Developing Leadership for the National Team
With the annual January training camp in full swing for the US, and January B+ friendly as I like to call it out of the way let’s look ahead towards qualifying. Here and now in 2008 the US has a deeper player pool than ever before. But at the same time, the talent at the top of the pool, and especially the leadership from veteran players is arguably at its lowest point since before the 1994 World Cup. This squad doesn’t boast the veteran soccer savvy leaders like John Harkes, Tab Ramos, Eric Wynalda, Tom Dooley, Ernie Stewart, Joe Max Moore, Brian McBride, Eddie Pope or Claudio Reyna that we’ve seen in the recent past. Instead, this national team is being led by a generation of players most of whom were early graduates of the US Soccer National Academy who have never had to fight for the colors and the badge the way the aforementioned players did.
Landon Donovan showed remarkable growth and maturity in his conversation with our Peter Brown after the US-Sweden game. Yet Donovan who is about as mild mannered and personable as high paid professional athletes come in our society and can not be a leader. He simply doesn’t have the respect and admiration of his peers and the supporters of the game in this country. As good a guy as he is and as talented as he is, he simply isn’t passionate enough about his football 365 days a year. The current US Captain Carlos Bocanegra is in my opinion (and the opinion of many others I speak with) a below average left footed center back. True, until this season he has done alright at the club level, but that isn’t what concerns me; at the national team level he has been mistake prone and often breaks down in the most critical moments. We all recall his ill advised ball into the box against Ghana which caused a chain reaction that ended the United States World Cup. Few recall the numerous mistakes he made in World Cup qualifying for 2006 and in the Gold Cups in both 2003 and 2007 that the US was fortunate to overcome in most cases. DaMarcus Beasley mentally doesn’t seem to always be with “it,” so to speak and Bobby Convey is injury prone and has yet to develop the toughness many of us thought would naturally come when he moved to Europe. Tim Howard is a good vocal leader, but since Tony Meola’s outstanding leadership in the 1994 World Cup, US keepers seem to be less relied upon to be the leaders of the team in general.
That leaves Clint Dempsey. For my money Clint Dempsey is the best player and most passionate player in the US player pool. But as Jamie Trecker, our most recent guest on the American Soccer Show pointed out in his outstanding book Love and Blood, Dempsey comes from a completely different background than the vast majority of kids who play this sport in the country and the vast majority of guys he plays with on the national team. It is Dempsey’s background that have made him the footballer and person he is today. But Dempsey because of his background and lifestyle may not be the best leader because other players may feel they cannot relate to him personally.
For longtime observers of the National Team like myself 2008 could be a watershed year. The player pool is deeper and more talented than ever. However, the lack of leadership and savvy is painfully evident every time I watch the team play. Not only is leadership lacking but our top players, Dempsey and potentially Freddy Adu excepted are not as good as our top players in the 1994 to 2002 time period. That is an opinion which anyone with a historical perspective on US Soccer must at least consider. Again, I come back to the subject of leadership. Someone must step up for this team to overtake Mexico as CONCACAF’s finest, (more on why despite the US’ consistent wins over Mexico, I consider Mexico to be a superior national team program in a future post.) and as a potential World Cup spoiler.