The question that has been asked most of the United States since Brian McBride's retirement from international soccer in 2006 is "who is going to be the U.S. striker?" That is usually followed by a reminder that no U.S. striker has scored in a World Cup since 2002, but striker is not at the top of the list of issues for Bob Bradley's side.
For all the talk about the goals that the U.S. could have scored in the World Cup, they did score five goals in four matches, which is a respectable total. In the final round of World Cup qualification, the U.S. led all CONCACAF teams with 19 goals scored so they got their share of goals even without stellar striker play.
The biggest issue that the Yanks have had is keeping other teams from scoring. Their four World Cup matches yielded five goals and in the final round of World Cup qualifying the U.S. allowed more goals than either of the other top three teams. Against the top four teams in the final round of qualifying, the U.S. kept just one clean sheet and gave up at least two goals in four of those six matches against the confederation's three other upper echelon teams. The team's struggles to keep teams from scoring is most apparent when comparing their final round of qualifying for 2010, where they gave up 13 goals, to their final round of qualifying for 2006, where they gave up just six.
There was no doubt that the U.S. needed to improve their back line, but eight months after the last World Cup cycle ended with a 2-1 extra time loss to Ghana in the round of 16, they are still in the process of figuring out its defense. The issue is the the team has placed an emphasis on winning the Gold Cup and earning the spot in the 2013 Confederations Cup that comes with it. That Gold Cup is only two and half months away though and Bradley still hasn't sorted out his back line problems.
Oguchi Onyewu has finally gotten back on the field and is playing regularly for the first time since the spring of 2009. That layoff was a product of a transfer to AC Milan where he couldn't break into the team and a serious knee injury he is only just getting back to 100% from. Nonetheless, the hulking central defender appears to have a lock on the right-sided central defender role.
Where Bradley has the most work to do is on the left side of his defense. At this point, there are essentially three players competing for the two spots on the left and Bradley will have to figure out which two to go with at this summer's Gold Cup. While the first few Gold Cup matches shouldn't challenge the U.S. defense too much, the later matches will and Saturday's friendly against Argentina could shed some light on Bradley's thought process going into the summer.
Tim Ream is the new, young option at center back and the left-footed player is the best distributing option out of any of the U.S. defenders. His ability to play with the ball at his feet carries more weight than it ordinarily would because the U.S. is trying to change to a five-man midfield with an emphasis on more possession. Better distribution out of the back is essential to more possession and Ream despite not being a top level defender, he has shown better than expected defending in his two caps thus far. It has to be mentioned that those two caps came without most of the best U.S. players on the roster though and against sub-par competition so Ream's play on Saturday, if he plays, will go a long ways to determining if his defending will be up to snuff for the summer.
While Ream is an option as a left-sided central defender, Jonathan Bornstein is an option as a left back. Often derided for his boneheaded mistakes that have led to goals for the opposition, it is easy to forget that Bornstein most recently played well in his two World Cup starts against Algeria and then Ghana. With good speed and strength, Bornstein has the ability to defend well and even showed he is capable of doing an outstanding defensive job when he all but shut down Lionel Messi when the U.S. played Argentina in 2008, but he's lacked consistency. What remains to be seen is how Bornstein handles a return to left back after being moved to the midfield since transferring to Tigres this January.
The final left-sided option can play either of the spots in question and is almost guaranteed to start considering he is the captain. Carlos Bocanegra has 85 caps to his name, some at central defender and some at left back. Undoubtedly better in the center, Bocanegra could be forced to left back because Ream plays so well. It is also possible that he could be forced to left back because the team has no other semi-competent option at the position, as has been the case recently.
Because Bocanegra is a near lock to start this summer, the question is whether Ream or Bornstein can earn the other starting spot. After Saturday's friendly against Argentina and Tuesday's friendly against Paraguay, the U.S. will likely have just one more match before the start of the Gold Cup in early June. That final match will likely be used as a tune up, meaning that Saturday could be the start of a two-match tryout between the two for the final spot.
For all the questions on the left side of the U.S. defense, there is another question on the right side. Onyewu might have the right-sided central defender spot in the bag, but the right back role is still up for grabs. Steve Cherundolo is aging, but may have played his finest soccer at last summer's World Cup. He would undoubtedly the preferred option at the position, but the 32-year-old is regularly fighting injuries, as is he right now resulting in his being taken off of the roster.
With Cherundolo out for this weekend and his availability for the summer not assured because of his tendency to get injured, Bradley must find another suitable option at the position. Jonathan Spector is the longest tenured national teamer of the three options Bradley has, but he hasn't been playing well or regularly for 18 months. In the summer of 2009, Spector hit his high point with the U.S., bypassing Cherundolo on the depth chart and playing the tremendous cross from deep that Clint Dempsey headed home against Egypt to secure a spot in the Confederations Cup knock out stage. Ever since though, Spector has turned in poor performances for the national team and even worse ones for his club, West Ham, except for a short stretch where he played well as a midfielder.
Because of Spector's steep decline the U.S. needed another younger option at right back to be next in line after Cherundolo and they turned to Eric Lichaj. Young and physically capable, lichaj was making headway with Aston Villa at the same time he was making headway with the U.S. Lichaj made his international debut in October and did well then he began to earn time with the Villa first team. His high point came when he started against Tottenham Hotspur and did a fantastic job marking Gareth Bale, but he followed that up with a nightmare performance against Manchester City, after which manager Gerard Houllier singled out a specific poor play where he gave away a penalty. Ever since, Lichaj has not seen the field for Villa and was reported to have played terrible for the reserves before being loaned out. In fact, Lichaj was not even on the initial roster for the friendlies, but was called in when Cherundolo was injured.
The final option for Bradley is the new guy, Timothy Chandler. At 20-years-old, Chandler only recently made his first time debut with Nuremberg of the German Bundesliga, playing both right midfield and right back. Chandler is German-born, with a German mother and American father, who has never played on the senior international level. Versatile and adept at getting forward, Chandler has been playing only right back in training with the U.S. With Bradley lacking another good option at right back, Chandler has an opportunity to jump up the U.S. depth chart to feature this summer in the Gold Cup despite not even being on the U.S. radar a mere six months ago.
Scoring goals is far more sexy than keeping them out and attackers always get the most praise. The U.S. most certainly needs improved striker play and with a young phenom like Juan Agudelo on the roster, most will be looking at what the U.S. does up front this Saturday when the Yanks square off against Argentina, but it is the action at the back that is most important.