Elephant In The Room & It’s Not Gooch, DeMerit

What’s the word Bob Bradley? We know you see it.

One of Bob's key problems to figure out....

Is Omar Gonzalez or Brandon McDonald a sign that you don’t believe Oguchi Onyewu will ready despite reports–is it telling that you have 5 central defenders in camp? How much of a factor for South Africa is rooted-to-Columbus defender Chad Marshall?

The notion of a balking backline has been creeping in all of qualification. The signal grew louder August 12th in Mexico. In Trinidad & Tobago, even louder and to a crescendo October 14th in RFK.

Tim Howard added insult to questionable performance with a mic’d up, “Every f%^king time!” howl that wasn’t personally directed, but could have been.

While both Oguchi Onyewu and Jay DeMerit were bit by the injury bug, the biggest question that TSG has is “Does Carlos Bocanegra have a spot in the starting back line in South Africa? And if so, where is it?”

This is Part of I of II where the Shinguardian will dissect Boca’s role in defense….Part I today is central defense; next will be at wingback.

Captain America: Riding out a rough patch for club and country....

The fan in us has some serious trouble even contemplating that statement above, the analyst must ask the question.

Captain Integrity Bocanegra did not factor for his club team, Rennes, in December.

Stades Rennes seems to have went younger by reshuffling their backline. Rennes has inserted Senegalese big man Abdou Kader Mangane in their central defense, moving French nattie player Rod Fanni (that’s an unfortunate name, no?) out to rightback, pushing right back Romaine Danze out to leftback. Boca hasn’t had a whiff of the pitch.

The move puts more size in the middle for Rennes as well more youth. For the USMNT it has relegated the captain and defensive stalwart to the bench of his club team. It’s a disturbing development for Boca who worked diligently for the US during qualifying at both the central defense and outside back positions, but showed very visible signs that he was beginning to show he is on the decline.

Three observations point to this: Mexico, August 12th, T&T September 9th and Costa Rica October 14th. Here are our player ratings and comments for Boca over-that-time:

Mexico: 08/12

LB: Carlos Bocanegro – 5

Not the best game for the captain. Was shaky in positioning and certainly in possession. He wasn’t match fit–I’ll be concerned if El Salvador reveals the same issues.

T&T: 09/09

CB: Carlos Bocanegra – 5.5

As TSG mentioned in the preview, Boca is the hands-down best mental player, but the Warriors gave him fits all day in the air and on the ground. Got rounded twice. Tough day for Boca. Not terrible, but tough.

Costa Rica: 10/14

CB: Carlos Bocanegra – 6

Played the game with intelligence, but his physical skills have eroded a little due to age. Case in point, he couldn’t get over in time to make a difference on CR’s first goal. Classy move by Captain Carlos to address the crowd…if only ESPN’s Bob Ley didn’t talk over him.


Three observations here for TSG, but as package very telling–and we’re following the TSG laid-in-cement matra: “It’s about the body of work, not observations in isolation.”

In our opinion and it looks like his club’s, Boca has lost a step. Does the value of Captain Carlos’s leadership and intangibles on the field outweigh his propensity to get beat once or twice a game and his inability to be an impact player in the center defense?

Does a player who is getting no reps at his club team AND playing a different position than the one intended in South Africa get a free pass due to years of service?

Going back to Howard’s comments during the RFK game above….they were directed right at Boca both times, first when Howard parried a corner, then on the second goal when Boca (and MB to be fair) fell asleep.

Is you’re captain and central defender is someone you should feel you need to protect or hound for cover? Ask Manchester City this…they are going through it right now and lamenting giving away Richard Dunne.

The problem with all of this and why we called out Bob Bradley in our first statement: Coach USA loves his experience, loves his veterans and he’s loyal to a fault.

Leaving Boca in, you would imagine Coach Bob has set his heart on doing, creates a dilemna for the States:

What happens as Jay DeMerit re-enters the fold? And subsequently, what happens when both Jay DeMerit and Oguchi Onyewu are back in the mix?

First on DeMerit, which is the next juncture for Team Son of Liberty…the Yanks rather.

Are you really going to pair two vertically challenged central backs together and go up against the likes of an Emile Heskey in Game 1 or worse a Peter Crouch. If I’m Peter Crouch–and thank goodness I’m not–I’m staying out even later at the clubs in Johannesburg, knowing I have a towering advantage in the morning.

