Why Buddle may get his World Cup chance

Freedman: Evidence the red-hot strikers really could get the call

Buddle vs Houston

Photo Credit: 
Robert Mora

Anyone who’s been following the U.S. national team
for the past four years knows this simple fact to be true: It’s
impossible to know what Bob Bradley is thinking.

The veteran
coach is famously guarded about his personnel decisions, is enormously
protective of his players and is extremely careful about what he
communicates to the media. He’s taken a huge amount of flak from fans
and pundits over all of this, as does any coach of a major sporting
program.

I’m not in Bradley’s inner circle, I don’t have an
inordinate amount of insider knowledge and I don’t envy the sort of
criticism he has to sidestep on a daily basis. In fact, I’m glad I’m
not the one getting paid to do an outrageously grueling job. While it’s
certainly the fan’s right to second-guess his decisions, just be glad
you’re not the one on an awfully hot seat.

But when a team has a
particular need and there’s a player out there who is doing things
that could fill that need, the screams from outside the camp grow louder
and louder. And right now, every time Edson Buddle or Herculez Gomez
scores a goal, the I-know-better-than-Bob chorus gains more and more
strength.

So here we go: With the U.S. so wispy-thin at the
forward position due to injuries, will Bradley take a chance on one (or
both) of two guys who, now both 28 years old, have a combined three
caps, and who haven’t seen national-team action in years?

Hot
streaks are sexy, and they grab headlines like nothing else in sports.
About this time four years ago, we were championing a red-hot Taylor
Twellman as the guy who could help Bruce Arena’s team in Germany. And
we all know where Twellman wasn’t in June 2006.

Still, it’s
simple math: With both Charlie Davies and Brian Ching perhaps out, the
U.S. may be down at least two regular forwards in South Africa.

Buddle
is destroying MLS defenses, with five goals in three games. And it’s
not just the quantity, it’s the quality. He’s scored with his head,
he’s scored with acrobatic finishes and he’s scored from impossible
angles. Even Galaxy teammate Landon Donovan, who probably has a little
sway in the U.S. set-up, thinks Buddle deserves a shot.

Meanwhile,
Gomez, five months removed from his final game with Kansas City, is
vying to become the first American ever to win the scoring title in the
Mexican Primera División. He has seven goals in 13 matches for Puebla
(four of those strikes off the bench) and is finishing at a clinical
rate, much as he did early in his MLS career during his Galaxy days.

So where’s Bob’s head? Predictably, you won’t get any answers on
those topics. Bradley keeps his cards close to his chest, probably
mostly so hype doesn’t affect his own players. But he’s allowed a few
clues to us over the years.

He values defense over everything,
and wants every player on that pitch to be able to get back. He
generally tends to go with players who are seeing regular club action.
And more than anything else, he loves consistency over hot streaks.

Where
does that leave Buddle and Gomez? I had a phone conversation the other
day with U.S. assistant coach Mike Sorber. Truth be told, I wanted to
talk to him about his years in the Mexican league with Pumas (read
about that in a future column).

But naturally, we started
talking about the quality of the Mexican league and how it’s
changed—which took us to the topic of the Americans playing there now.
And none is higher-profile at this moment than Gomez.

I
assumed, as we rightly should, that it’s a tough sell to introduce
players into the U.S. set-up who haven’t been there in a long time,
especially those riding hot streaks. It’s impossible to build a team
around that, and even more impossible considering there are no more
friendlies for which Bradley can call in experimental squads before
World Cup names are due to FIFA.

Sorber shed a little light on
the coaching staff’s thinking.

“If you haven’t been in for
awhile, it’s a question of how quickly could you fit in and how quickly
we could get a look at you,” said Sorber, himself a World Cup veteran
with the U.S. “Is it more challenging to make the team at this point?
Absolutely.”

Consider: Buddle has only one cap for the senior
U.S. team and that was in 2003. The twice-capped Gomez has seen action
more recently, but it sure seems like ancient history: He was on the
2007 Copa América roster and appeared as a sub in the opener against
Argentina, then started in the third game against Colombia.

But
then Sorber said something that surprised me. It wasn’t the revelation
that both guys are on the U.S. radar—you’d have to be a fool not to be
paying attention—but was something that left me thinking they may well
get a chance.

“The door is open for everyone,” Sorbs said.
“Nothing is set at all. We’ve had so many injuries and certain guys are
in great form. [Gomez] has shown throughout his career that if he’s
given chances, he can finish. Buddle is riding a hot hand. All options
are open.”

Bradley has to submit a provisional 30-man roster
for South Africa by May 11. The final 23-man roster for the World Cup
is due June 1. That gives Bradley three weeks to tinker with the final
squad, and the U.S. plays two final friendlies on American soil during
that period: May 25 vs. the Czech Republic in Hartford, Conn., and May
29 vs. Turkey in Philadelphia.

That means that with an extra
seven spots to play with, Bradley has nothing to lose by calling in
Buddle or Gomez before making his final decisions. I’m starting to
believe that one—or maybe even both—could get a look.

That might
be as close as we’ll get to knowing the truth.

Jonah
Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. His “Throw-In” column
appears every Thursday.