You know the saying: “It’s not a popularity contest.”
Hogwash. And we all know it is. Everything that involves human selection is a popularity contest. And in the world of international soccer, you’re only as good as your last appearance. Or are you?
Anyone who follows the U.S. national team knows there are names that keep popping up, almost inexplicably, despite what fans often view as habitually less-than-stellar performances.
Yet here we are less than two weeks from Bob Bradley naming his 30-man provisional camp roster for the World Cup, and you just know some of those names will make it. And you know who I mean: The guys fans love to hate.
But there is clearly a reason Bradley sticks by these guys, despite what the critics say. They are the Dangerfields of the national-team pool.
Here are three of those names, why they can’t get no respect and why, in reality, they have a place in the national-team picture this late in the game.
Dangerfield credentials: No one’s going to accuse the big Colorado Rapids forward of possessing breakaway speed. And as far as a light touch goes, well, he’s about as nimble as Michael Clarke Duncan. Though he can get on the score sheet, he doesn’t have the clinical finishing ability of a prototypical target guy.
Why he’s in the mix: For one, the thinness of the U.S. strike force. We have to assume Charlie Davies and Brian Ching won’t be at full strength, or available at all. And Jozy Altidore’s confidence has fallen with a dip in form in his final days with Hull City.
But the “he’s all that’s left” argument doesn’t hold water here either. No one Bradley has used during his tenure has a presence in the box like Casey. At 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, the broad-shouldered Colorado bruiser is a beast.
For an idea of what dimension Casey adds, look no further than last Saturday’s Rapids match at New England. In the 73rd minute, Casey took a pass at the top of the box and, with his back to goal drew not one, not two, but five Revs defenders. With the bodies flocking to the big man, Casey held the ball up for a good six seconds before calmly laying it off to a trailing Pablo Mastroeni, who ripped a near 30-yard missile into the net. (Watch: Casey makes his case)
Now, to be fair, fighting off Seth Sinovic and Darrius Barnes isn’t exactly like maintaining possession in the box against John Terry and Rio Ferdinand. But against a big team, or if the U.S. is sitting on a result late in a game, Casey’s presence is invaluable.
Dangerfield credentials: Kljestan’s nasty habit of shrinking in big games and his shattered confidence have become a chicken-and-egg cycle. It’s been more than a year since Chivas USA’s new captain was a regular in the rotation, and with central midfield being one of the U.S.’ deepest positions, fans wish Bradley would lean on other options.
Why he’s in the mix: Kljestan is not the two-way threat Bradley wishes he could be. But the former Chivas gaffer drafted him while he was coaching the Goats in 2006 and clearly saw the ingredients there, which explains his patience with him.
True, Kljestan was rightfully dropped out of the picture for awhile. He simply wasn’t getting the job done and you have to imagine it was a hard decision for Bradley. But when Kljestan has the right complementary pieces around him, he can generate the space to do great things.
Chivas USA’s win over San Jose last weekend saw Kljestan rediscover his form of a year ago – he dictated the pace of his offense the entire match, found pretty passing lanes and even launched his own long-range rocket. (Watch: Kljestan's stunning golazo)
When you give Kljestan the right support in the midfield – a Ricardo Clark type to win balls and absorb pressure – that frees him up to do what he does best. Plus he has the experience of knowing Bradley’s system for longer than almost anyone on the team.
Dangerfield credentials: When Bornstein makes a mistake, it’s almost always a big one. Witness his poor clearance against El Salvador in World Cup qualifying that led to a goal, or his takedown of Wesley Sneijder in the box in last month’s friendly at the Netherlands. The pace of the international game often looks like it’s beyond him.
Why he’s in the mix: Again, it’s true there aren’t a lot of other options. Even if rehabbing Oguchi Onyewu is fully fit (still no sure thing), and Bradley pairs him with Jay DeMerit, pushing Carlos Bocanegra outside, there isn’t a single natural left back on the roster with more experience at this level.
That said, Bornstein isn’t the type of player who stands out when he’s putting in a solid performance – fans only seem to remember his missteps or last-second heroics. However, he does play good defense and has the pace to keep up with speedy wingers. And his tackling ability is much better than advertised.
What might make him most invaluable, however, is his versatility. Bornstein has spent a good deal of time filling in at center back for Chivas USA. Not that he’ll be supplanting anyone in the middle on the national team, but you never know what can happen when someone gets a red card or an injury.
You may not love these guys, but there’s a reason they’re still in the picture. Besides, at a certain point, all the complaining is a waste of energy. Those final 23 in South Africa are all we’ll have. Show some respect.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. His “Throw-Ins” column appears every Thursday.