What's really realistic? Who knows...

Reviewing this year’s Confederation Cup, the it was the interplay of Jay DeMerit and Gooch (not Boca) that worked wonders for the USMNT down the spine.

Gooch would take the physical striker and leave DeMerit to freelance a little bit more up the pitch to win a header or be the guy to track down the defender making a run. Gooch would own the air, DeMerit would snuff the run. Beautiful.

And it’s that type of partnership that works elsewhere.

England’s got John Terry going up for skyball corners while Rio Ferdinand (no slouch in the air himself) is the man-on-man defender.

Italy has the stout Chiellini (where Nesta once patrolled) to let Cannavaro challenge ahead of him.

Some even suggest it was the cover of Nesta that allowed Cannavaro the ability to make such an impact on the national game that won the Cup for Italy in 2006.

Now parallel this with the States.

It’s hard to suggest–despite the three goal second half comeback–that the pairing of Jay DeMerit and Oguchi Onyewu didn’t rise to the challenge earlier this year in South Africa.

It’s also not hard to see that the U.S. defense suffered as first DeMerit, then Gooch, sporadically, were ruled out during the qualification run. Pairing a less-than match fit Onyewu with Boca saw pockets open up in the center that Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark failed to clamp down on.

Rico: Camouflaging deficiencies

To be fair, Rico just about burned out his engine covering Boca and Bornstein on the left and usually got the brunt of the flack in the press (and probably a few times on this publication).

The dilemna and concern: DeMerit and Boca are the “same” type of central defender: a stopper-type better served with back-up “last-line” type behind them. DeMerit goes 5’11”.Boca 6’0”

Can the USMNT really expect to succeed with this pairing in South Africa?

Further, neither DeMerit or Boca (or even Gooch for that matter, but we’ll get to that) are especially adept at organzing the back line or shouting direction.

Let’s run with a parallel here.

I remember taking in the Chelsea – Club America exhibition at Stanford stadium two summer ago. What amazed me most about that game–beyond Didier Drogba ringing the cross bar that the nerds over at the Google campus probably thought it was an earthquake—-was clearly hearing John Terry above the din of the crowd shout instructions to his backline.

The backline (without any regulars beyond Terry mind you) moved in unison in near ruler-straight perfection and led
to countless offsides. Now, not all of Terry’s decisions were without fault, but working as team in the back supercedes tactical perfection in many cases.

Back to the States, and the backline clearly lacks this. Additionally, it does not nearly have the athletic enforcer to win ball’s in the air.
And leading to a more personal point, as we foreshadowed in the beginning here, does Boca even belong as an option if the attempt to pair him won’t be fruitful either?

Assuming the Bob and staff actually see this and assuming the Gooch’s trip to South Africa will occur with little pitch time and observsation….what are their options as January camp dawns.

Games paired in central defense: Diddily-squat!

1) Accept that you are not switching out Captain Boca and pair him with Jay DeMerit, your next best central defender

The scenario and described in detail above leaves the USMNT extremely vulnerable to aerial threat…as in don’t-do-it vulnerable. Free kicks, corner kicks, service from say, Ashley Cole or Glen Johnson in the rear of the defensive third to Heskey, Gerrard and Crouch. Yikes.

We don’t have to go back to 2006 either to remind you of USMNT troubles on set piece and aerials. First, the matter of Gilardino skying for the lone Italian goal and a “little” man by the name of 6’8” Jan

Recall this menace, CZE 1, USA 0.

Koller for the Czech Republic that scared the bejesus out of me through the TV screen.

DeMerit and Boca…sitting ducks. Oh and one more thing, Boca and DeMerit have never worked in tandem in the middle in a USMNT game….never.

Finally — what happens when the big dog Onyewu comes back?

2) Accept that you are not switching out Boca and pair him with a stronger, stouter defender as in Jonathan Spector, Chad Marshall, or dropping a notch, Clarence Goodson.

So you are going to relegate a heart-and-soul player in JDM to the bench because you want to keep arguably a lesser option in there? Tough call their Bob.

Is he ready? Can he be readied?

Do we think Chad Marshall is ready for the best? Clarence Goodson — certainly is not.

