Before we get to those players who shamefully "filled their pants" this summer for the Red, White, and Blue, lets take a step back and take a look at the big picture. Sure we had individuals put on some good displays, as well as some who were, shall we say, less than good - but what did we learn about the player pool as a whole?
1. Some Surprises
Bradley made a few surprising call-ups, particularly with his Copa roster, and the results were a real mixed bag. We've already discussed the excellent play of a handful of youngsters in the previous section, but let's turn to a few players that could have a surprising impact on qualifying.
When Bradley called in Benny Olsen, I was fairly certain that it was a locker-room move - similar to bringing in Hejduk - someone to keep things lose and provide some experience for a young group. But Benny was a strong, calming influence on the team. Witness the decline in midfield play after his exits in the first two Copa matches, particularly noticeable in the loss to Argentina. I'm sure I wasn't alone in figuring that the 2006 World Cup was Benny's last hurrah with the national side, but I think that he may have proved his continued worth to the squad.
While Drew Moor had a miserable first half against Colombia in the final Copa match and missed a wide-open header against Paraguay, as a whole I found his play shockingly impressive. I hadn't really noticed him much for Dallas, but he was poised on the ball and distributed extremely well - something that is sorely lacking in the US fullback pool. I'm still not sure he has the wheels or engine to be a consistent performer at the international level, but against some good competition in the Copa, he showed that he can be a solid contributor.
2. State of the "D"?
Despite Moor's decent showing, he may have just looked good in comparison with the rest of the crap on display along the back line. The defense was not convincing, and I'm not at all happy with the supposed first-choice central pairing of Bocanegra and Onyewu, nor do I think that Bornstein is ready for prime time at left back. In fact, I don't believe that a single fullback staked a permanent claim to a spot, which is good news for the likes of Cherundolo, who missed this summer's action, but doesn't bode well for the defense as a whole. Of the centerbacks, I think only DeMerit showed reasonably well and he's probably too small and too slow for the international game. You can have one or the other, but not both. I'll be watching Gibbs' return to action with Charlton this year with extreme interest.
3. Where's the Finish?
Of course, the defense wasn't the only weakness in the US team. Probably even more glaring was the lack of finishing. Eddie Johnson promised so much with his form through the first half of the MLS season, but didn't come anywhere close to that level of performance in the US strip. Twellman's effort is there, but I think we've seen enough of him to know that it's just never going to happen on the international stage for him. Ching had about one good half - fortunately in the second half of the Gold Cup final, but not much else. About the only US forward who did anything worth a damn this summer was 17 year-old Jozy Altidore. Maybe it smacks a bit of desperation, but I'll join the growing number of voices clamoring for his call-up to the senior squad.
4. Stocked in the Center
Now, despite the less than convincing play of the forwards and back line, the supposed void left by the international retirement of Claudio Reyna and the mysterious disappearance of John O'Brien has not come to pass. The likes of the aging Chris Armas and the thuggish Pablo Mastroeni have been eclipsed by a seeming glut of young central midfielders who contribute to both the offense and defense. Feilhaber, Bradley, and Clark were all among the most impressive players this summer and the pipeline looks to be full with Kljestan, Edu, Szetela, and others nipping about the fringes.
5. Ready for Beijing?
The U-23 team that the US will hopefully be sending to China for the Olympics next summer should be a pretty loaded one. We've got a solid core of young players with good international and club experience who should put in a good showing and you know Nowak will have them fit and focused. The only problem could be if he drives them into the ground too early - as is his wont, but that would probably only occur over the course of a full club season. Nowak may be the right man to bring a squad to a ferocious peak and let them loose on an unsuspecting field.
So, the kids are alright, the midfield is strong, but there are questions in defense and attack. While we can probably get by with an average defense, in order to do so successfully, we need to find a consistently lethal forward and be supremely organized. EJ might get back to being a deadly frontman, and it would be a shame to right him off at 23, but he's just a bit too much of a headcase. Donovan is a proven, if somewhat streaky, finisher, but probably worth more to us in the midfield. With the dearth of other options available to the senior side, it may be time to dip into the youth squads and give the likes of Altidore a chance.