Going Forward Part II, "Attacking With Swagger"

The defense has been our biggest problem for a few years now, and I have addressed that in my previous post (here http://thesetpiece.weebly.com/usa.html).  With that area of concern already discussed, it’s time to start talking about the more advanced positions on the field, the front six who will be charged with scoring goals, the ones who get the headlines, our goalscorers.  (Remember this is for a 4-2-3-1 lineup, so I’m providing 2 options at each position with an extra keeper, as you’d typically see at a tournament)

The criteria again:
1) American Eligible (Obviously)
2) You don’t suck.
3) You’re young enough to be considered relevant in the next World Cup (2014)
4) You bring more than just talent, meaning mental toughness, and a desire to work hard. 
5) Not already an obvious first team player

Central Midfield:
This is arguably our deepest position, with a lot of talent to choose from.  So much talent that we already have a lot of quality on the bench in this area, and a lot of this talent is young.  That being said, I think saying this isn’t a position of concern is naïve.  While we have good players, none of them are great.  They stand out compared to the lackluster play of their teammates, but compared to central midfielders at most other international teams we’re far behind.  This is the engine room, the guys who make our attack go.  The fulcrum of the team, deciding where the ball goes, switching it back and forth, and being responsible for winning and keeping possession.  This position, like most others, needs to get better.  Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones were decent in the World Cup, but your CMs have to win games for you, not just facilitate them.  I will include in my four choices 2 players many of you will have already heard of, and that are well established in the national team, but through injury and being benched by the coach, have fallen behind Jones and Bradley in the pecking order (I don’t agree with this). 
1) Maurice Edu (Glasgow Rangers, 25 years old)-Mo Edu is one of our best players.  I thoroughly believe this, and would have personally started him over Jermaine Jones in the recent Gold Cup.  Edu has become an essential part of a very good Rangers team, and has been key to their strong league campaigns over the past few years..  He’s a hero there after scoring a game winning goal in injury time to propel them to victory over fierce rivals Celtic, and I think he could be a hero for us as well.   He was overlooked to an extent in some World Cup games as well (Ghana-aka the Ricardo Clark fiasco game) and has never gotten a fair chance in my opinion.  When he has gotten the chance he has impressed, and should have scored one of the biggest goals in US Soccer history (The winning goal in the greatest World Cup comeback of all time against Slovenia, that was called back for no reason).  He’s the kind of player who can free other attackers to get forward because he is incredibly athletic, and never stops running.  His fitness and ability to cover tons of ground is something that will help us if he is given the chance.  He’s also good on the ball and can keep possession in the midfield.  Finally, his versatility will be interesting as well, as he has spent time at CB for the US, and with our problems there, he’s a dark horse for that job (I want him starting in the middle though, not in the back).
2) Stuart Holden (Bolton Wanderers, 25 years old) The other twenty-five year old who has made a name for himself in Europe could be our best player.  Injury has unfortunately limited his chances for the US, as the Scottish born playmaker barely played in the World Cup due to a broken leg a few months before (Thanks Nigel De Jong, the dirtiest player in the world) and now a horrific knee injury ruled him out of the Gold Cup (Thanks to you too Johnny Evans).  Many thought of him as an attacking mid or even a wide player because it was believed he was soft in the tackle, but he has dispelled that notion with his displays in the English Premier League.  A true box to box midfielder in a 4-4-2, Holden is very able to dominate the middle of the field, and the Wanderer’s player of the year is the perfect partner for Edu going forward (in my opinion).
3) Benny Feilhaber (New England Revolution, 26 years old)-I’m reaching now, but with Holden, Edu, and a 23 year old Michael Bradley we’re going to be okay for a long time in this area of the field.  Feilhaber is a good player who many people thought would be great.  He hasn’t quite reached that status however, and a move back to MLS has seemingly been a step down as it was thought he could be plying his trade in one of the top leagues in Europe by now.  His humbling move however could get his career back on track.  He’s a solid player who has a good touch, and is great in possession.  He’s had a lot of time in our team as a substitute, and has played both in the middle and the outside.  Going forward I think he should be a center mid (we need pace on the outside).  Feilhaber could find himself as the 4th or 5th choice center mid going forward. 
4)  Jose Francisco Torres (Pachuca, 23 years old)-I’m not the biggest Torres fan (At least this isn’t the traitor that recently sold out and started playing for Chelsea though).  I like the idea of a very solid core through the middle of the field, and most top managers think the same thing.  Not only do you need good players in the center but they have to be physically strong (All the way up the middle, Keeper, Center Backs, Center Mids, Striker).  Jose Mourinho (who is a prick, but one of my favorite managers football wise) has followed this theory and it has surely been successful for him (Terry, Carvalho, Essien, Lampard, Drogba/Pepe, Carvalho, Alonso, Khedira, Ozil, Higuain).  Torres is not that.  He won’t win tackles, he won’t win headers, and he surely won’t mark anyone out of a game, but he will do something else.  He’ll provide a bit of creativity in a rigid team, and there is something to be said for that.  His passing is great, and he is technically gifted (rare in an American, even at the highest level) and this could provide a great option going forward.  At 5’5, he gets lost in the shuffle when it comes to picking rosters for the US, but in the future he could very well play a role for us, especially against teams that park the bus and defend hard to frustrate us (which is most of the lesser teams in Concacaf). 

