Sauerbrunn, Quon, and why its still too early to see NWSL’s influence on Sermanni’s choices

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It’s too early to tell who will be the NWSL’s Becky Sauerbrunn – somebody who used the ill-fated Women’s Professional Soccer as a springboard into the U.S. women’s national team. The then-Washington Freedom defender had seen some limited time with Pia Sundhage’s team before WPS began, but she wasn’t a real factor. By the time the league started in 2009, she’d been seen and judged; seemingly a long shot to forge a role with the national team.

In that new league, the Virginia grad was a stand-out, her cerebral leadership combining with a two-plus-year iron woman streak to force her way into the squad. With it, her recall became a symbol of hope of an array of professionals who, shut out by an increasingly stagnant national team roster, could see Sauerbrunn’s ascension as vindicating their persistence. Thanks to WPS seasons that put Sauerbrunn’s intelligence, consistency, and dependability on display, the now-FC Kansas City captain embedded herself at the international level. Now, after 42 caps, Sauerbrunn’s an obligatory call-up.

We’re now a month and a half into WPS2; or, WUSA3, depending on how you want to look at it. Tom Sermanni has been at NWSL games just about every weekend, and with every team streaming their home games online, the U.S’s new boss has seen all the potential candidates. After six weeks, there’s a pretty big body of evidence to suggest who is in form, so if somebody had emerged as an early Sauerbrunn, they would have called up, right?

The June 2 against Canada is a friendly. It’s on foreign soil, where there’s no significant need to sell tickets. It’s against a rival, but one that the U.S. faces with some regularity. With the World Cup two years out, there’s no pressing need to see how the Alex Morgans and Abby Wambachs of the world will do against the Canadians, even if it’s always good for the team to get time together. In a low-leverage situation where the information you gather about players is more important than the final result, doesn’t it make sense to call in a few more borderline players?

[MORE: Breaking down the 21 called into to face Canada.]

Perhaps. Perhaps Sermanni doesn’t agree that a month and a half of games is enough to justify any shakeups. And perhaps there haven’t been any players who’ve made a sufficient case, because when yesterday’s roster was announced, there were no huge surprises. No new Sauerbrunns had won a spot. Even the inclusion of an uncapped Amber Brooks caused little discussion, given her form at Bayern Munich and Shannon Boxx’s continued recovery from surgery. With a team as tight as the U.S. women’s national team, it might not be worth shaking things up, even if that means some of the same motives that kept players like Christen Press from breaking in appear to be in play.

That may also be why Yael Averbuch and Megan Rapinoe were the only surprise omissions, with U.S. Soccer making the point to explain Rapinoe, at a busy point on the calendar with Olympique Lyonnais, will join the team for June’s matches against South Korea. Megan Klingenberg was also a potential call in, but having only three national team caps, the omission of the former Tar Heel wasn’t a huge surprise. Alyssa Naeher could have gotten a look, with her season in Potsdam done, but her absence surprised no one.

The roster’s curiosities aren’t so much the omissions as two of the inclusions. Carli Lloyd, who spent the first part of the season recovering from a broken shoulder, has only made one brief substitute’s appearance for Western New York. Jillian Loyden, who broke her hand before Sky Blue FC’s season started, was recalled despite having yet to play a minute in the NWSL. Rather than look at Becky Edwards or McCall Zerboni in midfield, or give young Adrianna Franch another camp’s training in goal, Sermanni’s elected to stay the course.

It’s too early in Sermanni’s tenure (and NWSL’s existence) to start drawing conclusions, but it’s worth considering what it would take for somebody to be dropped from the national team. Lloyd and Loyden have barely played ahead of a friendly on foreign soil, yet they’re still in. Kelley O’Hara has inexplicably struggled for Sky Blue, and while it’s probably far too early to be dropping her from the national team, no natural left backs were called up. As the league moves forward, we’ll have to see if fitness or form influence national team recalls, because after Wednesday’s selection, the only thing we know will keep you from an invite are finals in UEFA Champions League and the French Cup. If that’s the standard, it’s going to by 2011-12 all over again.

