Good Answer to the Wrong Question

“I hear and I see all the same criticisms and I just think it’s a case of the grass always being greener,” Howard said. “You hear people say, ‘Play Jay DeMerit. Play Jimmy Conrad. Play Michael Parkhurst. They’re all good players. I’ve played with them and like them all, but you know what? If it was Gooch and Michael Parkhurst or Conrad and DeMerit, they’d be saying the same things. ‘Play this guy, play that guy.’ ”

So Timmy's coming out in defense of the less-than-stellar partnership of Gooch and Bocanegra on the US back line. Good thing he's doing the defending, cause they're certainly not up to the task (rimshot please)! In one respect, of course, he's right. Fans in general, and US Soccer fans in particular, are absolutely guilty of the behavior he describes. But I think the thrust of most of the intelligent "nitpicking" (as he labels it) isn't on the relative merits of our defenders with respect to each other, it's their merits when compared to the standard that a second-tier international side like the US should be able to put on the field.

Let's take a look at the shop window here and assess our options in central defense.
  1. Carlos Bocanegra - A mediocre defender on a weak Premiership side who isn't exactly blessed in the decision-making department, but is a strong tackler and a threat on set pieces.
  2. Oguchi Onyewu - He's washed out of the French and English top flights and found his place (for now) in a second-tier Euro league (Belgium). Gooch is still young and, of course, massive. Combine that with his decent technical skills and his potential is almost as huge as he is. The issue is that he doesn't use his considerable bulk intelligently and his positioning is suspect.
  3. Michael Parkhurst - Another young defender with a lot of potential who happens to be a terrific reader of the game and has fantastic positional sense. But he's short, slight, and no speed demon. If only we could put his futboling brain into Boca's body, we'd have a top-class defender.
  4. Jay DeMerit - The Wisconsin lad has scrapped his way up from the bottom of English futbol to the point that the lesser lights of the Premiership have been sniffing around him since Watford's relegation. DeMerit gets the absolute most out of what limited gifts he's been blessed with in the physical and talent departments. Again, if we could pop DeMerit's head on Gooch's god-like frame, we'd all be smiling.
  5. Jimmy Conrad - The fact that Conrad is even in the top five speaks to how weak we are at centerback. Yes, he's a solid veteran and a quality MLS defender. Yes he's a decent player to have in the pool if the injury bug bites or suspensions arise. He should be a band-aid at best when a little cut nicks the pool. Unfortunately, a band-aid is cold comfort when you need a tourniquet.
Califf, Boswell, etc - the list goes on. All decent, but not top level defenders. And this is the crux of the problem. It's not that the "grass is greener", it's that the grass is withered and brown, we're out of seed, the sod store is closed, and winter is rolling in hard. Not much of a lawn is it? The question isn't which two of these 5-10 we put on the field, it's why are we limited to these choices, and why are they the best we can do? Of course, you could argue "spilt milk" and all that and let's move on and make the best of what we've got, or maybe the classic "fallow period" in player development has reared its ugly head.

What I'm hoping is that with the continued growth and improvement of MLS and the proposed re-working and expansion of the academy system in this country, that we'll eventually end up in the brave new world of Timmy's imagining. A world where we're arguing the relative merits of the players and which knife we should pull from a drawer full of wickedly sharp cutting implements. As it is now, we've got a handful of dull blades, some forks, and a spoon or two - and that's just not going to get the job done.

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