Injury-wracked US face World Cup selection dilemmas
In each area of his team, US National Team head coach Bob Bradley has difficult decisions staring him coldly in the face.
With only days to go before he calls in an expected group of 26 to 28 players for pre-World Cup camp in Princeton, New Jersey, the fitness of three crucial players is in question. Ã¢ÂÂ¨Ã¢ÂÂ¨Two of the three would rightly be called "indispensable" while the third is an asset Bradley would desperately hope to have on his bench.
All are expected to make the USA's list of 30 from which the final World Cup roster will be named; the likelihood that they will participate in camp or ultimately make the select 23 going to South Africa, however, varies greatly.Ã¢ÂÂ¨Ã¢ÂÂ¨
For each, it boils down to this: How much does Bradley risk leaning on rusty, our of form, players who bring with them the possibility of an injury recurrence, and whose individual match fitness will be questionable at best?Ã¢ÂÂ¨Ã¢ÂÂ¨Quality teams are built back to front, or so someone once said, so we'll naturally start in defence.
Central defender Oguchi Onyewu, an intimidating figure and by most estimation the best American at his position, tore the patella tendon in his right knee back in October.
The injury isn't your run of the mill knee injury, and hopeful prognosis had Onyewu out until just before the World Cup.Ã¢ÂÂ¨Ã¢ÂÂ¨The prognosis was correct it appears, and Onyewu is back in training with AC Milan, though he's yet to take part in a competitive match.
There's a small chance he could make his first team debut for the Italian club in the Serie A sideÃ¢ÂÂs few remaining fixtures, but even that will do little to sweep away cobwebs built up during months of recovery and rehabilitation. Ã¢ÂÂ¨Ã¢ÂÂ¨
Nonetheless, all reasonable assessment has Bradley with his hands firmly tied on Onyewu's inclusion in the US team. There's no one near Onyewu's quality in reserve, and lack of depth across the board for the Americans means sucking it up and taking a talented, if completely under-prepared centre back.
Onyewu will make the US team, and will almost certainly start against England on June 12th. This fact only makes the training camp and the three warm-up friendlies (against the Czechs on May 24th, the Turkish on May 29th, and the Aussies on June 5th) that much more crucial to the stability of their defence. Ã¢ÂÂ¨Ã¢ÂÂ¨
In midfield, Bradley's concern is the young and emerging Stuart Holden. A Major League Soccer star for the Houston Dynamo in the last few years, Holden left the States in January for the brighter lights of the Premier League.
He landed at Bolton, having followed Owen Coyle there after initially trialing with Burnley, and was only just beginning to make his mark with the Wanderers when a broken leg sidelined him.
The injury was sustained in an international friendly against Holland on March 3rd, when a disgusting tackle by Manchester CityÃ¢ÂÂs Nigel de Jong fractured Holden's right fibula.Ã¢ÂÂ¨Ã¢ÂÂ¨With Holden on the mend, back in training at Bolton, and hoping for his own last gasp club appearance before national team camp in a few weeks, there's every reason to believe he'll also be in the US picture despite a bit of rust.
Holden's established role in Bradley's team is one of second-choice right-sided midfielder and regular substitute contributor; in a perfect world, he'd be able to come off the bench in South Africa to either replace Clint Dempsey or allow the Fulham star to move up top in a role similar to that which he plays at Craven Cottage.
Perhaps not as important to US fortunes as the previously mentioned Onyewu and still-to-be-discussed Charlie Davies, Holden's qualities are undoubtedly much needed.Ã¢ÂÂ¨Ã¢ÂÂ¨Which brings us to the biggest question of all, that involving miracle man Charlie Davies.
If you don't know the story by now, you certainly will if he makes the US World Cup roster. Seriously injured in a car accident just seven months ago, Davies has given everything he has to rehabilitating his body in time for South Africa.
Whether or not he'll make it is still unclear; he's in full training, scoring goals there, and giving every indication that he'll be adequately healthy for a good, hard look from Bradley in the latter half of May.Ã¢ÂÂ¨Ã¢ÂÂ¨But the knife's edge nature of his comeback leads to relevant questions about just how much he can contribute in June.
This isn't a healthy-in-every-way-save-one player returning to the field after a typical injury like Onyewu and Holden, but a man attempting to be of international class after nearly losing his life only a relatively short time ago.
His body could certainly betray him, and though he has had no notable setbacks that would indicate such a thing is coming, Bob Bradley still must consider the possibility.
Never mind that Davies would need to prove himself fully, and without the slightest doubt, able to compete in a rough-and-tumble football match against the best the world has to offer who won't be cowed into taking it easy just because Charlie has such a great story.
Reality is all too sobering, and the World Cup is no place for heart warming without capable. Ã¢ÂÂ¨Ã¢ÂÂ¨Uplifting morale boost aside, Davies gives the US team something it must have to stretch opposing defences, allow strike partner Jozy Altidore to find space and isolate defenders, and provide an attacking element capable of changing a game: pace.
Davies, when healthy, is not only a quality goal scorer, but works well in the American tactical set up because his speedy diagonal runs pull defenders away from the ball.
This makes Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, et al. that much more dangerous, relieving pressure on a team usually tasked with a defend-and-counterattack strategy.Ã¢ÂÂ¨Ã¢ÂÂ¨Don't expect Bradley to bow to public pressure, or to "give Charlie a shot" because he seemingly deserves one; Bradley's proven himself to be pragmatic and calculating, meaning that Davies must be on top of his game, or better than other options available in the least, if he's to make the US squad.
An American physio just concluded a visit with Davies in France, which means Bradley has up-to-date information on which to make his first decision.
Most expect Davies to make the preliminary roster, be in camp, and have an opportunity to prove himself worthy of a World Cup spot. From there, it will be up to the player to perform and the coach to weigh every consideration.
Onyewu is a lock, Holden a near certainty. Davies is further down the scale, and probably by a wide margin.Ã¢ÂÂ¨Ã¢ÂÂ¨Evey team faces injury doubts as they prepare for a World Cup campaign. Some decisions are simple, easily made because timing and fitness dictate a player can or cannot make a go of it.
Few, however, are confronted with so many questions, and in every part of the team, as the United States only a month and a few days away from kicking off in Rustenburg against the mighty Three Lions.Ã¢ÂÂ¨Ã¢ÂÂ¨Woe is Bob Bradley.