If you’re looking for a drawback to the lack of turnover in a highly successful team, look to the Canada. Look to the squad they named on Wednesday. Illinois-born left back Rachel Quon, in her first season with the Chicago Red Stars, has been recalled by John Herdman, the Stanford alum having a connection to Canada through her father. The CSA still has you get her cleared, and who knows if the call-up will stick, but this could turn into a minor irritant for the U.S. No, Quon was never likely to be a major contributor for the national team, but if she evolves into a regular for Herdman, she’ll join Lauren Sesselman, Karina LeBlanc, and Chelsea Stewart as U.S.-born players who’ve elected to play for Canada (all with varying levels of connection to the States). Those aren’t Sydney Leroux-level players (somebody who made the opposite switch), but for a U.S. team looking at an improving rival, it should still be a concern.

There are two things that make Quon’s move particularly interesting. First, she’s been playing well, and when rumors circulated last week that the U.S. may have a surprise call-up, Quon’s name was one you could have inferred. Ultimately, however, it’s unclear she’s that much better of a long-term prospect than somebody like Sky Blue’s Kendall Johnson. Camille Levin, starting for Göteborg in Sweden, could also be an option. Quon may have a U-level pedigree, Stanford training, and be in form, but ultimately, the difference between her and Johnson could prove irrelevant.

The second curiosity may become more important. Left back is arguably the States’ weakest position, which only highlights the loss of a potential contributor. Kelley O’Hara’s first on that depth chart and played very well this winter, but while being shuttled between left back and left-wing for Sky Blue, O’Hara has struggled. If she carries that form into national team duty, Sermanni has problem. (Keep in mind, we’re still two years out from the World Cup.) Kristie Mewis, a natural attacking midfielder, is number two on the depth chart, through Crystal Dunn, Whitney Engen, Sauerbrunn, and even Megan Rapinoe are capable of playing left back.

It is troublesome that, in light of potentially losing Quon, there are no natural left backs on the roster, the team’s first choice is in a slump, and none of the alternatives are playing the position for their clubs. But perhaps more troublesome is a sacred cow syndrome that kept Press out of the team for so long and perhaps contributed to Quon’s Canada call-up. Having played at U-levels for the United States, it’s reasonable to assume the 22-year-old would have remained loyal to the U.S. given reason to do so. But with as little roster turnover as we see from the States’, it’s difficult to blame her for pursuing an international career.

In his fifth month on the job, it’s far too soon to say whether Sermanni will protect the sacred cows. While none of the last cycle’s core have been dropped, Sermanni has found time for players like Press, Dunn, Mewis, Ashlyn Harris and Julie Johnston – all encouraging signs. Those inclusions may be a function of injuries and absences or a concerted effort by a new coach, yet when you see Lloyd and Loyden as obligatory callups while a player like Quon is turning to Canada, it’s worth keeping in the back of your mind: Is there too much deference to the old guard? And when will another Becky Sauerbrunn rise from the domestic league?

Right now, it’s far too early to answer those questions. Just file it away.

Arena reacts to USMNT draw, expects CONCACAF fight to end

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Bruce Arena didn’t enjoy watching Tuesday’s 1-1 draw between the United States and Panama, but he’s not upset with the result.

“The referee didn’t blow his whistle too much, and that’s the way the game looked for 90 minutes,” Arena said.

[ MORE: Player ratings | 3 things ]

Arena’s Yanks struggled to find their flow in the draw, ravaged by injuries to their back line. Arena praised his back four for their performance in difficult circumstances on the road with new teammates.

And he’s feeling a lot better than a week ago, when the U.S. had zero points and sat last in the table.

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

“We’re obviously in better shape with four points in two games. We’ve made progress. Every game in qualifying is going to be critical for every team. Everyone’s in it. It’s going to be a battle for the second, third, and fourth spots.”

The Americans’ next World Cup qualifier is June 8 against Trinidad and Tobago before a June 11 road trip to Azteca to face Mexico.

Panama 1-1 USMNT: Ugly, scrappy point for both sides

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The United States will finish the international break in the Hex’s fourth place after a 1-1 draw at Panama in World Cup qualifying on Tuesday.