Spector, interesting case…but your first step automatically weakens the flank.

We witnessed the Spector pairing in Scandanavia–the West Ham 5th man coming and doing a more than admirable job and showing off some serious ball movement skills. Spector provides one of the fleeter options. Discount the three goal barrage against Operation Dyamite up in Denmark as Denmark countered a bewildered Frankie Hedjuk with a cacophony of Kobe Bryant-like attacks (inside, outside, over the top, the lob, etc) and left Spector largely unprotected.

Specs can most likely play that inside role however now you’re relying on Steve Cherundolo’s Age as your starting RB without a proven back-up.

So a decent option….if it didn’t weaken your right flank…..and if either gets any experience playing inside–which they are not likely to–
before South Africa ’10.

3) Reluctantly relegate Carlos to the bench or move to the left back, pair DeMerit with Marshall or Spector, or Goodson.

Bob, this is probably your best option. It gives you Jay DeMerit’s experience in the middle and gives you an effective first line-last line pairing.

If Gooch comes back, then you immediately slot him back in. I’m not sure you can take that same risk with Boca that Gooch will be back.

In TSG’s opinion, sending Boca to the bench–begrudingly–for the captain is the best if you don’t put him out wide.

4) Pray for Omar Gonzalez, or Brandon McDonald, to play out of their minds every game up until June.

Omar: Skills: 9.5, Experience: 0

Not a viable option here. But TSG had to mention the heart-on-his-sleeve Gonzalez who goes 6’5” or 6’6” in cleats to Gooch’s 6’4”. Wow!

Gosh, we wish that Gonzalez had a few more seasons under his belt.

Having tantalized his future, the likelihood of either of these guys getting even a toke in the Netherlands friendly is at this point laughable.

And those are your options Bob, unless you want to throw a wild card in for 6’0” Maurice Edu who captain the Beijing Olympic team in 2008 from the central defender position. Think about it.

If you’re asking TSG, we take option 3, pray for a speedy Gooch recovery and have Jimmy Conrad buzzing in Omar Gonzalez’s ear like Ray Lewis pushing him to get better.

Our best pairing right now if we’re taking on England in one month: DeMerit, Marshall.


Forthcoming Part II: Boca Out Wide. Can you really prep to have Gooch back or a Chad Marshall up to snuff?

20 responses to this post.

  1. An interesting read for sure, but I’ve gotta think that Boca will start, at either CB or LB. I’m hearing rumors that Gooch will be recovered by March and can then work toward match fitness, giving him some 3 months to get there, with the physical condition he’s in already, shouldn’t be to much of an obstacle. My favored line-up for the time being is Spector–DeMerit–Onyewu–Bocanegra with Stevie C, Marshall, and Pearce as back-ups.


    • Posted by matthewsf on 2010/01/03 at 6:10 PM

      I agree all around — as you saw in our Pitchtown article…we’ll address Boca at LB shortly. The only issue is Gooch’s health.

      So if you think about it Chad Marshall’s abilities (and perhaps Spector as a further back-up) really say more about where Boca play.

      Taking this one step further, TSG has been saying for awhile that Edgar Castillo is a left defensive mid or left winger, not a leftback.

      If Boca moves out wide, you have either Bornstein (likely) or Pearce (unlikely at this point for covering him) — so really don’t need Castillo out left.

      Next time Boca will be in the 18 will be January 16th.

      And all this being said, you still cannot ignore that Boca didn’t have the best late qualifying games, that his worst performance was arguably at left back against Mexico, that Boca was very challenged against speedy wingers at the Confed Cup…and further — that’s he’s not playing right now…

      Shoot…just game away much of Part II.


  2. Posted by Rhodie on 2010/01/03 at 6:24 PM

    Great column, a few reactions:
    I don’t think there can be any doubt that Boca has lost, at best a step, at worst much of his once sizable ability. Watching Fulham last year proved that for me, and as he went out at Fulham the same thing happened for the National team.

    Option #1: I don’t see any way that this is viable do to the unbelievable aerial that England will have. With Heskey, Crouch, Gerrard, and Rooney up front all known for their ability with their head, and Lennon, possibly even (god forbid) Beckham putting in crosses to them there is no way to win without a towering presence in the back line.

