I have not been able to keep up with soccer as much as I'd like lately - what with work, law school, and trying to give at least the appearance of been a good husband and father. That's why I haven't posted about the 2005 MLS playoffs as I did last year - I haven't stayed current enough with the league this year to be able to post intelligently about it.
And it's not just MLS either - I've been unable to watch as much European soccer as usual - and other than a wonderful trip to Chicago to see the US v. England, I haven't been as up on the US Nats as I should be.
But seeing the highlights of the PSV v. AC Milan match from this week - and yes - that's American Damarcus Beasley absolutely blowing by veteran international Jaap Staam, forcing Staam to grab Beasley's jersey. That drew Staam's 2d yellow card, and he was sent off. Seeing an American with a shining display on a team which defeated Milan in the Champions League - whodathunkit?
That got me thinking about the US Nat's again, and their prospects for the World Cup next summer. So, who is it that Bruce Arena will take to Germany 2006? I want to spend a moment looking at who is likely to make the trip, who is on the bubble, and who would be interesting. The team will consist of 23 - 3 GK, 8 D, 8 M, 4 F. I will give my thoughts on who I think are most likely to make the roster for Germany, and also a couple of potential sleepers to be watching over the next few months to see if they get a shot at any US Nat friendly's, and see what their club form looks like throughout the end of 2005, and into the spring of 2006. (Click here for the 2005 player pool.)
Kasey Keller (Borussia Monchengladbach - Bundesliga)
Keller is in great form currently, and has been performing as one of the best GKs in Germany, and may be one of the most in-form keepers in the world. He has a long history in the net for the US, is experienced on the World Cup stage, and leads the US with 44 all-time shutouts. If he stays healthy, Keller is a lock as starter in Germany, and will be an experienced leader for team. Excellent positioning and shot stopper, potentially weak distribution is his biggest negative.
Marcus Hahnemann (Reading - Championship)
Hahnemann has really come on strong the past year or two with very solid performances at Reading, and consistent camp call ups. He's solid, but not elite.
Tim Howard (Manchester United - Premiership)
Two years ago (when he was sold to Man U) he was expected to be the presumptive starter in Germany. Now that he is not starting or playing regularly, he may be on the bubble to make the squad. Probably the best athlete in this position, and has excellent reflexes - but his lack of consistent club play is a huge negative right now.
Matt Reis (NE Revolution - MLS)
Solid, one of the better keepers in MLS (and his defense is not full of all-stars). Would be an adequate 3d keeper in Germany if he keeps up his current form.
Joe Cannon (Colorado Rapids - MLS)
Cannon has probably been the best keeper in MLS over the past two years, and may challenge Keller as the best shot stopper on this list. That said, his stock has dropped over the past 12 months or so...not 100% sure why, although his distribution is sometimes criticized.
Brad Friedel (Blackburn Rovers - Premiership)
Officially retired from Int'l play, but if Keller was injured... Friedel was one of the top keepers of the 2002 World Cup; he was named to the Premiership team of the year in '02-'03, and the GK of the Year that year.
Aden Brown (Aeslund - Norway)
Brown was a young up and comer with a bright future with the Nats, but a series of injuries and a move to Norway where his performance is more obscure has moved him down the charts. But if he can stay healthy and get into a camp, he could force his way back into the squad.
Keller provides the US with a world-class presence in the nets. If he is hurt (or out of form) this position is certainly more questionable...but still reasonably solid and not a major concern.
RB - Steve Cherundolo (Hannover 96 - Germany)
Starting right back and sometimes captain of the big German club Hannover. 'Dolo is a bit smallish for a defender, but he is great up and down the line and has demonstrated his strong defensive skills. Sure-thing starter if healthy.
CB - Cory Gibbs (Feyenoord - Holland)
Gibbs was injured not long ago, and will be fighting to get back healthy and in match form during the spring. He had been great at Feyenoord before going out, and his combination of athleticism, size, and skills will have him starting in Germany if he makes it back.
CB - Onguchi Onyewu (Standard Liege - Belgium)
Amazing size and skills. Has developed from a fringe Yank Abroad into an automatic starter over the past year. Imposing, great in the air, and with good speed for his size. One of the keys to success in the World Cup.
LB - Eddie Lewis (Leeds United - Championship)
The experiment. Lewis has played his entire career at LM, and his playing there for his club Leeds United in England. Brilliant left foot. Tremendous crosser - the move to the back was to enable him to be on the field at the same time as Beasley and/or Convey. He still has yet to be tested against a truly international calibre right-midfielder to see if he can actually play in defense - but has looked good in the experiement thus far.
CB/LB - Carlos Bocanegra (Fulham - Premiership)
Has finally been starting at centre back for Fulham after playing somewhat out of position at left back most of last season. Strong, good in the air, good positioning - not the quickest, but plenty good with his feet to play centrally. He may well be the starter instead of Gibbs - it will likely depend on form in the month leading up to the World Cup.