Clint Dempsey scored off a feed from Christian Pulisic to give the U.S. a brief 1-0 lead, and Gabriel Gomez leveled the score before halftime.

The Americans’ next World Cup qualifier is June 8 against Trinidad and Tobago before a June 11 road trip to Azteca to face Mexico.

[ MORE: Player ratings | 3 things ]

Here’s the Hex table as it stands, with the U.S. on pace for a playoff spot against Asia’s playoff winner:

Mexico — 10 points
Costa Rica — 7 points
Panama — 5 points
———————
USMNT — 4 points
———————-
Honduras — 4 points
Trinidad and Tobago — 3 points

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

The first 10 minutes were a bit frenetic, with the U.S. focused on adventurous first touch passes when it managed to earn the ball from Panama.

That feel wasn’t aided by the officiating, as Cesar Ramos was inconsistent in a very physical opening quarter-hour (and never pulled a single card).

Felipe Baloy flashed a header over the cross bar off a 16th minute corner kick as he lost Jozy Altidore and nodded back across goal. It was a bit of set piece foreshadowing, as Arena has yet to fix a long-held USMNT problem.

Christian Pulisic was fired up when Luis Tejada shoved him to the turf in the 20th minute.

Tim Ream bailed out Jorge Villafana, who wasn’t as composed and smart as his Friday versus Panama, sliding to divert Armando Cooper’s cross for a corner kick.

Jermaine Jones cued up Pulisic moments later, but the youngster had to wait for a bounding ball to settle before Panama conceded a corner. That opportunity was wasted by an overly aggressive Gonzalez, who was called for a foul before the ball arrived in the 18.

Howard saw his first danger and averted it when Alberto Quintero shook Zusi to rip a shot on frame. It was 0-0 after 32 minutes.

Then, the breakthrough. Dempsey moved to within a goal of Landon donovan’s all-time mark thanks to Pulisic, who cooked Felipe Baloy and held off Roman Torres before laying off to the veteran. 1-0, 39′.

The lead lasted all of three minutes, as Gomez pounced on a loose ball with the Yanks’ back line at sixes and sevens off a long throw-in. Gomez turned off Jermaine Jones and lost Villafana to bury his chance behind Howard. 1-1, 44′.

The second half began with more chunky play until Villafana blazed down the left wing on an overlapping run to cross for Pulisic, whose shot was forced out for a corner which led to nothing.

Dempsey then turned a Michael Bradley free kick to a waiting Jaime Penedo as the Yanks started to refind their flow.

Panama found a doorstep chance when Torres nodded down for Tejada, but Howard made an exceptional nether regions “leg” save to keep it 1-1.

Arena introduced Alejandro Bedoya for Darlington Nagbe with 20 minutes to play, a move that was a testament to the physical nature of the game.

Fittingly, it was creative work from Pulisic that helped the U.S. win a corner kick soon after, though Penedo claimed the offering.

More chances came Panama’s way, as the U.S. spent much of the late stages desperately clearing loose balls. On another night, with better finishing from Tejada, the Yanks would’ve been sunk.

Three takeaways from the USMNT’s 1-1 draw at Panama

AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco
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What did we learn from the United States’ 1-1 draw in Panama City on Wednesday?

For one thing, that the coach isn’t going to matter without a number of your very best players.

[ MORE: Match recap | Player ratings ]

The USMNT saw precious few moments of brilliance from its injury-ravaged side, saved by its soon-to-be all-time leading scorer, its 18-year-old star attacker, and its legendary goalkeeper.

But mainly, we saw that you can change the boss, but you need better performances to make a difference.

Limits of depth tested in ugly affair

Bruce Arena was without his best center back pairing thanks to injury, and you could argue he was without his best back four if you see Fabian Johnson as a left back (John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, DeAndre Yedlin, and Johnson).

The U.S. also couldn’t pair Bobby Wood with Jozy Altidore or Clint Dempsey, and lost Sebastian Lletget to injury on Friday. Timmy Chandler has rarely thrived with the USMNT, but it certainly would’ve been nice if Arena had called him up for the second match alone (He was suspended Friday for yellow card accumulation).

