U.S. needs to settle fullback spots
By Brian Westfall, Soccer Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
United States coach Bob Bradley had an easy time last year deciding on his starting fullbacks, but by his own admission has some "interesting and tough decisions to make" this summer, with the 2010 World Cup growing larger on the horizon.
Bradley deployed Steve Cherundolo and Heath Pearce at fullback in nearly all of the United States' matches last year, including a stretch during which the duo started together in eight of 10 games.
Cherundolo was handed a few more games off than Pearce, who started 11 straight matches from March to October of last year - a stretch that continued into this year to include starts in 13 of 15 straight games.
Bradley consistently turned to the duo whenever the U.S. faced a big game, with Cherundolo and Pearce starting together against Argentina, England, Poland and Spain, not to mention numerous key World Cup qualifiers.
The fullbacks, teaming mostly with undisputed center backs Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu, helped the U.S. post five shutouts last summer - including a 0-0 draw against Argentina.
When the U.S. last played on April 1, however, Cherundolo and Pearce were both absent from the starting lineup - a scenario that could continue Wednesday when the Americans resume World Cup qualifying at Costa Rica.
When the U.S. last played in April, DaMarcus Beasley was moved from midfield to the back line.
Cherundolo is sidelined due to hip surgery and hopes to resume playing by July, when the U.S. continues a busy year that includes qualifiers, the Confederations Cup - featuring Brazil, Italy and Spain - and the Gold Cup.
Pearce unexpectedly lost his starting left back spot two months ago to DaMarcus Beasley, who took his 17 career international goals - which is sixth all-time for the U.S. - from midfield to the back line.
Cherundolo should be in line to reclaim his starting role at right back, if it is still available next month. Pearce's situation is up in the air, especially if Beasley is Bradley's new choice.
Bradley would much rather have the positions settled but admitted with 15 matches left this year, including two big tournaments this summer, "it's an opportunity to look at different players."
Cherundolo was injured playing for Germany's Hannover, and his absence opened the door for 34-year-old veteran Frankie Hejduk. The Columbus Crew defender started once with Pearce last summer and has started the last three games this year for the U.S.
He will miss Wednesday's match with a strained groin, but hopes to be back for Saturday's match against Honduras. With both Cherundolo and Hejduk unavailable on the right, West Ham's Jonathan Spector will likely start, with Toronto FC's Marvell Wynne also an option.
Spector has played in two World Cup qualifiers in his career and is healthy after a recent concussion. The ex-Manchester United player started and played a full 90 minutes in West Ham's last EPL match May 25.
"[Spector] is a versatile player and a guy who does a lot of things on the field to help his team," Bradley said. "This is going to be a good opportunity for him."
Wynne has yet to appear in a World Cup qualifier, but the speedy option could always emerge at right back. Frank Simek, who is not on the roster for the qualifiers, could also factor into the battle later this year.
On the left side, Pearce could have trouble regaining his role after Bradley said "the minutes and experience he's played for us are still important." He has done well in Germany with Rostock, but also found playing time limited.
Beasley, who could have 100 caps for the U.S. by the end of the year, adds an exciting and dynamic option at fullback. His speed and athletic ability - he's arguably the best two-way player on the team - could be deadly from the back this summer and in the World Cup.
"We were very pleased with the way DaMarcus Beasley played at left back against Trinidad and Tobago," Bradley said, "and that's something we feel can help us in the future."
If Beasley, who plays for Scotland's Rangers, does move back into midfield it would open the door for Pearce or Chivas USA's Jonathan Bornstein.
Bornstein hasn't played much for the U.S. recently, but back in 2007 gave the U.S. a "lot of good minutes," Bradley said. Jay DeMerit and Danny Califf could also factor into the mix, although they are better suited for central defense.
Bradley has been fortunate to be able to play all of his options at some point and has a great opportunity to get a look at all of the players - and different combinations - this summer.
The two World Cup qualifiers are followed by the Confederations Cup later this month, the Gold Cup in July and by five more qualifiers from August to October.
U.S. goalie Tim Howard, another undisputed starter and arguably one of the top goalies in the world, has been impressed by the defense at times but knows the upcoming stretch of games is something the team needs.
"I've certainly learned from my club career that playing big games like that hardens you, whether you win or lose at the moment isn't important," said the Everton and former Manchester United goalie.
"Just being able to be in those environments, to test ourselves against those teams will really help us grow."
Enough that there will be no "interesting and tough decisions to make" ahead of the World Cup? Bradley can only hope.
Because without a pair of regular starters on the outside of the defense, a duo who can grow into a unit with Howard, Bocanegra and Onyewu, the Americans will be on a sightseeing safari long before next year's World Cup is over.