USMNT, The Season Ahead – Pt. 2, The Defenders

We’re almost a full month into the European season now and have a pretty clear picture of how our USMNT players will be performing through the early part of the season.

With quite a few options across the backline, I elected to stick solely with players plying their trades outside of MLS and Scandinavia (both of which run similar seasons), eliminating the likes of Chad Marshall, Marvell Wynne, Jonathan Bornstein, Clarence Goodson, Hunter Freeman, and Frankie Hejduk. Also, I’m not expecting any experimentation at the back from Bradley in the near future, so I’m not addressing our young prospects like Eric Lichaj (Aston Villa), Kyle Davies (FC Dallas), etc.

After the jump, I’ll preview the season ahead for our top pool of defenders.

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Carlos Bocanegra

Stade Rennes

Left back

A year after his move to Ligue 1, Carlos Bocanegra is entrenched in one of the strongest defenses of Ligue 1. Bocanegra enjoyed a wonderful transition to Ligue 1 play, starting 38 games and scoring a goal. The best indicator of Bocanegra’s smooth transition and subsequent strong play is that Rennes finished tied for 3rd (with champions Bordeaux) in Goals Against last season for Ligue 1, conceding only 34 through 38 games.

The 2009\2010 season looks to be much of the same for Bocanegra, who has started out the season on the left-hand side and doesn’t look to be giving up the spot anytime soon. Rennes has struggled out of the gate, though, conceding 4 goals through 4 games, winning only 1 and drawing 3.

After a strong showing as the USMNT left back during the Confederations Cup run, it’s unlikely that captain Bocanegra will move from that spot anytime soon (barring suspensions\injuries) and will almost definitely be our starting left back from today through the world cup next year.

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Heath Pearce

Unattached

Left back

After struggling through the 2008\2009 season with Hansa Rostock, Heath Pearce is still waiting for his club situation to be resolved. Reports and rumors have been popping up for some time, but the latest (and most reliable) ones have Pearce possibly headed to FC Dallas of MLS. It’s unclear whether he will ultimately play in the states, as there are still rumors of suitors in Holland, Germany, and Belgium.

Pearce’s rocky club season mirrored his USMNT season, as the defender went from a lock on the left-hand side to questions about his ability at the international level and eventually his snubbing from recent US squads. Personally, I still believe Pearce is our 2nd-best left back (behind Bocanegra), but it’s hard to see Coach Bradley ever really putting his faith in Pearce over his former Chivas player, Jonathan Bornstein. I am not one of the few that rate Bornstein as a USMNT-quality player, but he’s one of Bradley’s MLS favorites and will likely continue to get the call-ups ahead of Pearce.

However, if Pearce can get on with a reasonable club in a European league, it’s not unlikely that Pearce works himself solidly back into the USMNT squad.

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Oguchi Onyewu

AC Milan

Center half

The highest profile American defender has yet to see any action in Serie A, but it’s only a matter of time before the giant central defender gets his chance. AC Milan were the winners of the “Gooch sweepstakes”, presenting the best offer and eventually signing him on a free transfer. With almost no practice time with the team, Gooch was thrown into the fire during preseason in matches against Chelsea, Inter Milan, etc. Easily the biggest Milan field player, it’s not hard to see why a team with free kick maestros Ronaldinho and Andrea Pirlo would want the massive target in their squad.

While quite a few fans seem to be a bit worked up and worried over Gooch’s lack of playing time early in the season, just keep in mind that AC Milan is competing in 3 competitions – Serie A, UEFA’s Europa League, and Italy’s Coppa Italia – leaving plenty of matches for Onyewu to get time. Given Milan’s poor start to the season, including a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of arch-rival Inter, it’s quite possible we could see Gooch given a start at the back following the international break. Needless to say, it’s foolish to be worrying about Gooch and his time at AC Milan.

While captain Bocanegra has seen his role changed from central to left in the back four, there’s no question that Gooch is staying in the center of defense for his career. Only turning 28 next year, it’s probable that Gooch will start the next 2 world cups as the United States’ center half.

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Jay DeMerit

Watford

Center half

The club captain of Coca-Cola Championship side Watford, Jay DeMerit has enjoyed a successful 4-year stint with the club. DeMerit’s strong play in the center of defense and penchant for heading home goals has made him a fan favorite at Vicarage Road. Watford are off to another slow start this season, going a paltry 1-1-3 in their first five league games. DeMerit’s backline has already conceded 8 goals in those 5 games.

DeMerit’s rise to prominence with the national team is solely thanks to his play in the Confederations Cup. After seeing little to no time with the 1st squad in the last few years, DeMerit was called into action against Egypt and rose to the occasion, partnering Onyewu in what could be considered the best (and toughest) defensive tandem the US has ever seen. Unfortunately for USMNT fans and coaches alike, DeMerit will be 30 at the end of the year, meaning his time with the USMNT will soon come to a close. For now, and through the 2010 world cup, DeMerit will be the 1st choice center half to partner Oguchi Onyewu at the back.