Given the above, this was not a pretty match. You just have to hope this isn’t the result that keeps them from Russia.

Mexico, revisited (What game plan?)

This might be an unpopular take, but Tuesday’s loss was nothing more than the performance put forth against Mexico in Columbus.

The main differences? Tim Howard was there to make a tremendous save, and Panama is nowhere near to the level of El Tri.

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

The Yanks didn’t have a great plan other than to outwork Panama. This isn’t a big knock on the coach’s tactics given the lack of starting caliber players noted above, but once Panama flooded the middle of the pitch with fouls and tight tackles, an answer wasn’t provided by the players or the coach.

Plan B hasn’t been a U.S. strong suit for a long time, perhaps back to the finer moments of the Bob Bradley era. Arena got away with one on Tuesday.

Rough road ahead

This is something we know, but my was it reinforced: Winning CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers at home is a necessity, because there’s carnage and bad pitches on the road.

Perhaps that could’ve changed if referee Cesar Ramos brought a yellow card out for either team at any point in the proceedings. Christian Pulisic and Darlington Nagbe were fouled as part of Panama’s game plan, and the Yanks’ beleaguered defense went with a similar plan as the sloppy match wore into the waning moments.

The U.S. is still in control of its own World Cup destiny, of course, but simply must handle its business in remaining home matches against Trinidad and Tobago, Panama, and Costa Rica. T&T is next, and anything other than three points sends them into Azteca in a bad, bad way.

Player ratings from the USMNT’s 1-1 draw in Panama

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Player ratings reverted to old form after Tuesday’s 1-1 draw in Panama City, though fortunately one of the other U.S. tropes is dead.

That’s because “Christian Pulisic is the future” can officially be moved into “Christian Pulisic is the present”.

[ MORE: Match recap | 3 things ]

The Borussia Dortmund teenager again manufactured the United States’ best moment, feeding Clint Dempsey for the Yanks’ lone goal.

Starting XI

Tim Howard  — 7 — Don’t know what he’s supposed to do on the goal, but his jewels save to deny Luis Tejada could be a World Cup saver.

Jorge Villafana  — 4 — One of the many star men from the win over Honduras was too adventurous and less composed. Bad combo.

Omar Gonzalez  — 4 — I say this in a way that ignores Timmy Chandler’s fine work in the Bundesliga: Is Gonzalez going to be Bruce Arena’s Chandler? Hopefully this is the last time he has to start.

Tim Ream — 5 — Had a bad time on the goal, and made several bad plays. But it’s hard to get a read on the Fulham’s man night because he bailed out Gonzalez and Villafana on a number of occasions.

Graham Zusi  — 5 — Gets bumped up a point for handling a very difficult situation, still adapting to right back in a match where Panama’s tactics were to attack his side. A better second half than the first.

Michael Bradley  — 6 — Nothing exceptional from the captain, but still an upgrade from his form under Jurgen Klinsmann. A little too deep in the formation on the evening, but that could’ve been the plan?

Jermaine Jones  (Off 75′) — 5 — Ornery as usual, his only successes came in standing up for his oft-fouled midfield mates.

Darlington Nagbe  (Off 68′) — 6  — This game looked set up for him to pick the ball up from Michael Bradley and dance into the midfield, but he only got a few chances as Panama’s tactics were aimed at fouling the Yanks’ two best dribblers in him and Pulisic.

Christian Pulisic  — 9 — A simply incredible bit of work to work two veteran defenders and assist Dempsey’s goal. Failing an unforeseen dip in company, Pulisic is going to be one of the most important players in American men’s history.

Clint Dempsey  — 6 — Scored the goal that earned the point, but otherwise fought to be a part of the match. That’s the sign of a legend, though, still finding a way to make himself matter on a poor evening.

Jozy Altidore  — 5 — Might’ve had a dozen touches in the game. Part of this was down to the U.S. aiming balls at his head and not his feet, but not his day.

Subs

Alejandro Bedoya (On 68′)  — 6 — Dogged work rate from the Union man.

Kellyn Acosta (On 75′) — 6 — Some creativity on display in limited time

Paul Arriola (On 83′) — N/A —