Right Mid/Right Winger:
The Landon Donovan position.  If you know me, you know I think Donovan is a bit overrated (Understatement, I’m probably admittedly his biggest critic).  I think he’s not what we need in that he doesn’t provide much defensively, and doesn’t get stuck in enough (or lets be serious he doesn’t tackle ever, like ever, find a video of him winning an actual hard tackle and please show me).  That said he has been great for US Soccer (as a striker) and I thank him for his service.  That said, I don’t think he should be an automatic starter by the time the World Cup rolls around in 2014.  He’ll be 32, and he should be on the roster for sure, but there are many options that should be given the chance to push him for a place in the 11. 
1) Alejandro Bedoya (Örebro, 24 years old)-Our true right winger.  This is a guy whose going to stay wide, beat his man with pace, and deliver crosses into the box.  He’s exciting, as he’s fast.  “Speed kills,” “You can’t teach speed,” all the clichés are all true.  Having pace in your team is always dangerous, just look at a guy like Dane Richards, he’s a horrible soccer player, but is dangerous because he’s incredibly quick.  (Aaron Lennon for those of you that don’t watch MLS is similar).  Bedoya could be a great player going forward and I’m excited to see how he progresses.  I’d like to see him get out of the Swedish league and move to a more competitive one to take the next step in his career, but that’s not up to me unfortunately.  The only reason I’m not 100% on him, is I don’t know how he’ll work with an overlapping Chandler.  If I was managing, I’d prefer a right mid who is better in possession, than going forward, simply because Timmy Chandler is my projected right back.  They both are guys that will get around the opposing left back and deliver service, and therefore don’t complement each other perfectly.  That said they’re both great players, and have promising futures and they have the talent to figure it out and form a dynamic due on the right side.
2) Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht, 25 years old)-This is one controversial player, who many people don’t think has it.  He’s not fast, he’s not overly gifted in terms of skill, but he works hard, and has a great touch that can help us out in terms of possession.  He could be the guy who compliments Chandler perfectly, as he would be solid in possession, with Chandler bombing past.  Kljestan wins the ball a LOT more than he’s given credit for, pressures tirelessly, and is the kind of guy you want to play with.  His relentless energy makes the game easier for everyone around him, and while he’s not the BEST PLAYER, he may be the best fit for this team. 

