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For Club and Country: Grading U.S. Stars in MLS

With so many U.S. national team players now toiling in Major League Soccer, we've decided to monitor and grade the performances of league players who are likely headed to Brazil this summer.
BY Geoff Gibson Posted
March 15, 2014
4:02 PM
THERE'S A SLIGHT WHIFF of desperation to Major League Soccer's new "For Club and Country" marketing campaign. One prominent ad features MLS stars such as Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and Landon Donovan along with the words, "March to Brazil. It all starts here."

The ad copy might as well read, "Hey! Look at us! We play soccer too!"

Clearly, MLS wants to ride the wave of interest in the 2014 World Cup to increase its moribund TV viewership. It would also like to convince the legions of Euro-centric American soccer fans that they don't have to gaze across the Atlantic to keep track of their beloved national team players.

OK, we'll take the bait. Each week between now and June, we'll monitor and grade the performances of top national team contributors playing in North America. Here's a look back at week one.

Kyle Beckerman: A-

Of all the U.S. national team players getting their first league start of 2014, none performed better than Kyle Beckerman. Most people assumed that Real Salt Lake would struggle without former head coach Jason Kreis—at least for a little while. And starting the 2014 season on the road against the Los Angeles Galaxy didn't bode well for the squad either. But RSL prevailed, 1-0, largely thanks to the efforts of Beckerman.

The dreadlocked 31-year-old midfielder helped drive the team forward on many occasions and, as usual, played a key role breaking up LA’s waves of attacks. He also set up the game-winning goal, although it's hard to say if Beckerman's 80th-minute pass was intended for Joao Plata or somebody else.

Regardless, a road victory against the Galaxy is a tremendous result, and the team's captain and midfield leader gets a decent share of the credit for the result.

Maurice Edu: A-

Following a six-year stint abroad, Philadelphia Union midfielder Maurice Edu did not get to ease back into life in MLS. Opening on the road against the Portland Timbers, Edu had to contend with the likes of Diego Chara, Will Johnson, and Diego Valeri—and the 27-year-old California native performed capably. In the 19th minute Edu played a significant role in stripping the ball away from Timbers center back Pah Kah, crossing it over Christian Maidana for a shot on target. While Timbers’ goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts made the save, Edu recovered and started the process all over again with Sebastien Le Toux. Check it out here:

Then, in the 64th minute, Edu redirected a corner kick that Jack McInerney nodded into the back of the net to give the Union a 1-0 lead. The Timbers have consistently been weak on set piece goals over the last few years and Edu did not waste an opportunity to open an old wound.

Portland later evened the score and the game ended in a draw, but Edu and fellow midfielder Christian Maidana looked impressive in week one.

Clint Dempsey: B

Coming off a disappointing 2013 season and a poor loan spell at Fulham, Clint Dempsey began the 2014 MLS season with something to prove. In the season opener against Sporting Kansas City he came on in the 57th minute and needed time to find the pace of the game. The U.S. national team captain's first meaningful touch—a low cross that missed its target by a country mile—didn't inspire confidence. But Dempsey eventually made a positive impact, as the video below indicates.

“I get freedom to move around and impact the game in whatever way I can,” Dempsey said. “I found some good spots on the field and was able to make some plays happen and, like I said, was happy to play a part in the goal.”

Had Dempsey's stoppage-time header slid under the crossbar, he would have made headlines from coast to coast—and perhaps back in England too. Instead, Chad Barrett got the goal and the PR opportunity went to waste. That said, the Sounders won. That's the point, right?

Landon Donovan: B-

Landon Donovan's performance against Real Salt Lake was a mixed bag. While painfully quiet for the first half hour of the game, he did have some important touches that led to good chances on goal. In the 38th minute Donovan got on the end of a great through ball from Robbie Keane, forcing RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando to make one of his trademark clutch saves.

The Galaxy created plenty of chances—a promising sign—but could not put any of them away in the 1-0 loss.

“Soccer is a cruel game sometimes and we got judged on results.” Donovan said after the match. “I think we can be happy with how we played, but at the end of the day we have to score, and we had too many chances to score and that puts our back line and goalkeeper under a lot of pressure when we don’t finish off opportunities.”

Graham Zusi: C+

Zusi nearly made an immediate impact in Sporting Kansas City's season-opening loss at Seattle, placing a strong shot on target from outside the box prior to the two-minute mark. Despite the strong start, it wasn’t all rosy for Zusi. His botched pass in stoppage time gave the Sounders the ball and led to the goal that decided the outcome.

To his credit, Zusi accepted blame for the play: "To be honest, a stupid play by me. There's no need for me to try to split the D there and play a square ball in their half. That ball should be 20 rows into the stands. Just not a smart play by me."

Omar Gonzalez: C

Was Omar Gonzalez to blame for Plata's game-winning goal? Here's the sequence that gave Real Salt Lake a road win against its arch rival.

Gonzalez pushed forward in an attempt to block the through ball, but Beckerman's pass slipped past him, landed at Plata's feet, and cost Los Angeles the game. “I was pretty close," Gonzalez said afterward. "I think it was a mis-pass from Kyle [Beckerman], I think he was trying to put it into [Alvaro] Saborio’s feet, the ball kind of moved funny and it kind of knuckled away and I just couldn’t get my foot on it and then [Joao] Plata was at the right place at the right time, or maybe it was a good run, I haven’t taken a look at it, but it was a good goal.”

Eddie Johnson: C

The 3-0 home loss to Columbus qualifies as a terrible start for D.C. United and a disappointing debut for U.S. national team forward and MLS designated player Eddie Johnson. Johnson should not shoulder the bulk of the blame, however, as the Crew dominated play in the midfield and United's timing seemed off from start to finish.

“I think he was just a little off the mark," coach Ben Olsen said after the game. "He made good runs. The balls we delivered to Eddie were just inches too short or just a little too long. Overall, it was good to see him out there.”

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