CB - Greg Berhalter (Energie Cottbus - Germany)
Lots of experience and starts (and captains) for his club in Germany. Not fleet of foot, but good positioning to make up for that. He will likely be the "old man" defensively making the trip (unless Pope can hook himself up to the jeuvination machine) to provide a settleing influence.
LB/RB/CB - Johnathan Spector (Charlton Athletic - Premiership)
I'm going out on a bit of a limb making this prediction. It is contingent upon Spector regularly starting for Charlton (he's been in and out thus far this season); and playing well in several of the friendly's the rest of this year and in the spring. He's still very young (19), but his versatility (can play all over the back) and his pedigree (playing with Man U and Charlton in the Prem) will be enough to prove to Arena that Spector should make the trip. This might be the one guy you bring to "bleed" him for the 2010 World Cup.
RB - Frankie Hejduk (Columbus Crew - MLS)
Another scrappy veteran. Arena knows exactly what he gets in Hejduk - tireless runner, hard worker, pace, intelligence. He is versatile (can play RM, LB, LM) and has played his best in the biggest games. Having said all that, he is a very limited player and cold very easily not make the cut.
RB - Chris Albright (LA Galaxy - MLS)
If Hejduk doesn't make the trip, I think it will be Albright taking his spot. A converted forward, Albright has found new life playing fullback and providing an offensive spark to the backline.
CB - Chad Marshall (Columbus Crew - MLS)
Even only two years into his MLS career, he is already one of the better defenders in the league. He probably doesn't have the experience to make it for Germany, but could become a regular in the US backline over the next several years.
CB - Eddie Pope (Real Salt Lake - MLS)
The anti-Chad Marshall. Pope is possibly the all-time best US center back...but time (and the Salt Lake turf) has caught up with him. He could still make the trip because Arena knows and trusts him...but we all remember the Agoos experiment in Japorea too.
CB - Jimmy Conrad (Kansas City - MLS)
Solid contributor to a good MLS defense. Probably not a lot of standout skills, but he can be counted on for solid effort...but frankly, there would have to be a lot of injrues to get Conrad to Germany.
LB - Greg Vanney (FC Dallas - MLS)
Has likely played his way off the roster due simply to a lack of pace. But the weakness of the US at LB, along with Vanney's ability to play both LB and CB, and a tremendous left foot keep him on the radar.
CB - Jay DeMerit (Watford - Championship)
Starting CB in the English Coca Cola Championship is nothing to sneeze at - and DeMerit has essentially come from no where to anchor Watford's backline. He may not have the pure skill and pace to make it on an international level, but starting at the level he is at could always get him a look.
LB - Wade Barrett (SJ Earthquakes - MLS)
Back in MLS after a brief stint in Denmark, probably is not as high on the depth chart as he was before he left. He is still probably one of the better LBs in MLS, and LB is a problem area for the US Nats.
Cental defense is a real strength for this squad - in fact it may well be world class. The outside backs (especially depth) are not as strong, but should be serviceable and provide some offensive punch. In addition, several of the midfielders (Mastroeni, Reyna, Convey, O'Brien) can provide defense in a pinch.
RM - Landon Donovon (LA Galaxy - MLS)
Widely considered the best field player for the US. Has won Player of the Year multiple times, and has led the Galaxy to the MLS championship his year, after winning two in San Jose. He combines pace, vision, and creativity as well or better than any US player ever has. And although he'll only be 24 during the World Cup, he already has 71 US caps, and 25 Int'l goals - and he started all 5 World Cup matches in 2002. It will be interesting to see where he plays - I think he's best playing in the center of midfield, but he has also played often up top as a forward...but given the US' absolute hole at RM, it would not surprise me at all to see Donovan play a roaming RM role in Germany.
CM - Pablo Mastroeni (Colorado Rapids - MLS)
Best US defensive midfielder or "destroyer." Strong physical presence in the midfield and has good skill on the ball as well. He has also played CB for the Nats (where he starts for his club side). His dominant performance in the '02 World Cup has pretty much kept him a lock for Germany, although his performances of late have not lived up to that standard.
CM - Claudio Reyna (Manchester City - Premiership)
Captain, multiple World Cup experiences, consistent starter in some of the world's best leagues...and possibly the best field player in the history of US soccer. That's not saying too much, huh? Composed and intelligent in directing the center of the field, but can also play some on the RM, and RB.
LM - DaMarcus Beasley (PSV - Holland)
Blistering pace. Tremendous defensive effort. Great vision. Good ball skills. Plays on both the left and right for his club. Beasley may be the single most dangerous player in the US pool. Moving to Holland has done loads for both his finishing and crossing, and he is quickly becoming a complete and world class player.
LM/CM/LB - Bobby Convey (Reading - Championship)
He's still only 22 years old, although it seems like he's been around forever since making his MLS debut with DC United at 16. A year ago he had completely dropped off the national team radar, but excellent form with his club side has played him right back up to challenging the starters. Youth and National team experience with Donovon and Beasley make the combination of the three fun to watch. Great pace, and good passing and crossing. He is also versitle being able to play all across the midfield and some as and attacking LB.