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Jonathan Spector

West Ham United

Left\Right back

After missing most of the 2008-2009 season with injury, Jonathan Spector is back in the starting lineup for West Ham. Interestingly though, he’s starting on the left-hand side for Coach Gianfranco Zola, and is getting mixed reviews so far this season. While Spector hasn’t been stellar, he’s been far from awful like his own fans suggest. He struggled against Aaron Lennon of Tottenham two weeks ago, but it’s hard to fault him against a winger that is probably his biggest mismatch. Regardless, Spector is a regular in West Ham’s defense and will likely play on either the left or right side throughout the season.

Spector’s play in the Confederations Cup drew rave reviews from a variety of sources, as he went up against the likes of David Villa, Albert Riera, Cesc Fabregas, Robinho, Kaka, and Luis Fabiano – more than holding his own against every single one. It was this run of play that seems to have firmly planted him in the minds of US fans, which is good considering  that Spector is arguably our most talented defender. Hopefully, Spector is not left out of the future squads, as his absence was noticeable in the loss at Azteca.

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Steve Cherundolo

Hannover 96

Right back

The diminutive Steve Cherundolo appears to have moved permanently back to the right side of defense for Hannover after spending a year or so  an experimental right wing. He didn’t play right wing in every game, but Hannover weren’t shy about moving him up the pitch. This year, though, Cherundolo is back in his preferred position and Hannover are off to a slow start, going 1-2-1 in their first 4 Bundesliga games. On the good side, they’ve been reasonably strong at the back, only giving up 3 goals through those 4 games. Cherundolo should spend most of his time at the back for Hannover through the season, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone if they elect to maximize his skill and crossing by using him in a more forward role in some games.

Cherundolo’s presence in the US squad took a blow last season with his injury, as the US spent a long time looking for a suitable replacement. While he was still recovering, Jonathan Spector stepped up his play at the Confederations Cup and looked to have knocked Cherundolo back down to the bench. Bob Bradley made the decision to use Cherundolo against Mexico at Azteca, only to see the 5’5″ right back struggle to keep up with the pace of the game. The next few qualifiers should give us a clearer picture of who Bradley prefers in the battle between Cherundolo and Spector for the right back slot.

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Frank Simek

Sheffield Wednesday

Right back

A bit of a darkhorse candidate for future call-ups, Frank Simek is just now returning from a nasty ankle injury he suffered in December 2007. He saw his first action last week for Sheffield Wednesday in a troubling 2-0 Carling Cup loss to Port Vale, and it appears his manager, Brian Laws, is looking to send Simek out on loan to get him match fit. The Wednesday manager rates Simek pretty high and is eager to see the American get fully fit.

Simek’s USMNT career was burgeoning back in 2007 as he was called up to the Gold Cup and even replaced Jonathan Spector in the final win over Mexico. Only 24, the former Arsenal player has plenty of time to get himself fit and ready for a call-up, and it’s not impossible that he could return to form in time for a trip to the world cup.

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2 Responses

  1. As long as Hejduk is not playing right back I am fine. I prefer Spector over Cherundolo as well.

    I do not rate Bocanegra as a center back at the international level. I think he should stay out on the left.

    I do not rate Bornstein at all on the international level. He is fast but he cant cross and cannot defend.

    Demeritt and Onyewu is fine for the pairing at the back.

  2. We’ve discussed this before; however, I don’t think Spector was missed that much during the Mexico game (that is, I don’t think he would have locked down the right side any better). I believe the one thing Spector does need to work on is his play versus players with speed and Dolo’s mark – like Lennon – would give most defenders problems. In fact, most of what I read pre-Azteca was that a concern over speed was one of the prime reasons Dolo was selected over Spector – and I think that is fair.

    I’ve been able to watch him play so far this EPL season and I think one that is clear is that what we saw this summer isn’t how Spector consistently plays. He’s looked shaky for WH, even though he’s on the left (where he has started at for Man U, etc). Many of the criticisms he receives in England are just as valid as his praises for this summer. I would love to see him lock down a starting position even after the entire roster is healthy, again. The sky is the limit for this guy – so long as he stays healthy!

    My biggest question mark is our LB spot. I do not think Boca is our answer for that position and there were several games over the course of this summer that solidified that for me. I’d still like to see Specs moved over just as a trial – with Onyewu out for the El Salvador game, perhaps that can happen.

    Like Kyle, I cannot rate Bornstein at this level. I’m think Hejduk’s time has come. My biggest surprise this summer was the play of Goodsen during the Gold Cup and I’d love to see him get some more time.

    Looking forward to next summer, I think our best group is:
    Onyewu, Boca, Dolo, Specs, and DeMerit

    Just my take.

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