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Oct 19, 2009

Onyewu's injury exposes lack of depth in U.S. defense

Eight months from the World Cup, U.S. coach Bob Bradley's list of worries might be moving in the wrong direction, growing instead of shrinking.

Oguchi Onyewu's injury has further exposed a back line that was just OK to begin with. To put a finer point on it, injuries to the big fellow and to reliable understudy Jay DeMerit have created pressure at center back. And that's unfortunate, because the central defense was just recently a position of relative strength.

Oh, the U.S. center backs might not have been head turners and heavy hitters. But Carlos Bocanegra, Onyewu and DeMerit were acceptable options, solid performers who were starters and valued assets for mid-level European clubs. So while Bradley has been constantly tinkering in other spots, always mixing and matching and trying to get the punch recipe just right for the big party, he never needed to worry much about center back.

It always was going to be Bocanegra and Onyewu, with DeMerit providing solid cover. DeMerit's rise even created other handy options. He looked so reliable through spring and early summer that Bradley moved Bocanegra to the left, providing a stopgap for a spot that long has been a burr in the U.S. backside -- so to speak.

So when talking about center back, we all said, "Check! Done." And then we moved along, chewing on the real and ample personnel conundrums elsewhere on the field. That security at center back represented precisely the stability Bradley sought to weave into the program's very fabric. He always craved and attempted to create a settled environment in which players could dependably predict everything from team meals to training routines to team tactics and personnel.

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Now Onyewu faces three to four months of recovery from the knee injury he suffered in the waning moments of last week's emotional 2-2 draw with Costa Rica. And this situation with DeMerit is unsettling on a number of fronts. Any time the subjects of eyes and surgeries mix, well, it just can't be good. (He scratched a cornea, which turned into an infection. Surgery will be performed this week, with a return expected in perhaps two months.)

Barring further complications, they both should return to the field by February, or March at the latest. So there will be time to get fit. But it won't be a simple matter of getting the top-choice center backs' legs and lungs about them. Sharpness and confidence must be considered. Plus, Onyewu didn't look particularly great last week, getting beaten badly on the Ticos' first strike and taking some fault for all that space provided on the visitors' second, standing nearby in a stationary posture instead of aggressively closing the space.

None of that should be a huge surprise, considering that his confidence probably is in the garbage. He appears to be the No. 5 man in AC Milan's pecking order of center backs. Suffice to say, a three- to four-month injury absence isn't going to help his chances of leapfrogging to the front of the order. Meanwhile, a loan probably isn't in the offing; since he wouldn't be available until February or March, what's the real benefit for some other team to bring him aboard?

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So there is a real possibility the only competitive matches Onyewu will play between now and the World Cup will be with the U.S. side. And that's a huge problem, because there is but one lone FIFA fixture date next year before the World Cup, on March 3. (That unusually small number also makes any plans to work Jermaine Jones and/or Edgar Castillo into the mix far more tricky than some people think.)

So Bradley must consider all this in the run-up. Instead of picking the best pairing of outside backs to go with his steady-eddies in the middle, Bradley could be piecemealing the back line with a limited number of matches in which to do so.

And who might get the central assignment if Onyewu and DeMerit aren't healthy, fit and sharp? Chad Marshall is having another standout season at Columbus, possibly nearing a second consecutive Major League Soccer defender of the year honor. He was a strong presence in the Gold Cup, delivering performances that allowed Bradley to put him in the center for September's qualifier against El Salvador, in which Marshall did little wrong.

So he's proved to be dependable in early tests, although a World Cup would represent a significant move up in class for the Crew stopper.

Although most of Jonathan Spector's time in England has been along the outside, he was at center back when Sir Alex Ferguson first spotted him and subsequently offered a Manchester United deal. (Fun fact: Spector actually was a forward for the U.S. under-17s. He had never played as a center back, but a run of injuries there prompted the desperate U.S. coach to request Spector give it a try one day. That happened to be the match Ferguson saw, and the Man U. man was impressed. Go figure.)

Spector perhaps could get the job done. On the other hand, we aren't talking about some January friendly against a Scandinavian middleweight here. We're talking about keeping fast company with some potentially strong teams at a World Cup. So if you start asking guys to man spots where they've never been pressure-tested, you might be overreaching dangerously.

Jimmy Conrad? Yeah, he did great in emergency duty four years ago, stepping into the breach heroically, and he just got a surprise call back into the U.S. camp. But the guy is coming off a pretty rough season along a back line for a below-average MLS side, the Kansas City Wizards.

Michael Parkhurst? Danny Califf? Clarence Goodson? They've come in and performed here and there. But realistically, they are fringe players in the pool. And if we're talking about trial by fire this summer, the U.S. prospects are somewhere between dim and grim.

Look, none of this falls under the category of "dire." There's time. There are options.

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But it is something else to worry about. It's something else that's less settled than it needs to be heading into the time that matters most around national team programs.

Even with their top-choice center backs, the Americans did, after all, just draw at home with a nation not heading to the World Cup. (Not yet, anyway.) Yes, Costa Rica had it all to play for, and the U.S. had flipped on the cruise control. Still, a draw at home in this region with anyone other than Mexico is a bit lame.

Well, at least there's big Tim Howard in goal. And the invaluable Landon Donovan is sure to lead the attack, although the "where" is always up for debate with U.S. Soccer's all-time leading goal-scorer.

Other than that, Bradley still has plenty to consider during a time that's best left for fine tuning rather than for pondering and piecing together. And now there's one more in which a concerning number of questions linger.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Dailysoccerfix.com, and can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.

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