    Option #2: You can’t take Spector off of the wing, he is the best when he plays there, and he is the best we have there. Watching the West Ham game a week or two ago Spector went up against Lennon for the majority of the game, and while he in no way shut down Lennon, he was also not hugely outclassed. No one else that we have can even come close to playing with Lennon, Spector has to stay.

    Option # 3: Seems to be the only viable option, at least in this column, I am personally leaning toward a Boca, Gooch/Marshall (pray Gooch is ready), DeMerit, Spector back line.

    One other question, how old is Omar Gonzales? I haven’t seen him and would love to see more of him.


  3. Posted by matthewsf on 2010/01/03 at 8:21 PM


    Good synthesis and feedback.

    Two minor points — Omar goes 6’5” and is greener than a cucumber. He’s nowhere near ready and showed himself vulnerable a few times in the MLS playoffs. That being said again, he’s 6’5′ and going to be a player. He’s in camp tomorrow.

    If we’re worried about Lennon putting in crosses for an England score than I’m pretty comfortable with how the US has progressed to June 2010. :>


  4. ofcourse, the addition of Jermaine Jones will certainly help alleviate said pressure to the backline, assuming German doctors stop screw-balling around. Thank god for Edu’s return, another guy who can play CB at this point only helps his chances to get on the plane.

    But yes Matt, you are right about Boca’s recent form, especially out wide against speedy flank players. I must say that Boca worries me less than Bornstein though. JB may be king in Honduras, but he’s still got alot to prove for me. And I love being proven wrong by our boys so hopefully he can step up and make some plays.

    I’m more worried about Lennons/Walcotts/Milners/whoevers/ speed vs Boca than the aerial situation. Gotta think that the Gooch now is better than the 2006 one.


  5. Posted by Jake on 2010/01/03 at 10:15 PM

    Great article I look forward to reading part II. I would also tend to agree with the previous post that i too am more worried about speed from Lennon, Walcott and the like. Although these England stars are playing big games and up against great competition in the EPL, how much real World Cup experience do they really have and will any of them have any mental meltdowns that we can take advantage of in game one? (they will have a ton of pressure on them from their country)
    It will be interesting to see if mentality and experience (Boca) can hold these guys off versus the speed of Bornstein. What is really driving me crazy is that after the last world cup game in 2006 I remember turning the TV off and thinking we have such a long way to go and after almost 4 years, we are 6 months away and we still don’t have it figured out. I suppose we have to realize our team is really in transition and aside from a few guys like Howard, Dempsey and Donovan, what else can we do but put some faith in the younger guys and have some fun. I mean do you really expect us to win the World Cup at this point? What I really hope for is that we can make it out of the first round and then play Germany. I am dying to get revenge after that hand ball that should have been a goal for us in 02 :)

    If we can get that far then I would count my chickens hatched, with a beer in my belly and a smile on my face.


  6. Posted by matthewsf on 2010/01/03 at 10:22 PM

    Both last comments here are right on target with the next piece.

    If you remember as well, it was Aaron Lennon that pretty much was the only player (coming on in a sub role no less) who continued to have the ability to break down his man one-on-one.

    The way that Bob–and I’m looking at how Specs was virtually holding Lando’s hand in the Brazil games in the Confed cup–handles it to provide immediate cover over top.

    The challenge–and damn maybe we’ll just call the comments Part II :> — is that on the left side the US (and maybe this will change with CD9’s absence) favors the counterattack as one of their lone offensive weapons. Boca, dare I say, just cannot get ahead on the attack nor handle the ball like a Bornstein.

    So you’re gaining experience, but losing even more with–to be non-personal–an older less mobile left back on that right side.


  7. The nature of this post, and the commentary got me thinking about the Scotty Bowman, SAF, Jose Mourinho style of mind games….

    Maybe it’s time that we bench Boca, and I don’t mean start sitting him and testing our younger guys, I mean fantastically benching him, so much so that the rest of the world looks in our direction with a cocked eyebrow and smug grin. They’re hubris would then be taken to task by a united front and a defense that is better without the aging captain.

    As Lewis Black once said in a bit – It’s time to elect a dead president in our country… No one would ever [mess] with us again.


