Saturday, July 10, 2010

Looking for Forwards

So I finally bought Matt Bai's book The Argument: Inside the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics after being reminded by looking at this blog. If you're willing to buy the hardcover edition - which for some reason has a slightly different title - it's $2.49 and under on Amazon.

Anyway, I came back to post this table of the number of players on the U.S. Men's World Cup Team playing in elite European leagues:

World Cup
2010 3 4 7 1
2006 2 2 1 1
2002 2 2 4 1
1998 1 0 2 0
1994 0 0 0 0
1990 0 0 0 0

These numbers were quickly compiled by looking at the World Cup rosters on Wikipedia. Club teams are categorized as "elite" if they currently play in the top English, Spanish, Italian, German or French leagues or an elite team from another league (Ajax, Rangers, Porto, etc). That is to say that "elite" is somewhat subjective here. It's also based on current team rankings, even if I'm looking at players from the 1998 squads. Despite the remarkable stability of the European soccer hierarchy, there are some changes, so this shouldn't be considered perfectly accurate. It does pick up some clear trends, however.

What's most immediately clear to me is what a newcomer we are to scene of legitimate threats to win some games in a modern World Cup, with players from the very top of the European club soccer pyramid. As recently as 1998, only 3 of our 22 (23 player rosters began in 2002) players were playing elite European soccer. In 1990 and 1994, playing in Europe was the exception rather than the rule, and still only limited to weaker or secondary leagues.

The three from the 1998 team - GK Brad Friedel of Liverpool, MFs Claudio Reyna and Chad Deering, both of Wolfsburg - initiated a trend of the US' traditional strength at goal (like this year's Tim Howard of Everton backed up by two more Premier Leaguers) and the midfield. Indeed, Friedel and Reyna led the US to a shocking World Cup quarterfinal in 2002. With the exception of 2006 when even our best midfielder (Landon Donovan) wasn't ready for the world stage, that part of the field has been an area of rapid development. This year's midfield was unquestionably our strength, anchored by Donovan (most recently of Everton), Fulham's Clint Dempsey, and Michael Bradley (28 appearances in the Bundesliga).

Our back four made huge strides in the run-up to this World Cup. Oguchi Onyewu moved from Belgium to AC Milan in 2009, while unfortunate injury cost him time in Serie A and cost the US in the World Cup. Carlos Bocanegra moved to French Rennes and was given the U.S. captaincy. Steve Cherundolo completed his 12th season with Hannover 96, the last eight played in the Bundesliga. Jonathan Spector has made 87 appearances for West Ham United since 2006.

It's our strikers where we need the most help. We didn't have a single elite striker in the 90s World Cups, and we've only had one each in the last three (Joe-Max Moore, Everton; Brian McBride, Fulham; Jozy Altidore, Hull City). Even Jozy has only two goals in 34 European appearances. A quick glance at the Spanish and Dutch rosters reveal that all 9 of their forwards play for top teams in Spain, England or Italy. That's the gap we have to start to close if we're ever going to be serious threats to win one of these things. Here's hoping that before 2014 Altidore, Findley, and others make some real strides, and pick up experience breaking down tough European defenses and scoring goals in big games.

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