The Deficit of Talent in the US Men's National Team Comes in the "Player Peak Years" (This Does Not Bode Well for 2010)
Last week the US Men's National Team was defeated by a Spanish team full of players who were at their physical and mental peak-this was especially true at the skill positions in the midfield and up front. Most football experts will tell you that players hit this "peak" between the ages of 24 and 28, and the Spanish team is full of them. Just looking at the potential strikers on the Spanish roster and you see both Garcia and Fernando Torres are both 24, Villa 26, and Guiza 27--all in the prime of their careers. The midfield is also jam-packed with players at their physical and mental peak: Xavi Alonso, Iniesta, and the goal-scoring Xavi are 26, 24 and 28 respectively. Unlike the "youngins" on the USMNT, the only regular starter for Spain that seems to fall out of this age group is Cesc Fabregas-but at least he's 21 and can buy a beer after the game: Adu, Bradley, and even Altidore (who didn't play) can't even sip a brewski after a hard day of work on the pitch!
So, "what's the point?" you may be asking. The point is this: there is a massive and severe black hole on the USMNT in this "peak" age group. While the next generation of youngsters like Bradley, Altidore, and Adu may represent the some of the best players on the current USMNT, at their tender age, they shouldn't really have to carry the burden of leading and driving this team forward at the "skilled" positions. Unfortunately, because of the veritable black hole that formed out of what was once the 1999 and 2001 US men's under-20 teams (who theoretically would be taking on these responsibilities now as 24-28 years-olds instead of leaving it to youngsters just barely able to vote. Frankly, the burden is too heavy, and it shows.
So what happened to this "middle" generation of US players that would have fallen into the 24-28 year old bracket in the "skilled" positions (skilled/midfield)? Well, we all know that perhaps the USMNT's best player, Landon Donovan, came from this generation so that's a start. Damarcus Beasley and Clint Dempsey as well. Unfortunately, there are a couple major issues: 1) none of them are true "field-generals" like a Claudio Reyna, Fabregas or an Alonso, and 2) not a single one of them could be called a true striker like a McBride or a Fernando Torres. And 3) only Donovan could truly be considered a top class player-whereas Dempsey and Beasley are just a hair above average 1st tier players (lately)-they can play with the big boys but they haven't been standing out.
Let's look at other players in this age group at the "skilled positions" and find out what happened to them:
Ricardo Clarke (age 25): He's coming into his own as a defensive midfielder, but he won't ever turn into a true distributing midfielder. His MLS career has been respectable, but he's no "superstar" in the making.
Bobby Convey (age 25): Once upon a team, Bobby was a "superstar in the making." But now it's all about reduced playing time, relegation to the Championship, nagging injuries, lack of confidence-this winger/midfielder's career is at a tipping point. Which way will he go?
Jeremiah White (age 26): Is he a striker? Is he a winger? Is a true midfielder? Who knows? Mr. White enjoys hoping from second rate European club to 2nd rate European club-if they'll have him. He is not the answer. Now in Denmark.
John Thorrington (age 29): Remember this kid? Once the potential star; played on the 1999 Under 20s, and signed and trained with the mighty Manchester United but never got to play? Remember the hopes and dreams we all had when he was transferred to Bayer Leverkusen but again, never played a minute? Remember when the "next great" American midfielder finally ended up playing lower level football with Huddersfield in England just to find work, and finally came back to the MLS just to fizzle out at the ripe age of 25 after a failed stint with lowly Grimsby Town in 2004? So, the oft-injured JT came home to the Chicago Fire in 2005 where he's played 16 games in three years. Remember when we resolved ourselves to the idea that despite the glorious beginnings that John was just an average player? Remember that? You forgot about him too, didn't you?
John Futagaki (age 28): Remember when he got regular minutes on the 1999 U20s? People thought he'd be pretty good. What happened? Well, his father was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's Disease-that I remember-and I know this was difficult for him. He went on to play a few games with the Chicago Fire, and last I had heard was playing indoor soccer somewhere just to pay the bills.
