If you’re searching for a meaningful measure of the progress American soccer has shown to date, look no further than the Best 11 Debate. This is the time-honored parlor game enjoyed by the denizens of actual soccer nations, whereby headstrong fans and observers argue as to exactly who should start, and where. You got Satellite Radio? Tune in to Sirius 126 and listen to 606, from the BBC’s Radio 5: hundreds of fans calling in from all over the U.K., gabbing on, mostly intelligently, about how Gerrard and Lampard must learn to play together, or not.
America has now qualified for six straight World Cups, but I’d argue that this year’s tournament — beginning Friday, June 11 in South Africa (Saturday’s the day for the U.S. opener, vs. England) — is the first one that allows American fans to indulge in such banter. Why? Because until this particular quadrennial, the Yanks simply didn’t have the options necessary for debate.
We were lucky to have 11 international-standard players for each position.
In 2010, we do. We have more than that, actually, which is requisite for arguments re. who should play and who should sit. For long-time observers of the national team, this is something of a revelation. Coach Bob Bradley even left some quite serviceable players at home, as WC rosters can only number 23.
You’ll not hear any idle banter from this quarter. The U.S. can and should get out of its group. It might get lucky and win a Round-of-16 match and earn its second Quarterfinal in 8 years. That, in itself, would be an extraordinary achievement.
But I’ll say now that American progress is already clear, to me. The choices at Bob Bradley’s disposal speak eloquently to this point.
Okay, so here is my Best 11, and how I’d line them up — from the strikers back to keeper:
Jozy Altidore Clint Dempsey
Jose Francisco Torres Landon Donovan
Carlos Bocanegra Steve Cherundolo
Clarence Goodson Jay Demerit
Torres, whose parentage gave him the opportunity to play for either Mexico or the United States (and he did play some under-23 matches for El Tri), is the late-emerging wild card here. Bradley didn’t feature him in many qualifiers, not at all in games that mattered actually. But he plays in the Mexican first division for Puebla (he’ll move to Pachuca in the fall) and he was the best player on the pitch, for my money, during the Yanks’ 2-1 win over Turkey in Philadelphia on May 29, the day before the U.S. left for South Africa. He held the ball with real cool and tackled with surety and fierceness. Some would like to see him at defensive midfielder, in place of Clark, and even though stature shouldn’t matter at this position (think Claude Makelele for Chelsea, and France), at 5’5” and 136 pounds, I do wonder about Torres holding his own in the middle of the pitch against a team like England.
That’s why I like him on the left. He can play more centrally and defensively, as his opposite, Donovan, is sure to be roaming forward much of the time. Indeed, with Torres cheating in a bit more centrally to support the midfield — and hold the ball, something we need more of — Clark can cheat a bit right. All this frees Bradley to go forward, as well.
Is this the team that will start vs. England June 11. Doubtful. Bradley seems content to play Dempsey and Donovan as wing midfielders. Edson Buddle scored twice vs. Australia in the final WC tune-up on Saturday; if Dempsey’s at midfield, Buddle should start (Altidore has turned an ankle but reports indicate he’ll be ready for the English). I’d rather get Torres on the field and sacrifice Buddle, but I’m not in charge… One gets the impression that Onyewu will start vs. England, and he is our best central defender when healthy. But I don’t think he’s healthy. How could he be? He wasn’t fit enough to play a single game for AC Milan this spring. I’d leave him out vs. England, a game we can afford to lose, in hopes that he is fit for Slovenia and Algeria.
But the presence of Buddle and Goodson and Torres is a luxury we’ve not had before. It’s a luxury for Coach Bradley, and a luxury for us fans. Without choices, the Best 11 gambit is a non-starter, so to speak.
We’ve not even discussed Stu Holden, who could just as easily claim a spot at right midfield, push Landon to the left and Dempsey up front; or Maurice Edu, a starter in defensive midfield for Rangers (one of the two elite teams in Scotland), who may well be better than Clark but isn’t as quick, and Bradley seems to sense, rightly in my view, that our defensive four (other than Cherundolo) is a bit plodding; or Jonathan Spector, a starting defender for West Ham United in the English top flight.
To me, Spector’s case speaks volumes: In World Cups past, if there was an American starting for a Premiership side, he was in the Best 11. Full-stop, no questions asked. As it happens, Spector might be our sixth-choice defender out of seven on the WC 2010 roster.
That, my friends, is progress.