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Jun 19, 2009

U.S. expectations are too high

In case you didn't notice, the United States national team isn't that good. Thank you, Captain Obvious. I made this observation somewhere after the third or fourth time I threw my remote at the television during the U.S. team's 3-0 loss to Brazil. Like an MLS striker, I missed all four times.

But saying the national team isn't good is not to say that the team is bad. The U.S. is rather ordinary, filled with yeoman-like players who are long on effort and short on technical skill and savvy. Blending together 11 players like this on the national team means that the U.S. is still going to be a predictable, counterattacking team.

It also means the glaring criticism of Bradley and the performance in the Confederations Cup (and, to a lesser extent, the past two qualifiers) is uncalled for.

When Project 2010 was spawned in the mid-90s by the United States Soccer Federation, the idea was that the youth development system in this country would eventually produce world-caliber talent that would allow the side to compete for the World Cup in, yep, 2010. The idea, laughably absurd, was that with American ingenuity and a diverse talent pool, the United States could leapfrog top-flight soccer-playing nations such as Spain and Sweden to lift the trophy. To be honest, it was never plausible that in two decades the United States could elevate itself from a third-tier nation on the field to elite. If it was that simple, then everyone would do it.

What Project 2010 was successful in doing was elevating the overall standard and quality of the American player, as evidenced in the growing number of Yanks playing in England, Germany, Italy and Spain. Notwithstanding the growing American presence in Europe, the United States has failed to produce one world-class player through its youth development efforts. Beyond that, not one American player is consistently playing for a high-level club in Europe. Even Tim Howard, the most successful American ever in his European club career, transferred from famed Manchester United to Everton after finding playing time at Old Trafford hard to come by.

The reason being is that the American player, as evidenced against Italy and Brazil, just isn't up to snuff. An American can fit a role on a European side and be pigeonholed into that role -- a target striker, a speedy winger, a feisty defensive midfielder or a bruising defender -- but that's it. Because the skill set is limited, he can be a nice complement on a team but will never be the star. This is fine and good, but put 11 players on the field like that and the limited talent pool produces limited results. Americans still don't overlap effectively, are not comfortable on the ball and aren't daring or creative enough.

But should we expect anything less?

After all, this is still a national team that is a generation of talent removed from fielding Michael Mason and David Wagner, two very ordinary players who played for lower-division clubs in Germany. These players both were used as starters in World Cup qualifiers in 1996 and 1997. And, lest we forget, in 2002 a very average defender in the French league, David Regis, was bantered about by fans as a favorable starter over Jeff Agoos at left back. Regis started all three games for the national team in the doomed 1998 World Cup.

Arguably, the talent pool for the Yanks hasn't improved that much since. And we expect to be able to compete against the Kakas and Messis of the world?

The United States' success at the World Cup in 2002, advancing to the quarterfinals, only raised expectations that the country had finally arrived. It was a lot of smoke and mirrors and merely masked the development gap that still exists. The fact that the U.S. was actually outplayed in two of its group stage matches and backed into the second round is often overlooked by fans. During the entire tournament, the team never really looked like world-beaters or was even consistently the better team (until arguably the game against Germany). It was a counterattacking, defensive-oriented style that relied on athleticism, fitness and speed to balance the more technical savvy of Portugal, Poland, Germany and Mexico.

And in our search for that "Eureka!" moment -- a poignant point in time where we as fans of the sport in this country can herald our arrival on the global stage -- has perhaps deluded us into thinking that U.S. Soccer has progressed further than the evidence suggests. Whether it was the victory over Colombia in 1994, the win over Brazil in the 1998 Gold Cup or the run in 2002 in South Korea, fans and media alike have clung to these few successes as signs of a pivotal turning point in the development of the national team. Look no further than a starting lineup Thursday that had several players who struggle for time with their club sides in Europe; even the best player for the national team against Brazil -- Jay DeMerit -- plays in the second tier of English football. The expectation for this national team must meet the talent that is available.

So where does that leave the United States now? After 2002, there was no marked change or improvement in the squad that Bruce Arena took with him to Germany for the World Cup four years later. There was little infusion of youth or new talent into the side during qualifying, let alone in the tournament itself. What this effectively means is that the national team Bradley inherited needed a complete overhaul.

Before the kneejerk responses demanding Bradley's head, we have to collectively look at the talent available for the 2010 World Cup and realize we're at a crossroads of development in this nation. Remembering that it wasn't until the last cycle of qualifying leading up to the World Cup in 2006 that the national team "breezed" through qualifying, the national team is nearly dominant in the region but isn't yet an established soccer-playing nation. In terms of high-quality players, the Yanks still lag behind even nations such as South Korea, Japan and Nigeria in their ability to produce game-changing players.

What all this means is that while the talent level continues to improve, Bradley still doesn't have many options to address the glaring needs at central midfield and on the wings. The team is without a true goal-scoring threat or even a savvy distributor out of the back. The players available are serviceable and solid, but there is no one to pick from that can and will consistently prove to be a threat over 90 minutes.

That's why the U.S. will continue to play on its heels against top-level competition, the likes of which it has seen in South Africa. Even the newly heralded crop of young talent, the much-publicized stars such as Jozy Altidore and Freddy Adu, have yet to consistently prove at their clubs in Europe that they are threats. When that time comes -- and it may hopefully come before next summer -- perhaps the U.S. can pull itself out of the doldrums.

Until that time, however, the national team will continue to be a somewhat underwhelming, pedantic side. Even against national teams such as Honduras and El Salvador, Bradley's team will most likely lose the battle of possession against opposition that is more comfortable on the ball and more savvy than the United States. It isn't a talent deficiency; it's just the style and level of development the player in this country has reached.

And it's somewhat unfair to blame Bob Bradley for that.

Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the associate editor of Blitz magazine and also writes for the New York City daily paper Metro. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com.

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