  8. Posted by Nick on 2010/01/04 at 8:10 AM

    I’ve said this a few times on some other sites but we keep looking at englands second forward to be the crouch/heske type…huge mistake for capello. That is the type of forward we can sort of match up with physically and give ourselves a chance (not saying we will win that battle just saying we will have a chance in the battle). If capello goes with Defoe up top and Lennon on the right and assume England is going to win the midfield battle (gerrard/lampard vs bradley/clark at this point…ummm yea…) then we have no defenders who can stop that type of speed. Our defense will get shred regardless of boca in the game or not. Our best bet will be to run a line up of dolo on the right, specs on the left, demerit and either gooch or marshell in the middle. So I guess sort of your option 3 haha.

    Now I’ll admit I’m playing a lot of this on paper and I am disregarding some intangibles but on paper it doesn’t look great…but that’s why we play the game


    • Posted by matthewsf on 2010/01/04 at 9:15 AM

      A few things:

      – We’ll be along early next week with some insights into how the USMNT can compete with England.

      – The USMNT needs to prepare pretty much to be ready for all looks from England. Capello is not specifically going to be prepping for the US with his team selection obviously…but I can easily see Capello starting with Heskey and Rooney up front OR Rooney and Defoe OR Rooney in a one-up-top with Gerrard playing off him.

      The USMNT is going to have to prepped for all front 6 looks from England.

      – The funny think about England is that they don’t really have a lot of players–beyond Defoe threatening the offsides line–that like to attack and shoot from the interior. My guess is this is why Capello keeps thrusting Carlton Cole on to the bench — he still needs that option. Amazing that Bent or Owen haven’t gotten more run up top.

      Your strategy above Specs on the left makes sense to contend with Lennon, Gerrard etc.–Pearce and Boca had a really hard time on the left side in that Friendly (though only one observation)–but if I’m Capello…I float Rooney over to the left or bring in the bigger Heskey and split him a little wider.

      More shortly….


  9. Posted by Evan on 2010/01/04 at 2:13 PM

    I just want to point out that Nesta was injured for much of the 2006 world cup. That was why Matterazzi was playing


    • Posted by matthewsf on 2010/01/04 at 3:04 PM

      Very true — I believe Nesta played the first few games…and I believe Cannavaro’s impact on the game was somewhat muted thereafter…I’ll need to look back at that.

      Good point.


    • Whic begs the question, with Nesta in the lineup, does France take the title? There’s no Materazzi to headbutt, so Zidane stays on the pitch and galvanizes the team in ET and PKs….


  10. bit.ly/8QKL4A

    I somehow missed this Gooch spot on CNN detailing a little bit of his rehab in Santa Monica, CA…Forgive me if the more astute already saw it!


    • Posted by matthewsf on 2010/01/04 at 9:05 PM

      Thanks for posting the video. Appreciate it.


      Takes me back to my oh-so-much fun recovery from three knee surgeries. Just a blast…what a great time.

      And by the way, I may not be funny…but that announcer dude definitely is not funny.


  11. Posted by zardoz on 2010/01/05 at 2:21 AM

    Good write-up, I agree with your assessment. Would be tough to bench the captain, but ultimately the best choice. And if he’s now essentially too slow to play center back, his prospects as a wingback are probably even worse. Another factor in the overall backline equation is that even if Gooch’s rehab progressses quickly, he will then likely just ride pine for AC Milan for a couple months before SA, I thought that he seemed to gradually get less sharp when playing for the Nats after his transfer, and the scant club playing time that resulted. Just not sure how effective he’d be on the pitch in SA, even if 100% healthy, with little to no club minutes after a several month recovery from a ruptured tendon in his knee. Gooch needs match fitness to gain confidence in his knee, and his ability, and a match fit Gooch on the back line would give me much more confidence in the team’s chances of getting out of the group.


  12. […] The Coupe de France ninth round will give us a little more info on Captain Carlos, the subject of a recent TSG feature piece. Here is hoping that Bocanegra takes the pitch as Rennes take on Caen at […]


  13. […] to gain some more observations on the form of Captain Carlos before writing the follow-up to our Elephant piece.. A review this weekend–yes we are soccer nerds over at TSG–of the Spain and […]


  14. […] promise to get to part II of our Boca series shortly. Thanks for the […]


  15. […] Elephant In The Room & Its Not Gooch or DeMerit […]


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