TSG sat down and asked ourselves the question: “Selves, if you had to put one team out there to win a game for the USMNT, grabbing players only from the decade we are now concluding, who would you select?”
The premise as simple as the criteria: The player needs to have at least one cap for the USMNT during the 2000’s. That’s it.
It would however be assumed that this player was at their utmost skill level or potential for the game. For example, if Ernie Stewart is/was selected then it would be assumed he was in his tip-top 1996 or so form for the game, not his early 2000’s form.
Additionally the players had to fit together as a plausible team–so we’re not going with, let’s say, Jozy Altidore, Brian McBride, Joe Max-Moore and Eddie Johnson up top at the same time.
With these guidelines in mind, we threw-away our concocted mix of criteria we had originally came up with:
3 parts play for the USMNT team, 2 parts club play. 1 part longevity across both
…and made the selections based 100% on TSG brother discussion over Cooper’s Sparkling Ale from Australia (not a champagne mind you, more of an amber) during the Christmas holiday to avoid discussion with our wives and girlfriends. Shh….oh come now that’s not true.
While Mark and I had the discussion, I’ve created the piece and I’m sure he will no doubt shoots some arrows in this pioneer’s back.
Winning the big one for the natties? Admittedly fandom may have drifted ahead of analysis here, but not by a huge margin.
I think we’ve arrived at a squad very representative of the style, grit, and American personality to take on the best of the international elite.
In your reading remember, the goal is to win one game, not evaluate who is the best by position (through statistical review or other) throughout the course of the decade. That exercise, as we mentioned, might bore all of us.
Here’s who TSG goes to war with in our, cough, 4-3-2-1 formation.
G – Tim Howard
Very Very Close Runner up: Brad Friedel
First let’s discuss the back-up….and get the controversy started in earnest.
The big bald Friedel was in charge of the most celebrated USMNT World Cup run this decade. He’s been the class of American keepers in the EPL for both Blackburn and Aston Villa.
To his resume, who can forget Friedel’s out-of-mind performance against South Korea and Germany in 2002. If not for Oliver Kahn, Friedel might have made the bigger name for himself that year.
However TSG is going with Big T between the pipes and not because we merely have more recent observations. It you were to rate goaltendingness, you’d probably rate Friedel a 95 to Howard’s 93 on years of service and big time saves. But Timmy–as Kasey Keller was to Friedel in 2006–is much more nimble than Villa’s current number one–a crucial skill needed against world-class strikers in World Cups and needed in our “one game for everything.”
Balls played back to Timmy under duress? Dealt with. Coming out on an errant striker? Cake.
Timmy is TSG’s, perhaps inauspicious, selection.
LB – Carlos Bocanegra
It’s hard not to commission Captain Boca as our starting left back and I’m sure most would agree. For club, Boca was a part of the infamous mid-2000’s Fulham Americans that included McBride and Dempsey.
For country, Boca was a critical part of the defense that drew Italy in the best match for the USMNT in WC 2006 and later moved on to captain under Bob Bradley.
We are putting Boca’s 2006 form in here, not his 2009 form which will be left to a column coming shortly. Boca had enough quickness in the center of the decade to shut down the pacier wings and can get ahead for crosses as well.
No questions, Boca on our mind on the left….
CB – Eddie Pope, Oguchi Onyewu
Honorable Mention: Jimmy Conrad, Jay DeMerit
The 2006 center defense pairing–who both earned critical fouls–also earns our nod to start the game. (For Pope, it was red in the Italy game, for Gooch the “non-foul” that Ghana collected a penalty kick on.)
The tenacious and constantly-working Pope plays stopper to the hulking presence of Onyewu at the sweeper role. Yes, it’s a 4-across, but Pope is coming up the upfield more in our set-up, while Gooch stays back.
The former’s resume precedes himself. Over 82 caps for the North Carolina native Pope spanning not only the 2002 and 2006 World Cup, but the 1998 Cup as well. Pope started all of those 82 games as well–hard to find another player that has factored similarly for the USMNT.
Always technical and not afraid to come upfield for a challenge, Pope earns the nod.
Covering Pope, is Oguchi Onyewu. As a fan who rarely watched the USMNT’s junior squads until recently, Gooch’s 2005 Gold Cup announced his arrival on the scene like…like…Dan Marino in 1984 or, a more contemporary reference, Tyreke Evans this year. The big man earned all tourney honors in ’05.
While Gooch might lack the feel for the angles that a Gregg Berhalter has, his presence and athleticism alone more than makes up for it. It’s Gooch who allowed Bob Bradley to employ his bend-don’t-break Confederation Cup 2009 defense as the middle defender won header after header in the box.
RB – Frankie Hedjuk
Very Close Runner-Up: Tony Sanneh
A lot of consideration for this role. Most would probably go with Sanneh or even Stevie Cherundolo. Sanneh was a force defensively and knocked in a goal in World Cup 2002. He’s had a storied career, if only 43 USMNT caps, for the States.
Cherundolo might have been the choice as well having arrived on the States’ nattie scene for the first time in September of ’99. However, while Cherundolo has been consistent in his play on the pitch, largely above average, his history of injuries hurts his chances on our starting team.
