Well, the summer has come and mostly gone. We still have the U-17 World Cup to get out of the way, but with the senior and U-20 sides involved in three major tournaments his summer, we got a better picture of what the national program looks like heading into qualification for the most important tourney of all - the World Cup. In this first of a five-part series, we'll take a look at the five players who surprised or impressed me the most - the five who "planted their spears" and gave "fist shaking performances" in the parlance of everybody's favorite Geordie.
5. Ricardo Clark
The first of the two-way midfielders that really staked their claims for spots on the 2010 roster for South Africa, Clark has returned from a couple of injury-hit seasons to really start opening some eyes in MLS and his performances for the national side were more of the same. Despite limited time in the Gold Cup, his entrance in the second half of the final tipped the balance in favor of the USA. Clark continued to show his class at the Copa America, though a lackluster series of results dims that shine a bit. He's athletic, solid on the ball, can crack them from distance and distributes well from a holding position. The emergence of players like Clark, Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu, et al spells the end of the line for one-trick ponies like Pablo Mastroeni.
4. Sal Zizzo
A handful of U-20 players turned in excellent showings up in Canada this summer, but then, they were really expected to. Injuries to the likes of Johann Smith and Quavas Kirk opened the door on the right side of the US U-20 attack and Zizzo charged right through. In fact, he did so well that he's landed with Bundesliga side Hannover 96 directly out of UCLA and also a received a call-up to the full national side when they face Sweden next week. Bob Bradley has a distinct shortage of quality right wingers in the player pool, all of which continues to play into Zizzo's hands. With the way the chips are falling into place for the kid, you've got to wonder if he did a deal down at the Crossroads.
3. Michael Bradley
The second of our central midfield trio who really grabbed their chance with both hands, Bradley stepped up to the plate hard, with flying tackles, high-energy performances, and more attack-minded passing that we've been accustomed to in our midfield destroyers of the past. All this, and he only turned 20 a couple of weeks ago. Though he often seemed to court the cards with full-blooded challenges, and indeed even walked for one of them, Bradley certainly didn't lack for confidence. Despite cries of nepotism, Bradley was probably more impressive with the senior side at the Gold Cup than he was for the U-20's in Canada, though some of that may be down to weariness from a long summer. The big fault in his game besides the rash tackling still seems to be trying to play difficult passes when the easy, considered ball would suffice. That should come with time and experience.
2. Freddy Adu
It's very easy for fans of MLS and American soccer to forget that Freddy just turned 18 this summer. Despite never setting the league on fire and failing to shine in the previous two U-20 World Cups, Freddy took charge in Canada and landed with Portuguese giants Benfica on the back of his sterling showings. And do you know what the kicker is? He's still eligible for one more U-20 World Cup! Flashes of the brilliance that we were supposed to get with Freddy were in abundance on the international stage of the U-20's and we'll have to see what happens in Europe. If he starts to flower into the anything like the player the hype has built him up to be, we can forget the next U-20 World Cup and focus on the real thing in 2010 for the teenage phenom.
1. Benny Feilhaber
There's no question who the revelation of the summer was. Feilhaber came in as an under-used reserve player for Bundesliga side Hamburg who had been sniffing around the margins of the US national team. He left the summer as the unquestioned fulcrum and feature piece of the US midfield and managed to book his passage to the lofty reaches of the English Premier League with Derby County. At 22, Feilhaber still has room to grow into his role on the full national squad, but his poise on the ball, passing, and of course, the wonder-volley against Mexico in the Gold Cup final, have earmarked him as one of the key cogs in the Red, White, and Blue midfield.
Now, these were not necessarily the five players who had the most impact on this summer's orgy of tournament activity for the US. Rather, these were the players who I felt stepped up on the big stage and demanded the attention and respect of both the fans and coaches of the US Men's National Team. All five are young and either had limited time at the international level or were in danger of being dismissed for failure to deliver on their promise. Now, I think it's only prudent, if not unavoidable, for Bob Bradley to include them in his qualification plans for the next World Cup.
Keep your eyes peeled for the next installment of "Boys of Summer", where we look at five players who really "filled their pants" for the national team.