2007 FOUND AMERICAN SOCCER IN SEARCH OF ITS HEAD
It started with the retirement of Brian McBride from international duty after the 2006 World Cup and has continued downhill to the incapable feet of otherwise able bodies.
The national team’s striker regression, however, highlights more than one team’s struggle to find a player fit for a role. Throughout the ranks of American soccer, the national team’s shortcomings up front lay bare the game-changing skills, mental and physical, still largely missing in America’s version of the global game. It reverberates throughout American soccer, making this the year of a headless beast.
You can find it on any soccer field in this country all year long, but you needn’t look past last weekend. Never were American deficiencies more evident, a fitting end to 2007. Saturday in South Africa, with Landon Donovan out due to a calf injury, Fulham freewheeler Clint Dempsey was forced into the target role and failed to make much of an impact until he gave up the front line geography for time in the midfield. Fox broadcasters gave him a pass, saying he was out of position up top; he was better “withdrawn”, they said, officially making it my word of the year.
Max and Chris’s excuse wasn’t wrong, but I couldn’t help but wonder what they would say if Dempsey had scored a goal, say a toe poke off a corner kick. He likely would have been hailed, even through an otherwise uninspiring performance.
Just as new fan favorite, 18-year-old phenom Jozy Altidore would have been had he grabbed a lucky goal during the 15 minutes of passive observation he called sport on Saturday. It was 15 minutes, his first CAP: another pass.
And just as Dwayne De Rosario was after Sunday’s MLS Cup victory. Though not a striker, DeRo was none the less withdrawn. The Canadian midfielder was basically non-existent until he placed a lovely wide-open header just where he needed to and took home the MVP. That goal could have just as easily come from Jaqua, embarrassingly pulled at halftime, or Ching, injured but allowed to watch from the bench, and shows the problem reaches beyond the national team.
Had Taylor Twellman been able to add one more advantageous goal to his long long long list on Sunday, he surely would have taken home the Cup MVP. The scrappy, golden-booted forward is an enigma and completely typical all at the same time. Other than a little thing called championships, few players have amassed the statistical resume that Twellman has. Yet perhaps even fewer have had less success on stages beyond MLS. Due to repeatedly poor performances, he is one man who has not received a pass for his international inequity making him the personification of American soccer.
There are others of course. There always are. 14 forwards were called onto a first team roster this year: Ching, Cooper, Davies, Dempsey, Donovan, Findley, Gomez, Hill, Jaqua, Johnson, Razov, Rolfe, Twellman, Wolff. All had their chances to impress. Of those who made it into a game, none have.
One year into his reign as coach, Bob Bradley has yet to find a productive striker, and it’s holding back the development of the cohesive unit that may be the most important factor in international play. The lack of a consistent, play-making midfielder further complicates a roster awash in goodness but starved of greatness. The combination of those absences creates chaos when trying to select a roster.
Bradley made strides in determining our defensive anchors, sticking with his guys as others questioned them (including me), but everything above the central back line that Bocanegra and Onyewu lay official claim to is affected by the clear lack of a striker or stand-out midfielder. Complicated further by international release rules, injury, and a log-jam of unproven midfielders, not to mention the fact that arguably to nation’s two best players don’t have a set position, the game of musical chairs is spinning so fast one has to think it has affected the team’s learning curve.
It’s the drug American soccer just can’t kick. Well, maybe they can kick it or head it, but they can’t settle it with one touch and finish it. It lingers just out of reach. It bounces off a shin, skips to a defender, or is fired directly at the keeper. MLS feeds the beast, allowing for subpar play to be hailed as all-star, while Anglo Saxon football on the whole pushes placing a target – not a multi-tooled soccer player – as the stiff rotating head on the otherwise flexible body. Applauded by their enablers - coaches, media, fans - for the rare gifts delivered, the cycle becomes even harder to break.
It’s almost too appropriate for my purposes here that this weekend saw Benny Feilhaber flounder about South Africa following a TIAS guest column in which Ryan O’Hanlon pegged the future to the likes of Benny Feilhaber’s abilities. We are all enablers in our wanting of that stand-out player. We want it so bad, we’re willing to jump on the premature bandwagon. It’s an American soccer tradition: jump on his shoulders until the weight crushes him.
The search for a standout player not only leaves a hole in the line-up, it creates a lasting void in the identity of the national team, and thus the national sport.
While not a member of the US MNT, Dwayne De Rosario is such a player in MLS that I believe has now been christened the hero a time or twelve and rests as another good example that this problem goes deeper than the national team’s player pool.
On Sideline Views after the MLS Cup, Luis Bueno wrote, “Sometimes, you take De Rosario for granted. Other players like Christian Gomez and Landon Donovan get a lot of publicity and sometimes De Rosario is overlooked. I’ll admit that I did not consider De Rosario much for my 2007 Best XI voting while I included Gomez and strongly considered Donovan.
“But maybe that’s because De Rosario is more about performing when the lights are on the brightest, when the stakes are the highest and someone needs to step up and perform. That seems to be when De Rosario is at his best… De Rosario is hands down one of this league’s all-time great players.”
It’s hard to argue, and I can’t, but I for one would rather have one of the league’s all-time great players show up in the shadows as well as when the lights are on. There is not a single player kicking a ball around in this country that you can wholeheartedly count on. pick one from the MLS 2007 Best 11: Brad Guzan, Michael Parkhurst, Eddie Robinson, Jonathan Bornstein, Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Christian Gomez, Shalrie Joseph, Dwayne De Rosario, Ben Olsen, Luciano Emilio & Juan Pablo Angel. Maybe if they had teammates they could count on this would be different.
Your 2006 ‘defender of the year’ = riding the bench in 2007.
I’m sorry, De Rosario’s game-winning header just isn’t screaming MVP to me. Whether it does for some people or whether those people feel inclined to spin reality in a positive way, it doesn’t change the fact that American soccer is completely absent of a real star, a really good player capable of changing a game with more than a fortunate header from an poorly defended cross. Right place right time might win you the game, the championship even, but it’s not going to win you many fans.
EGGS IN NEED OF A BASKET
Beyond the field of play, this predicament is being dealt with for the first time in years in the only way it could. From the ground up. The only thing harder than finding a solution to this specific problem is fixing it fast. There are signs that American soccer has begun to deal with it for the first time after years of contemplating the steps. As such, the implementation of the Development Academy – the pros and cons described here by Top Drawer Soccer’s Robert Zeigler - and other outreach, scouting, as well as the diversification of coaching staffs has begun a groundswell of movement toward fixing soccer’s problems in this country and easily qualifies as the brightest highlight from 2007.
While the fans’ focus has largely been on developments or lack thereof on the field, officials, administrators, and even coaches have been focusing their attention off the field in order to correct issues evident on the field. Youth development has been coming together faster this year than any other, while more coaching and director jobs switched hands than in any year past. MLS has two new teams, one particularly exciting ownership group, and several other franchises already working hard to put together quality teams. Some of those teams competed successfully in more international tournaments and the rumblings of a new tournament, a concacaf champions league, are all but official. MLS, whether you like the decisions made or not, has shown it is willing to change and adjust.
We’re years - maybe a decade or more - away from being able to fairly judge MLS, and due to a new groundwork being laid out across the entire soccer spectrum, the American game is probably now due a new lease on growth. MLS Commissioner Don Garber always tempers expectations by calling upon critics to view the league alongside the growth of other professional sports. The NFL he would say in so many words, was not made overnight. Neither is a world class striker. The first generation of young soccer players no longer have to dig around to realize they could be a professional athletes.
You could say the future for American soccer has never been brighter. But that’s the future. Now where’s my striker?