CM/LM/DM/LB - John O'Brien (ADO Den Haag - Eredivisie)
If it were not for years and years of injury problems, John O'Brien might have been a US soccer legend. Was probably the best player for the US in the run to the Quarters in 2002, but since then has rarely seen the pitch do to injury after injury. Still, when healthy there is little question he is one of the best at holding and distributin the ball, and he brings great versatility. With his skill and vision it's impossible to leave him off the list, but the likelihood of him being healthy enough to make the trip is very low.
RM - Steve Ralston (NE Revolution - MLS)
Ralston is evidence of the lack of quality at RM for the US. That is not intended as a knock on him really - he is an exceptional crosser, and has an "all-time great" MLS career. But Ralston simply lacks the pace and vision for Int'l soccer - yet he is the most consistent starter at RM for the US. That is a problem.
CM - Clint Dempsey (NE Revolution - MLS)
Has burst on to the US soccer scene with tremendous energy and bite. He can play all across the midfield - but this may also be his weakness, as he hasn't really found a role that is his. He doesn't seem to quite have the discipline to play defensive midfield, isn't quite the passer to play the true attacking number 10...but he flat scores goals and keeps his motor running.
DM/CM - Ricardo Clark (SJ Earthquakes - MLS)
Really came into his own the past year with San Jose after a time of not quite finding his groove rotating between DM and RB with Metrostars. He is most known as a defensive midfielder, but has proven himself to be much more well rounded. Since there is a gaping hole at the backup defensive midfield position, if he can prove his defensive prowess to Bruce Arena, he could make the squad.
DM/CM - Richard Mulrooney (FC Dallas - MLS)
Was probably more of a bubble player before he spent all of last season out with a torn ACL. But he has an excellent sense of positioning and a good passer for the defensive midfield role - and if he can fully recover and get into form next spring, he could be back knocking on the door.
DM - Brian Carroll (DC United - MLS)
Another defensive midfielder. Carroll has really come from almost nowhere, but his steady performances at United have gotten him several recent call ups. Arena loves to play with a dedicated "destroyer" and that is the role Carroll is trying to make his with the Nats. That said, his skills do not appear to be up to an Int'l level, so he is a long shot.
RM - Santino Quaranta (DC United - MLS)
With the lack of options at right id for the US, Quaranta has a real shot of making the team. He is a true right winger, has a lot of talent, and is still young - but has been very inconsistent - both in his time with the Nats and with his club. I look at him as more of a product of the hole, than as a truly Int'l RM.
LM/RM/F - Pat Noonan (NE Revolution - MLS)
This is the story of a smart kid who kept working and made a career for himself. Largely ignored after a spectacular college career because of an apparent lack of any plus qualities, he has become a consistent performer in MLS, and has not had any big hiccups in his time with the Nats. His versatility is a bonus as well, and you will never get a lack of effort from Noonan.
DM - Kerry Zavagnin (Kansas City - MLS)
Back on the radar due to some injuries at defensive midfield. He is pretty much the pure Arena "destroyer," but lacks the more rounded skills of some of the others ahead of him on the depth chart - and his form has seemed to fall off the past two or three years instead of arching up.
RM/F - Brian West (Fredrikstaad - Norway)
Very intriguing, but has never really been given a shot to stick with the Nats. A pure winger, with great pace and a tendency to score goals - but after a great season with his club in Norway last year, he has suffered through injuries this year.
RM/LM - Justin Mapp (Chicago Fire - MLS)
LM/RM - Eddie Gaven (Metrostars - MLS)
Midfield is a strength for this team...other than the right side. The pool is very weak on the right, and will likely force Donovon out of his more dominant central midfield position, or even taking advantage of his speed up top. But there is quality in the middle and on the left - especially if O'Brien is healthy and in form next summer.
Brian McBride (Fulham - Premiership)
Eddie Johnson (FC Dallas - MLS)
Brian Ching (SJ Earthquakes - MLS)
Josh Wolff (Kansas City - MLS)
Taylor Twellman (NE Revolution - MLS)
Jeff Cunningham (Colorado Rapids - MLS)
Conor Casey (Mainz - Bundesliga)
Herculez Gomez (LA Galaxy - MLS)
Nate Jacqua (Chicago Fire - MLS)
A very thin position for the US if Johnson is not healthy and Donovon is playing in the midfield. It is reasonably likely that Donovon will play up top a lot in Germany, especially if Johnson has not had time to heal that foot and get in top form. Behind McBride/Johnson, the talent is thin, and frankly, not of international quality. The US could have real trouble scoring goals in Germany, unless the midfield is chipping in on the scoring.
Well, that's my guess as of now - many things (injury/form) could change - and remember, at this time four years ago, Beasley and Mastroeni were barely even on the radar screen, and they played vital roles in 2002.