Tuesday, November 03, 2009

ATH: Towards South Africa 2010

The List: 10 Things Towards South Africa

By Clemente Lisi, US National Team Players Association

-- With World Cup qualification in the books, the US National Team has the next seven months to prepare for South Africa. Achieving success at the World Cup comes through a combination of hard work and luck. In other words, things have to fall into place at exactly the right time to make the difference between getting bounced in the first round or making a quarterfinal run or beyond.

“You dream about winning. Brazil goes to the World Cup prepared, expecting, needing to win and they probably book a seat on the plane home for the trophy,” US Soccer President Sunil Gulati told The New York Times last week. “The fact is if you get past the first round anything is possible. If someone asks you if you can win the World Cup what are you going to say? We can’t win? We're talking about dreams, dreams of our players and what I dream about, too.”

Indeed, success next summer has a lot to do with what occurs over the next few months. Although there are some things the team can control, there are others that they can not. Here are the 10 things that need to fall into place between now and June if the US wants to be competitive at the World Cup:

1. Play Competitive Friendlies

The Federation learned this lesson the hard way when on the eve of the 2006 World Cup it scheduled tune-ups against lowly opponents like Morocco, Venezuela and Latvia. Those teams were hardly worth the US’s time and Bruce Arena’s squad suffered the consequences once they got to Germany. The US needs to schedule more competitive friendlies. This month’s road games against Slovakia and Denmark, two teams that have also qualified for the World Cup, is a very good start. “With so few available dates for international matches between now and the World Cup, having the chance to play two fellow World Cup finalists is a big plus in terms of our preparations,” said coach Bob Bradley.

2. Lean on Veteran Players

The US isn’t suddenly going to get an infusion of veteran players on the team over the next year, but the vets that are on the squad, like 27-year-old Landon Donovan, will need to lead by example. So far, he has. He'll need help from the likes of Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo - players who have played at high levels for years. Frankie Hejduk is another player the team needs to lean on. His experience, indomitable spirit and intensity makes him a much-needed presence in the backline and the locker room.

3. Try to Put Teams Away Early

If anything, this team has shown it can score goals. And while watching these guys come from behind is fun, it’s something they will want to avoid at the World Cup. The Americans’ thrilling 2-2 draw with Costa Rica at RFK Stadium last month was the fifth time in 10 hexagonal matches that the US had made a comeback and fourth time in its last six games. Another caveat is the second half collapse. It happened in two very big games thus far with two very different sets of players – the Confederations Cup final against Brazil and Gold Cup title match versus Mexico. It’s the reason why the team lifted no silverware this year.

4. Wise Up

Bradley can sometimes be too conservative and has often appeared tactically naive. He needs to spend a lot of time studying his opponents (once they are determined at the Dec. 4 draw), preferably in person, before the big show in June. The pro and anti-Bradley folks will certainly be out in force next year. Let’s just hope Bradley is more like Bruce Arena from the 2002 World Cup than the one from 2006.

5. The David Regis effect

The ill-fated insertion of former French national-turned-American on the eve of the 1998 World Cup did nothing for Steve Sampson’s side other than alienate players and destroy team unity. It remains to be seen if, or when, Jermaine Jones of Germany and Edgar Castillo of Mexico, will join the roster. If either player - or both - are called up, Bradley needs to do a better job reworking his lineup.

6. Stay Healthy

Easier said than done. Oguchi Onyewu is out for six months, Jay DeMerit just had eye surgery and the tragedy that befell Charlie Davies on the eve of the Costa Rica match last month were out of anyone’s control. Bradley needs to hope that the core of his lineup stays healthy.

7. Lack of Depth

Trying to stay healthy brings us to the squad’s depth. This team is full of gifted players, but there aren’t enough to make a strong enough roster. The defense and midfield are both lacking quality bench players, especially when the regulars are out due to yellow card accumulation or injury. Defender Chad Marshall, for example, has had a great year with the Columbus Crew, but is he ready for the World Cup if one of the back four regulars is out? That needs to get tested over the friendly schedule.

8. Get More Playing Time With Clubs

This is another one Bradley, or the players, has no control over. The team’s MLS-based guys don’t need to worry about this much, but players like Jozy Altidore, a likely starter in South Africa, need to get more minutes at their clubs. Bradley left out Freddy Adu for that explicit reason. There is no point in Americans signing with a big club if they’re not going to play. Fulham striker Eddie Johnson made that point when he talked about going on loan to increase his playing time and, with it, his chance of getting a ticket to South Africa.

9. Avoid Red Cards

The USA’s display in the first round of the Confederations Cup is not to be repeated next summer. Players were tossed out of two of three first round games. That won’t help the team advance past the first round.

10. Psychological Healing

On a mental level, this team has been compromised. The players wore their hearts on their sleeves against Costa Rica. They need to focus at the task at hand, while trying to wrap their heads around the Davies’ tragedy. Not at all an easy task, but one the team will need to struggle with over the coming months. “There have to somehow manage and carry on,” said former US midfielder and ESPN analyst John Harkes.

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