Left Mid/Left Winger:
This is Clint Drew Dempsey’s spot to lose.  Unlike some other established veterans, he continues to prove himself everytime he steps on the field not only with his undoubted talent, but with his tireless work, and 100% effort in every single game.  That is the kind of player I absolutely love.  The one who looks exhausted after 90 minutes because he has given everything.  If you doubt his determination play a ball to the back post when he’s around, and just see who gets on the end of it.  At 28 he’s got a good cycle and a half left, possibly 2 cycles if he continues to add new facets to his game.  This position is solid with him in it, but that’s not to say there aren’t other options. Torres, Adu, and Diskerud could all play here as well, but I will leave them at their respective positions for the sake of this article.
1) DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla, 29 years old)-Just kidding, DaMarcus is unfortunately done.  So #1 is Robbie Rogers…okay I’m kidding again, neither of those are serious. 
1) Chris Pontius (DC United, 24 years old)-Pontius is the hometown kid I’m  most looking forward to seeing in a USMNT jersey. (Along with Perry Kitchen).  Speed, strength, ability, vision, and an eye for goal, he’s got it all.  He’s recently been employed at left mid for DC by head coach Ben Olsen, and he’s thrived there.  He’s already scored 5 goals this season from midfield, and doesn’t look like stopping anytime soon.  He’s one guy that likes to take players on the dribble, and create not only for himself but for others.  He can beat players down the line and deliver a cross, and beat them inside and have a shot on goal, and that is what you want from a winger.  He’d be our “reverse footed” player as I like to call it.  A right footed player playing on the left wing (like how Messi, who is left footed, plays on the right).  He should be in a US Jersey soon enough, and I’ll be very happy that day. 
2)  Josephy Gyau (Hoffenheim, 18 years old) This is probably one guy you haven’t heard of on the list.  That’s because he is a youngster still, and hasn’t had a call up to the full senior team.  He is however a star on the u20 team, because of his blend of pace and skill.  Incredibly fast, and the ability to beat people with his skill on the ball, Gyau is one of the most exciting Americans ever.  He is not only developing quickly, but he is at a great place to do it.  Hoffenheim in Germany is a good club, and that league is notorious for producing talent.  If he can improve there, and continue at this rate, he will be our most dangerous player one day soon.  Gyau presents an incredibly interesting option on the left, and I’m excited to see more of him in the future. 

Center Attacking Mid:
This is the spot many people had Holden pegged on for, but I'd like a little more dynamic a player to fill the role.  In the Gold Cup it was often Dempsey, Kljestan or Donovan who found themselves in this role, but Freddy Adu was the one who stood out when playing it.  There is no real established starter here, but I will still pick two young guys who could make the role their own over the next few years.  
1) Freddy Adu (Benfica owns him, but he plays for Rizespor in Turkey, 22 years old)-The savior of American soccer.  He was dubbed to be the next Pele, the best player in the world at one point, and that hype has never even come close to being met, but Freddy seems to still have a role to play.  The talent was always there, but the decision making on and off the field was what was questioned.  Well Freddy seems to have matured, and has announced his return in this summers Gold Cup.  Not even on the gameday roster throughout the group stages, he played a total of about 90 minutes in the semi and final, and that was enough to get the fans back on his side.  He's got creativity and skill that we need, and if he can make this role his own, and get the most out of his obvious talent, then we will have a great playmaker pulling the strings just behind our striker.  
2) Mixx Diskerud (Stabæk, 20 years old) The baby faced Norwegian has a lot of US Soccer fans excited.  I admittedly don't know much about him, and have only seen glimpses of his talent.  From what I have seen and read however, he is another who could be a good one.  Mixx has an ability to find space on the field, and the skill and vision to make the most of it when he does.  These skills make him an ideal candidate for the playmakers role.  I need to see more of him (same with Freddy) before I give him this roll (with Holden possibly occupying it til then, slotting Bradley with Edu).  The future, however, is promising.  This role is a somewhat new one as we've been a traditionally 4-4-2 team, but if one of these young, talented guys can continue to turn heads, its a role we'll work into our tactics, and one that will help us be a more possession oriented team that can dominate good teams, instead of just trying to hit people on the counter.  

