A year before the 1990 World Cup, the U.S. lined up Philip Gyau and Bruce Murray at striker for a qualifier against Guatemala in New Britain, Conn. Ten years later, Jovan Kirovski and Brian McBride were the U.S. forwards. This summer, Jozy Altidore and Charlie Davies are contending for starting roles.
These three sets of strikers illustrate the evolution of the U.S. striker.
Gyau and Kirovski are offspring of recent immigrants (Gyau's father, Nana, moved from Ghana to play in the North American Soccer League) and skillful players whose potential never was quite fulfilled. Murray and McBride are of similar build -- tall and strong -- are able to hold off defenders and both performed in Europe, McBride having the significantly more successful run.
Now we have Altidore and Davies. They are sort of a compendium of past U.S. strikers. They are sons of recent immigrants, and have good foot skills and tactical sense. They play physical games, and are able to hold the ball with their backs to the goal. And they have something else -- quickness and speed with the ball at their feet.
Altidore and Davies could be the future starting strike force for the U.S., and they represent how player development is accelerating in the U.S.
In the summer of 1989, the U.S. did not have a viable professional league: Gyau was 24, Murray 23. In 1999, the MLS was 3 years old: Kirovski was 23, McBride 27. Now, the MLS is an established league and soccer horizons are expanding: Altidore is 19, Davies 23.
Before MLS, foreign teams seldom scouted U.S. players, and rarely discussed significant transfer fees for them. As MLS has progressed, so have domestic players, benefiting the U.S. national team. Villareal paid $10 million for Altidore last year. FC Sochaux paid 1.5 million euros to Hammarby IF for Davies last week, according to a source close to the negotiations.
MLS should receive credit for developing Altidore and for having maximized the return on the transfer fee to Spain. Davies, though, skipped MLS to set out on his own, the move paying off for both him and Hammarby.
Altidore followed a career pattern set up by MLS, joining New York's development program and progressing to the first team. Altidore did not make much of an impact in MLS, but his potential was apparent and is being revealed with the national team.
Davies took a different path, playing two seasons at Boston College then opting to turn pro. MLS offered security -- a guaranteed salary, funds to complete his studies -- but Davies decided to take a chance, going for a tryout with Ajax. Had Davies not gained employment overseas, he might have had to return to MLS with his tail between his legs and accept a greatly reduced offer, a path several players have followed, to their regret.
Davies, though, found a team. Actually, a team found him. Hammarby went for Davies because of his promise. Davies had no credentials the Swedes could evaluate; the 30 goals Davies scored at Boston College meant little to them. He had not played against professional competition (except for a scrimmage against the New England Revolution in which he converted a Hugo Sanchez-like bicycle kick in a 3-1 BC victory at the Gillette Stadium practice field), but Davies was not burdened by a transfer fee. Hammarby thought Davies would become a goal-scoring threat by his second season and fully expected they to lose him, at a profit.
Seven of the 14 U.S. players on the field in a 2-0 win over Spain in Bloemfontein, South Africa, went directly to Europe to start their professional careers. Conor Casey and Landon Donovan started off in Europe and returned to MLS. Five used MLS to launch them on a European journey. Ricardo Clark will doubtless make a move to a foreign club and Jonathan Bornstein could follow.
Davies is one of those players who developed outside MLS. Davies performed in organized programs for enlightened coaches, but his feel for the game came from his father, Kofi.
Kofi, who moved to the Boston area from Gambia, used to take sons Charlie and Justin (now at San Diego State University) out for kickarounds. It is difficult in the U.S. to replicate other countries' conditions, which make soccer a spontaneous activity. Kids come up with their own moves and generally just play for fun. The Davies family kickarounds had structure, but there was also playfulness, such as practicing bicycle kicks. The boys were also encouraged to wrestle (Charlie was a prep school champion), a Gambian tradition, which helped them build strength and learn to leverage their bodies against defenders.
"He was a striker and he focused on, when I was a little kid, to kind of be selfish," Charlie said of his father. "Whenever you are in front of goal, whenever you are in the box, score. Take it to goal and try and finish. So, he's really developed me into being an attacking player ever since I was a little kid. Now, I've got to learn how to do that and take it to the next level."
France's Ligue 1 is a step up from the Allsvenskan.
"It's been nice to see the improvement and the maturity in Charlie's game," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. "To see a young striker with the kind of physical qualities that he has maturing and developing is great. Hopefully, his transfer now will only help all of this to move forward."
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.