regularly with their clubs? These were the conquerors who were somehow supposed to muster the confidence, rise to the moment and tame a place called the Monster's Cave? We've come that far from Arena's decree that players who were fit, in form and on the field at club level would earn caps? Clark was Bradley's best player Saturday, yet he was called only when Maurice Edu was revealed injured. The Houston Dynamo's buzz-saw midfield has been most responsible for the club's May resurrection. And yet, Benny Feilhaber had been dusted off and granted the original call, ahead of Clark. Beyond that important, misplaced tenet ("Form matters!") something else has been lost along the Team USA way: Previous American versions wore a useful chip on their shoulder. Other countries didn't respect the Yanks, and every match day was a fresh opportunity to stick it in their soccer snob faces. That will seems to have wandered. The most inspired U.S. action in five years may have been the second half of a heroic night in Kaiserslautern, where a nine-man block of steely determination kept the entire U.S. World Cup effort from bleeding out, drawing memorably against Italy. The talent pool hasn't improved significantly since then. Parlayed with the toxic drip of creeping complacency, the whole is suffering. At the very least, this train is stuck on the tracks. 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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