We don’t have old veteran strikers.  This area isn’t terribly concerning, because of that fact.  Jozy Altidore is the best we’ve got at just 21 years old he looks to be the go to guy for a long time.  If he can build from a positive gold cup, and grow into a quality target forward, he will be THEE guy for years to come.  We need someone strong, who can hold the ball up, and with pace to open up defenses, and Jozy I truly believe could be that guy.  He needs to get better for the team to benefit from the powers of having a great striker up top.  I look to big things from Jozy, and if he finds the right club, he very well could deliver them. 
1) Juan Agudelo (New York Red Bulls, 18 years old)-We’ve seen a lot of Swagg (Aka Swagudelo), and in my opinion too much at this young age.  He should be slowly brought along and developed as a striker, not thrown up top as an 18 year old in the Gold Cup.  That said, he’s already one of our best options, and will continue to be if he continues to develop.  He’s a big six foot one, and has the strength tolead the line one day, but does have to get stronger to be elite.  There are high hopes all around for Juan, and I’m looking forward to the day where national team goals aren’t a rare occurrence for him.  Swagg burst onto the scene with a goal against South Africa in his first national team game as a 17 year old, and hopefully there is more to come.  His ability to not only play with his back to goal, but pick the ball up in space and run at people makes him dangerous, and I hope that going forward he never loses that swagger. 
2) Teal Bunbury (Sporting Kansas City, 21 years old)-Teal is another striker we have who contains some swag.  I have to say I like that boon-boo-ree (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwqlziAnqSg).  He hasn’t played a lot for the National Team (2 caps), but what I’ve seen I’ve liked.  He’s struggled a bit of late in terms of form for his club side, but I feel like he’ll get through it.  Still young he also has everything it will take to lead the line one day, and could provide us with some great depth up top.  Who knows he might even be first choice one day soon. 
*** I’m including an extra player at this position, because he is the absolute man. 
3) Charlie Davies (DC United, 25 years old)-Charlie, Chuck Deezy, CD9, the first guy to bring swag to the national team, he still has a part to play in the future of this country’s soccer.  He has scored 8 goals in his 13 appearances for DC (Many appearances as substitutes) and looks better each time he plays.  If he can get 90-minute-fit and gain most of the pace he had pre accident back, he will be a force to be reckoned with in the future, and we could have our dream pairing of Davies and Altidore back.  I for one hope to see him sooner rather than later, as I think a callup could do wonders for his confidence, and provide a huge boost for him in his return to glory. 

That’s it, please let me know what you think, on facebook, or twitter @sflanagan17
-Stephen Flanagan. 

Going Forward, USMNT

Going forward the US team needs to undergo big changes if it wants any chance at taking a step forward.  These changes involve getting younger, and playing to a style that suits us, and would allow us to impose our will on games, as opposed to catering to opposition every time we play them.  The US will now play a few friendlies, and then gear up for World Cup Qualifying in a years time.  There is nothing really to look forward to, with no major tournaments (and no Confederations Cup) and with qualification all but guaranteed in a weak CONCACAF region, I’d like to see us experiment. 

                These are the 23 young guys I think need to be given a serious look, and who have an opportunity to break into the United States first team.    

1) American Eligible (Obviously)
2) You don’t suck.
3) You’re young enough to be considered relevant in the next World Cup (2014)
4) You bring more than just talent, meaning mental toughness, and a desire to work hard.
5) Not already an obvious first team player

Tim Howard is an argument waiting to happen in terms of my opinion of him.  I think he’s been one of our more overrated players for the past 5 years.  He has had success at club level with Everton in England, but they’re hardly elite.  For the US he has been given the excuse of a weak defense, which is 100% true but some accountability lies with him.  He’s given up very soft goals in many important games for us (Ghana twice, Slovenia, Panama, Mexico in the World Cup and Gold Cup) and it’s cost us.  I’m not saying he should be replaced, or kicked off the team or anything, but he needs to be shown that he’s not an automatic start.  His place isn’t guaranteed, and there are guys competing every day for his spot.  He’s earned the #1, but he has to continue earning it if he wants to remain our go to guy in goal.
Young guys:
1) Bill Hamid (DC United, 20 years old)-The 20 year old shot stopper is an imposing force between the sticks at 6’3 and is already the preferred keeper at DC United.  His future is bright, with undoubted talent, if his head catches up to his hands he could be our #1 in the future.  
2) Brad Guzan (Aston Villa, 26 years old)- El Guzano has been on loan at Hull City in the Championship of the English league (the 2nd tier of football over there) and is on the books at Aston Villa.  He has obvious talent which secured his move in the first place, and I think it’s time he gets a look  as our #1 keeper as well.  
3) Dominic Cervi (Celtic, 24 years old)- A backup keeper for famed Scottish club Celtic, Cervi is another physical beast.   A six foot six frame covers a lot of the goal already, and combined with his athleticism, he could be another keeper who challenges for that number one spot. 
Right Back:
After Steve Cherundolo went off injured in the Gold Cup we fell apart.  I don’t believe we would have won with him in like many people seem to, (we were getting battered even when we were up 2-0), but there was an obvious drop off.  At 32 years of age, this very well could have been the last time we see a competitive Steve Cherundolo, and it’s sad that a player who has meant so much to us could have his national team career end that way.  Our most consistent player, Dolo won’t be easy to replace, but there are a few kids who will surely try.
Young Guys:
1) Timothy Chandler (FC Nuremberg, 21 years old)-I’m counting on Timmy a lot.  Our Dani Alves, Maicon, Sergio Ramos, Ashley Cole, or Phillip Lahm.  I am projecting a 4-2-3-1 formation going forward, and an overlapping outside back is absolutely essential to it.  Chandler is that guy.  Pace to burn, the 21 year old has been a bright spot for a Nuremberg team that struggled in the Bundesliga this past season.  In his 2 caps for the United States he has been dominate, running at players, delivering crosses, and giving us something we have desperately lacked for a while: pace.  Timmy Chandler is a big part of the American Soccer future, and I can’t wait to see him fill this role. 
2) AJ Delagarza (Los Angeles Galaxy, 23 years old)-The former Maryland Terripan has already racked up 55 appearances at the LA Galaxy, and he’s only 23 years old.  He has the skills to deliver good service into the box, and is comfortable enough in possession to pose a threat going forward as our overlapping right back, but lacks the pace of a Chandler.  I’m hoping that Chandler is a solid #1 who doesn’t need a backup (because he’s never injured) but Delagarza, could step in and do a job in the future, and has time to improve as an overall player before he’s called upon. 

