This is an op-ed by frequent contributor Jay Bell
In 2006 U.S. Soccer fans did not know what to believe. The team had just disappointed in another World Cup on European soil after going into the tournament highly ranked. Following the tournament the team was in flux. Bruce Arena left the team, multiple players retired, and others were fading fast.
In came Bob Bradley.
He was not hired as the permanent manager at the time, but he was completely rebuilding the U.S. Men’s National Team whether we knew it or not. Bradley had to deal with losing a leader in each area of the field.
Brian McBride, Claudio Reyna, and Eddie Pope all voluntarily ended their international careers, retiring at ages at 33, 32, and 32 respectively. The blow was softened most at goalkeeper where Tim Howard had been waiting in the wings to take over for Kasey Keller who did not retire.
The U.S. lost all of its leaders. That may not have been much of an issue had the rest of the team looked like it was ready to step up.
Many of the players on the 2006 World Cup roster were headed downward in their careers. Josh Wolff attempted to sign for Derby County following the World Cup, but was denied a work permit. He then signed with TSV 1860 in Munich of the 2nd Bundesliga in December, going on to score only 2 goals in 34 matches. Wolff was joined by Gregg Berhalter who dropped down from Energie Cottbus in the Bundesliga. At 29, both Pablo Mastoeni and Ben Olsen were fading, though both made a few more appearances. An injury in 2006 and subsequent poor form took Bobby Convey out of the national team picture. At age 32, Eddie Lewis was losing to younger competition on the left side of the field. Chris Albright has dropped off the map since the 2006 World Cup.
The worst exit was that of John O’Brien. Many felt that that O’Brien was the most talented U.S. Soccer player ever. Chronic injury issues claimed his career at a young age though. Fans still lament what could have been had McBride, Mathis, Donovan, Beasley, Reyna, and O’Brien all peaked mentally and physically at the same time, but that’s another story.
Bob Bradley was left to try and build from what was left on that roster. Landon Donovan was not a star player in Germany and fans wondered if he would ever become the star they wanted him to be. Bradley was left with some strength in the back. Tim Howard was on a career upswing with Everton, while Cherundolo, Onyewu, and Bocanegra provided stability in defense. Clint Dempsey, Damarcus Beasley, and Eddie Johnson appeared to be dynamic attacking options for the future.
Overall, Bradley was left with nine experienced players to build around. The previous eight mentioned, along with Brian Ching, would become the foundation of the team based on ability and experience. The squad lacked depth and had a gaping hole in central midfield. Bradley set out to solve those two issues.
Pablo Mastroeni, Kyle Beckerman, Ricardo Clark, Brian Carroll, Benny Feilhaber, Michael Bradley, Ben Olsen, Jesse Marsch, and Maurice Edu were all given the chance to impress in central midfield in 2007. Bradley went on to cap 92 players during the three and half years through the World Cup. He experimented with players and formations at a time when the U.S. did not know what it was. Experimentation was imminent and necessary. Bradley worked out the kinks quickly as his newly built U.S. squad was able to defeat Mexico to win the CONACACAF Gold Cup in the summer of 2007.
Fast forward 4 years.
The U.S. is coming off of a more successful World Cup run and Bob Bradley has been re-hired for another four years. No player has retired. His star players were star players in South Africa. Two players that fans thought would fade fast are Cherundolo and Bocanegra. ‘Dolo is currently captaining the third place team in the Bundesliga and ‘Los is a staple in the lineup of the second place team in France. The only players playing themselves out of contention are Jonathan Spector and Robbie Findley. Jay Demerit is searching for a team, Hahnemann is considering retired internationally, and Damarcus Beasley may be squeezed out because of competition.
In 2007 Bob had nine players to build around. In 2010 he already has a core of no less than 17 players.
There is no uncertainty of who the new players will be either. Jermaine Jones’ arrival and Stuart Holden’s ascension have immediately impacted this team. Bradley had to wait until June 2007 to figure out who the new impact players would be for the Gold Cup.
Not only does Bob not have to find new starters nor find 14 more players to go on the roster, but there is already competition for the final spots. That is the result of capping 92 players. He has also brought in Alejandro Bedoya, Omar Gonzalez, and (TSG favorite) Eric Lichaj who will compete for a place on the Gold Cup roster.
There is also no gaping hole on the team. After 2006, the U.S. had no young, experienced players at CM. Bradley had to find them, cap them, and give them the experience. The only comparable situation on this team is the lack of production with forwards. Still, Altidore, Johnson, Findley, Buddle, Gomez, (hopefully) Davies, and others still have the experience and ability that was absent from the CM position in the fall of 2006.
The U.S.’s post-2010 World Cup squad has a foundation, chemistry, and continuity that was non-existent at the beginning of 2007. Many are still expecting the same kind of total experimentation in 2010. There is no need. Barring injuries we probably already know 19 players who will be named to the 23-man Gold Cup roster. At this point Bradley just needs to find the formation and player positioning that maximizes the team’s ability. He’s already tinkered against Brazil, Poland, and Colombia.
2006 and 2010 were both extremes. The 2006 team was stripped of its leaders and its depth. The 2010 team returns both. It’s just not rational to expect the integration of 15 new young players into a team that not only has its foundation, but also its depth.