Every team needs a player that can freelance a little bit and makes a play and Frankie is our answer at RB for this reason. In his formative days, Hedjuk, who came on the scene in the 1998 World Cup could be counted to simply outwork, nay out-exert, the winger who was trying to break him down one-on-one. Frankie can be comprised and be out of position, but his ability to recover and get back into position is and was second to none.
Additionally, Frankie is good for at least one booming run up the pitch for a cross or to receive a header each game; in short, you’ll get one Frankie Excitement scoring chance. We’ll take that trade, plus Hedjuk’s ability to factor as a midfielder in a pinch, as we evaluate the pedigree of our entire backline.
Finally, the intangible energy and positivity that Hedjuk brings to the pitch and the team epitomizes the type of team TSG is building.
Now for the front six and surely some more jabs and upper cuts in the comments section.
CDM: John O’Brien
That’s how I feel about John O’Brien’s USMNT career. Robbed by injuries, O’Brien, who gave up on a comeback about two years ago, saw only 32 games for the States. His full potential remains in two words, tantalizing and unreachable.
For those who saw O’Brien on the field, his play, converse to his attendance on that field, was matter a fact.
O’Brien was an assured tackler, confident in possession, and was extremely proficient at making the pass that was called for from a simple square pass to a risky lead.
He remains, in this writer’s opinion one of the best, if not the best, pure midfielder to grace the USA roster. Probably not hyperbole when you consider, that during qualification for the Cup in 2006, Landon Donovan called O’Brien, “the best American soccer player.”
On one more side note that I must mention here, I loved playing the older FIFA games with the USMNT. John O’Brien would and could tackle anyone and dispossess them every single time–even Ronaldo of Brazil and Ronaldinho. Unreal. Of course those same FIFA versions gave Josh Wolff the ability to score in international competition. Not sure what I’m getting at here….but man O’Brien…he was like Chris Chelios in NHL ’94 when he laid a tackle on someone.
LM: DaMarcus Beasley
I wrestled greatly with this selection…and in conjunction the formation. Beasley was my final selection of the 11.
I had any matters of formations here in this one that either brought in Charlie Davies (yes, CD9) for a highly offensive look and Pablo Mastroeni, for a highly defensive look.
In the end, I decided that the 2002-2006 Beasley could be counted on to play offensively, but also draw in and protect some of the midfield defensively. Of course, he is not a wing fullback, but he’s got the speed to cover when necessary.
Beasley’s nothing short of perfect pass to Clint Dempsey was the lone 2006 USMNT goal and in 2002 he bombed up the pitch with near similar proficiency to Donovan. We’re going to use Beasley here in a more reserved role, to take a shot creating some counter attacks, provide athletic cover over Boca and largely link and play off Donovan.
RM: Clint Dempsey
We are talking about 2006 Clint Dempsey here specifically, maybe with a little 2009 Fulham thrown in. The one the Cottagers looked at and said, wow, that’s exactly the attacker and winger we need in our starting 11. The one that I looked at and said, “Is that the first truly fearless USMNT offensive player beyond Donovan?” we’ve seen.
While Landon and Beasley wowed us in 2002 with their pace and precociousness, Demps 2006 WC, one of the lone lasting positives of the tourney, may have been more impressive.
It’s one thing to sneak up on unsuspecting opponents without the responsibility of winning as LD and Beas did. It’s another thing to face some of the toughest defenses in international play without other threats around you and still fervently attack.
The Deuceman did his best to carry the right flank offensive push on a team that showed the offensive cohesiveness and know-how of a bottom rung MLS squad.
Who can forget Dempsey scissoring his way against Italian and Ghanaian defenders and of course who can a steam-shipping Dempsey latching on to the aforementioned curling-pass of Beasley for the lone 2006 US-manufactured goal.
On a side note here, we don’t see Dempsey game as “trickery”– not sure where that label got put on Demps over the past year. What’s he
tricking? Does Ronaldo have “trickery?” Let’s stick with creativity here–seeing a play, a pass, a move before or as executing. Nobody’s “tricking” anyone, an offensive move is not motivated by tricking opponent, it’s motivated by beating an opponent.
LAM: Landon Donovan
I tried desperately to move Donovan up the pitch to striker, but I believe he is just so much more valuable in a wider attacking mid role and coming from deeper on the pitch. As you might surmise, by keeping Donovan in the midfield, I’m going to squeeze out some very talented middies.
In short, perhaps Bob Bradley’s biggest accomplishment is giving the USMNT Landon-on-the-left where he is able to provide some cover in defense, but flat-out ignite counter attacks. This year, 2009, specifically has led to criticism around Donovan “not shooting” melting away and more kudos to his playmaking.
That being said, we’re going with a hybrid 2002 Donovan combined with the wide and more cautious 2009 Donovan. Who can forget McBride, Reyna and O’Brien releasing Donovan into space in 2002 to the surprise of the Portugese and German defenses. Who can forget the Honduran qualifier and the Spain Confed Cup game this year when Donovan generated offense deeper on the pitch. We’re combining the form of the two, sort of like Dr. Evil going back in time to steal Austin Powers mojo. Not really, but somehow that visual popped into our mind.