Left Back:
It seems teams all over the world struggle to find a solid left back.  Spain has Capdevilla who is obviously the weak link in their star studded lineup.  Barcelona have Eric Abidol, who class in his prime, has lost a step, Liverpool have Paul Kon….yeah it’s a problem.  The same is true for the United States.  Carlos Bocanegra has played a lot of games there, but he was never a good enough outside back because of his lack of pace.  Also his organization and leadership was better suited in the middle.  Johnny Bornstein is the other main option (until Lichaj of late).  Bornstein has had good games for us, games where I thought,” wow he might just be our left back”.  Then he has horrendous, cost us 3 goals to lose the gold cup” games.  These come too frequently for him to be considered our long term solution.  He has recently left MLS to ride the bench in the Mexican League, and I hope he’s very happy celebrating the Gold Cup victory with his new Compañeros.
Young Guys:
1) Eric Lichaj (Aston Villa, 22 years old)-I’m allowing him to fit the criteria, because he’s very young, relatively new, and til the Gold Cup hadn’t solidified himself in anyone’s mind as our first choice left back.  I’m not ready to just hand over the job completely and tell him it’s his to lose just yet, but he is pretty far in the lead (with very {very} few competitors).  He provides us an athlete, who is a solid defender, and can join in the attack occasionally from the left (despite being right footed).  He looked far more comfortable on the left than the right in this tournament, though that could be down to the fact that Mexico was just better than the other teams he played.  Occasionally struggling to keep the offsides line, if his mental capacity comes around to match his athleticism, we may have found our solution.  His defending still needs to improve a bit, mainly because he’d be a primarily defensive outside back opposite Chandler.  He’d often be forced to combine with the Center Backs to form a back 3 when Timmy goes bombing forward. 
2)  Zach Loyd (FC Dallas, 23 years old)- I don’t know what is going on in Dallas that is preventing this kid from being an every game starter, but he has talent.  He only played 1 game for the Nats but in that game he was impressive.  Man of the Match in fact.  He brings a bite to the outside of our defense that has been lacking.  He has a bit of scrap, and the willing to put a foot in where others wouldn’t.  This hunger to fight for possession is exactly what we’ve been lacking, and adding some scrappers to the team who will fight for the ball will only help us to be a hungrier more determined team.  At 23, he’s a lot like Delagarza in that he has time to improve, but could be the backup left back for many years to come. 