Francisco Gomez (age 29): Once thought to be a possible future captain of the USMNT (in fact, he was the captain for the U17s in 1995), after a wonderful start with the U17s and U20s, Gomez never played with the national team again. He had a decent MLS career in Kansas City, but is now busy fading into total obscurity as a player/coach for the Bakersfield Brigade in the near amateur USL Development League. What happened? Who can say? Apparently at 29, he's all but fizzled away after such promising play in the 1999 World Youth Championships in Nigeria. Amazing how short and deferred a once promising career can be.
Shaun Tsakiris (age 29): Once a solid performer for the U20s, he was never considered a possible super-star. Now plays with the Rochester Rhinos.
Matt Goldsmith (age 29): Matt who? There is no record that he ever played anywhere.
Corry Gibbs (age 28): Converted to a Defensive back. Chronically injured. In two seasons has never played a single game for Charlton. He better hurry, its all down hill from 30.
Kyle Martino (age 27), Brian Carroll: Key members of the 2001 U20 team and having decent MLS careers, but not destined for and world-class status
Nate Jaqua (age 26): Is the Austrian Bundesliga really an improvement over MLS? If you've watched Austrian soccer lately, you'd clearly agree that the answer is, "No." And why would you give Jaqua a chance and continue to leave off Taylor Twellman?
Pat Noonan (age 27): A very slow player. Does he deserve another try since his move to frigid Norway (Aalesund)? Well, if Josh Wolff deserves a chance, why not Noonan. Well, Josh Wolff doesn't really deserve a chance-and come to think of it, Noonan probably doesn't either.
Chris Rolfe (age 25): He's not doomed to never play for the national team again. I'm sure he'll get more time, but he sure isn't going to shock the world with his play.
Chris Albright (age 28): remember when he was a forward for the U20s in 1999? Well, you probably know this, he's not one anymore. Now he is a competent defender. Heck, we didn't need any forwards anyhow, did we?
Taylor Twellman (age 28): Its hard to believe that TT has been left off of all those WC teams-you know because we're just loaded with talent up front... Yeah right. Give Taylor a chance-he's got a few more good years! While Taylor scores consistently and has been a consistent contributor on the national team, Eddie Johnson has gone through long stretches of inconsistent play-but he keeps getting picked! Who knew that never living up to your hype could get you more caps than actually contributing to your team-- (right EJ)? .
Jamar Beasley (age 29): Had s decent MLS career; played briefly in the lower leagues in Italy, and then came home to play indoor soccer-but maybe thought he'd do better than a humble career when we saw him in the 1999 U20s.
Alecko Eskandarian (age 26): Once upon a time there were high hopes for this U20 standout. He's had a decent career in the MLS. At times he's looked like a great player. At times, not.
Brad Davis (age 26): Use to be a forward-now a decent midfielder for the Dynamo. I like his personal note in wikipedia that so aptly could be used to describe his whole career: "An avid deer hunter, Davis spends as much free time as possible in the forests of his home state of Missouri hunting whitetail deer. However, he has yet to harvest any deer of significant note, especially in terms of trophy buck." Oh, yeah he did win the MLS once.
Conor Casey (age 26): You've heard this story before: Conor goes to Germany seeking playing time and growth and eventually ends up starting and playing exceptionally (scoring lots of goals-14 in 30 games!) for Karlsruhe. After this, newly promoted Mainz, needing a successful striker, paid Casey the big bucks ($300K in transfer fees) to come over and reproduce his success in the Rhineland. Well, it didn't happen. In 38 games he only scored 2 goals (you see, Mainz really did give him a chance-it wasn't like when Donovan was at Bayer Leverkusen). After such an atrocious scoreless stretch with Mainz, a stretch that never looked to end, Mainz finally sent him packing, deciding not to resign him; so, Casey went limping back to the states. You've heard this sad tale again and again for American players: Conor went from one of the most promising forwards in Germany, to a second rate striker who couldn't finish in just a matter of years. Welcome to the MLS and a mediocre career. Very sad.
Edson Buddle: A pretty prolific scorer over the years, Edson has had a decent MLS career; unfortunately, he has been as prolifically injured as well. I don't see him contributing to the future of the USMNT.