Donovan’s USMNT resume needs no announcement, 42 goals in 120 appearances, plus a critical member of the Counterattack Heard Around the World. Wow!
RAM: Freddy Adu
We’re going with Clint Mathis here.
Wait, what’s that you say?
Blasphemy! Didn’t you once step on a pitch with the venerable Claudio Reyna (I did….in street clothes.) Where’s he in our line-up? Yeah, he’s not here. And where’s Ernie Stewart –more on this shortly.
I am selecting Mathis here because his arsenal includes putting the ball in the back of the net. If Mathis, in his early years, had gotten his transfer to Bayern Munich (and had less injuries). I think we’d be talking about him in the same breath of years of sterling service abroad as a Brad Friedel or Brian McBride.
Mathis has more tools to threaten with in our offense. The employment of Mathis also suggests just how much we think of O’Brien’s ability in the destroyer role–moving the very offensive Mathis and Donovan up the pitch together in tandem and leaving the central defense for O’Brien to essentially patrol alone. In fact, O’Brien…Mathis…well that reminds of us South Korea 2002. (see clip)
It also suggests that we are not playing a game of linking pass after pass per se through the middle. Though Mathis is our hold-up guy, he can also do a great job taking it to the hole.
Mathis has the wicked shot, the brashness and the ability to unlock that unforeseen pass that makes him our main playmaker in the middle.
It’s that simple…we’ll discuss Reyna’s omission below….
Striker: Brian McBride.
C’mon, who’s arguing with me here.
Heart, soul, and ability to employ the (in hockey terms) neutral zone trap and force the defense further up the pitch. If McBride had just a little bit more size to go with his fearlessness, he’d be the prototypical USMNT target man striker. McB also possesses the stamina to apply the US defensive forechecking strategy something that few strikers have been able to execute on recently at the nattie level.
McBride wins our target man award here.
Bench & Omissions:
G: Brad Friedel
Defensive: Jay DeMerit, Tony Sanneh, Pablo Mastroeni, Chris Armas
Offensive: Ernie Stewart, Benny Feilhaber, Joe Max Moore, Claudio Reyna
Wow, controversial to say the least. Uh, ever hear of a guy named Claudio Reyna. Of course, we have. In our opinion though, Reyna–while capable of the sublime pass from time-to-time–stalled the offense all too often.
An analogy: I remember Patrick Ewing getting a rebound when Don Nelson was the coach of the Knicks. Nelson wanted to run and gun like he did with Run TMC in Golden State a half decade earlier.
Ewing was a post player and wanted his. So Ewing would hold the rebound, allowing the opponent to track back and snuff out the fast break opportunity. Then Ewing would amble up the court and demand the ball in the post.
Claudio Reyna is hardly a selfish player, the analogy doesn’t work in terms of motivation. However Reyna’s style all too often left the USMNT with a possession midfielder in the center of the pitch who too didn’t make the key offensive play. I am certainly sparing Reyna’s play in the World Cup post-group stage games in 2002 when his passing was on fire and on target. However, his play was discounted thereafter and Mathis is our man.
So no Claudio Reyna. (Update: TSG contributors ChrisR and AmericanSoccerHooligan make valid points. Reyna is getting the nod in the 18….reserving the rights on the 11 above for now.)
No Kasey Keller. No Chris Armas either who is the most capped player I believe never to make a World Cup. I wanted to put Armas in there for Mastroeni on the bench, but in the end I accept Mastroeni’s defensive prowess with his reckless red card streak since that defensive was just superior to Armas’s. I need Mastroeni for end of game shut down as Mathis gives way, plus the dimunitive midfielder can also play the wingfull in a pinch.
Update: As I go to publish this, I’m flip-flopping. We’re bringing in Armas! He deserves a big game for the USMNT and the fear of a Mastroeni foul that compromises us is just too high.
And you knew Benny! was going in there.
The decade team we’ve built here is centered around a few simple beliefs: 1) That John O’Brien will be a beast in the middle, 2) That both Mathis and Donovan can continue to put pressure on the opponent and unlock their defense and that 3) Dempsey and Beasley can get ahead on the attack, but also track back and maintain shape in defense.
That 3rd point also highlights our biggest weakness. We employed Dempsey as our winger over Hedjuk–both players while active and athletic are not the most technical defenders. So, in our pre-game, we’ll be sure to alert O’Brien to his need to watch that flank and concurrently for Beasley to skirt in from the left to help provide some central coverage. We’ve also got the technical Pope instead of Gooch keeping an eye out.
In fact the backline plays out nicely as it reads, from right to left, athleticism-technical ability-athleticism-technical ability, in the form of Hedjuk-Pope-Onyewu-Boca.
Above that we’ve got the 2002-2006 version of Beasley on the left causing havoc on speedy rushes with Donovan, both overlapping and hitching inside in concert with the Galaxy superstar.
On the right we’ve got Mathis drawing in laying the ball off to a surging Dempsey down the line or to Donovan making a run on the left.
McBride finds his spots above and floats–he’s smart enough to know where to go.
Let the second, third, and even more guessing begin!