Dying for defense: Will it be America’s toughest challenge yet?

By Dimitri Islam

All of a sudden, accumulating young talent doesn’t seem to be a huge problem for the U.S. Men’s National Team. The rising North American side has a handful of young players (they’re barely past adolescence) that can light up a scoreboard with frightening authority.

Now, if only the U.S. could find some defense.

Don’t get me wrong, but the list of young, bright offensive players is surprisingly long. Landon Donovan—barely in his twenties—has emerged as a great scoring threat. Bayer Leverkusen is already trying to reclaim Donovan’s services. Given Bayer’s dire standing in the Bundesliga right now, Donovan could provide a spark for the struggling German team.

Although Donovan stands as one of the well-documented young American players, several others are quickly beginning to make their mark, both in the MLS and abroad. Along with Donovan, DeMarcus Beasley certainly made an impact on the international stage. The speedy midfielder can squirm past defenders, and he has the finishing touch that could soon reap him millions of dollars.

Besides Donovan and Beasley, exciting players like Taylor Twellman, Santino Quaranta, and Bobby Convey are all teenagers that will surely impact the national team in the future. Twellman burned MLS defenses with no mercy this past season; his play resembles Donovan’s style a bit. Fast, aggressive, and opportunistic, Twellman has scored his share of sensational goals this season (three of them made the MLS top ten this season). He also scores in bunches. Twellman took second place for scoring goals in the MLS, netting 23 goals during the regular season. Like Donovan, Twellman doesn’t think twice about nutmegging a defender, speeding by him, and then launching a shot past the goalkeeper.

Quaranta and Convey also share a similar playing style. Although neither has found a scoring touch quite like Twellman’s, they can score when the need arises, and both have tremendous speed

While all of these players have outstanding talents, they can’t all fit on a field together. Donovan, Beasley, Twellman, Quaranta, and Convey—to varying degrees—all share similarities: they are all finesse players.

Don’t get me wrong; all of these players are in top form. They’re willing to dig in hard to reach their goals, and they certainly don’t lack toughness.

However, it just isn’t their style to actively win head balls, to be overly physical with opposing defenders, or to try and muscle their way down the field.

Indeed, most of these young players are on the short side, and they’re remarkably light. Convey is 5’8″ and weighs around 150 pounds; Donovan is listed at 5’8″ and 148 pounds. Beasley is an ethereal 5’7″ and 127 pounds. Think about that for a minute. Someone who weighs 127 pounds is essentially a ghost running around on the soccer field.

In fact, he’s only two pounds heavier that Anna Kournikova.

With all these light, speedy players that will soon fill roster spots, the U.S. is sorely in need of some physical, bruising defenders. The offense doesn’t look like it will be a problem. In fact, with players like Twellman and Convey rising through the ranks, the offensive production should only improve in the coming years.

Defensively, however, things don’t look quite as promising.

While the offense sparkled this past summer at the World Cup, the defense still struggled. Tony Sanneh overachieved, but the U.S. lacks formidable defensive strength. Eddie Pope was solid. However, Frankie Hejduk and Gregg Berhalter are not world-class defenders.

Sadly, while the U.S. seems to be producing world-class offensive talent, the production of great defenders seems to be lagging. Steve Cherundolo is skilled, but small. Agoos is aging. Pope is another solid UNC defensive standout, but he’s pretty much reached his peak as a defender.

There are few young U.S. defenders that look somewhat promising. A couple of MLS talents, Nick Garcia and Carlos Bocanegra, seem like they could earn National Team spots in the future, but the U.S. lacks any impact-defenders.

However, the U.S. has quite a few offensive players that can make an impact. Donovan may very well go on to be a star player for one of the best clubs in Europe. Beasley, Twellman, and Convey may very well follow. Defensively, however, such talent just isn’t emerging. The U.S. desperately needs a Stam or a Desailly to hold everything together in the back, but these sorts of talents seem to develop elsewhere.

Until the U.S. can find some star defenders, Donovan, Beasley and co. can only do so much. Despite their skills, without a stronger defense, whatever feats Donovan and Beasley perform will simply not be enough.