Center Back: 
Oh does this position look hopeless.  I’ll tell you however that it’s not.  This is arguably the most important position on the field, and one that I occupied during my time as a player (at a decently high level, high enough to understand how the game should work from a CB’s perspective).  This is the quarterback, and safety all rolled into one.  The center backs get to control everyone else on the field verbally, using the rest of the team like soldiers fighting their war.  Tell them where to be, who to mark, what to do, when to pressure, where the offsides line should be.  This position is the one that can make or break a game more than any other.  We don’t have a solid starting CB pair right now, due to injury and lack of form.  Carlos Bocanegra has been our best for sometime (not to mention our captain) but at 32 his time is running out.  There is no telling if Gooch (Oguchi Onyewu) will ever be the same.  Goodson just isn’t good enough, Demerit is solid and a fighter, but also old.  We need to start looking for a long term pairing now, who can go through a lot of games together and develop an incredibly important understanding. 
Young Guys:
1) Omar Gonzalez (Los Angeles Galaxy, 22 years old) -The 22 year old Maryland product has all the physical tools to be a fantastic player for the US, but hasn’t quite developed as quickly as some had hoped.  He’s fantastic in the air, and hard into the tackle, but his tactical understanding and occasional lack of composure with the ball have led him to be passed over in favor of Tim Ream (who I will talk about in a second).  I think Gonzalez is a potential starter for us going forward, but he would have to be paired with an “organizer” (Think Gooch as the monster, Bocanegra as the brains…Gonzalez would be the monster).
2) Tim Ream (New York Red Bulls, 23 years old)- The passer.  Passing so good he doesn’t need to be good defensively.  Just kidding.  As you can tell I’m not a huge Ream fan, but I do think he has potential.  Things I love: He is great on the ball (for a center back he’s not Maradona), he has decent pace (again for a CB), he’s getting a ton of experience at the club and international level.
Things I hate: His positional sense has been exposed a few times which is the worst thing possible for a center back.  You have to be a step ahead of your opponent, not playing catch-up (Spain game-Negredo goal).  I don’t know if he’s tactically good enough to be an “organizer” in the future pairing, and he’s definitely not a supreme athlete (at only 6’1 compared to the other freaks we have athletically).  One thing that sounds trivial that is a big thing in my mind is he is left footed.  If you hear me actually talk in depth soccer, I preach balance, and starting a right footed and left footed CB together provides that naturally.  I’d like to see him move to a faster league where he’s got to deal with good individual forwards, and get some time to develop before we think about him as first choice (Perfect destination would be Holland).
3) Perry Kitchen (DC United, 19 years old)- I’m excited by Perry.  I’ve seen him play a few times during this his rookie season for DC and I like what I see.  He’s decent enough on the ball to not just hoof it whenever he has pressure, but that’s far from his greatest attribute.  He’s an organizer.  I haven’t been able to tell how vocal he is (I don’t expect much being that he’s a rookie though it’s a young backline at DC) but that’s an important area he’s going to need to be good in going forward.  His tactical sense is great however, and he doesn’t have to make flashy plays because he rarely gets caught out of position.  A good center back should never be slide tackling, because that’s generally the last chance effort to win the ball, and I haven’t ever seen him forced into this situation.  If he could vocalize what he’s doing and seeing (something I had to learn to do when I played) then he could be the future partner to someone like Omar Gonzalez in the middle.  (He and Ream would be interesting and learn a lot from playing together, but both of them being about 6 feet tall only scares me a bit).
4) Zak Whitbread (Norwich City, 27 years old)-Whitbread is an interesting case.  He’s been called into the team once or twice if I recall correctly, but never been given a cap for the United States despite playing in England since he was 8 years old. . He has 5 caps at the u20 level for the US, and could be a potential solution to our CB problem in the near future, with a good number of years left (as a 27 year old) at the top.  He currently plays for Norwich City, a team you will see in the Premier League this upcoming season (They just gained promotion from the Championship) so he will get some great experience there.  Having a CB starting in the Premier League would certainly be a good thing for our national team.  The Liverpool trained Whitbread moved to Liverpool at a young age, and trained in their youth academy from 1992 to 2003 but never played for their first team.  He spent 2005-2010 at Millwall (Aka the bad guys in Green Street Hooligans) and joined Norwich in 2010, playing 26 games for them as they secured promotion to the premier league.  He could be a great option going forward for the US. 

I will profile the attacking players tomorrow (or the next day, or when I have time). 

The future isn’t as bleak as it originally looks, and some of these young guys mixing with established veterans, could create the right mix, to propel the US even higher in terms of International soccer.