The Throw-In: From surprise additions to key parts of the puzzle

JOHANNESBURG – There’s really no way to put this delicately without sounding like a jerk, but here goes.

If you had told me a year ago that Robbie Findley, Edson Buddle and Herculez Gomez would be on the US’ World Cup squad, I would have told you to leave me alone and let me get back to the NBA Finals.

Yet that’s exactly where we are. All three strikers have made the most miraculous of career turnarounds to the point where they haven’t just made the squad, they’re key pieces of the puzzle. And the US may need contributions from all three to get past Slovenia on Friday.

Findley? He was a one-dimensional player who had speed to burn. But he wasn’t a good enough finisher to stick with the national team and he didn’t do enough off the ball to add any value.

Buddle? Sure, he was talented and scored some nice goals. But he never really lived up to his potential and ran too hot and cold while jumping from team to team during a 10-year Major League Soccer career.

Gomez? Seriously? Herculez Gomez? The guy who supposedly wasn’t even good enough to stick in MLS after being run out of Kansas City last fall?

Funny how things change. Yes, injuries to Charlie Davies and Brian Ching over the past several months had clouded the picture up top for Bob Bradley. And there’s been plenty of time for him to tinker around and try out some different faces – let’s not forget, it wasn’t all that long ago that Conor Casey and Jeff Cunningham were in consideration.

But Findley, Buddle and Gomez got the nod against all odds. What’s most remarkable is that each player didn’t just reestablish himself in the past year – each did it in the past three months.

Of all three, Findley at least had been on Bradley’s radar. He was called into camp last August, but didn’t appear in qualifiers against El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago. The criticism remained: He scored goals by the bucket load for Real Salt Lake, but couldn’t translate that to the international level.

What changed? According to some of his teammates, Findley’s game has evolved behind the scenes a lot more than any of us realized. That transformation has been so complete that Findley isn’t just a role player off the bench; he earned a starting nod against England last weekend.

“I think he’s learned how to use his speed,” said US midfielder Benny Feilhaber, who knows Findley from their college days when Findley’s Oregon State would take on Feilhaber’s UCLA. “Even if he’s not on the ball, he’s making runs. It opens things up for other players because defenders always have got to keep their eyes on Robbie. He makes it easy for the rest of the team to play with that.”

Buddle, meanwhile, got his only US cap seven years ago and hadn’t had a sniff of the national team since. But the 29-year-old forced his way back into the picture with one of the most torrid starts in MLS history: nine goals in six games that helped the LA Galaxy storm out of the gates.

And as Landon Donovan has reminded us time and again, it wasn’t just the quantity of the goals, it was the quality. Buddle was scoring with his head and with his feet, with cunning, skill and pure strength. Off the ball, he was drawing defenders, holding the ball up and banging around in the box.

That was enough to earn Buddle a trip to South Africa. And despite some early jitters, he’s been embraced by the team and looks to translate his hot streak to the World Cup. So far, so good. In the warm-up against Australia, he scored twice and entered the England game as a late sub.

“He wasn’t overawed by the experience,” Donovan said. “He made a few decent plays that helped us out, and I think he’s going to get better the more he gets to play.”

But perhaps no one has surprised as much as Gomez. The Las Vegas native already had his cup of coffee with the national team, way back at the 2007 Copa América. After earning three caps in Venezuela, Herc disappeared from the picture while his MLS career stalled out. Ironic that he had to go to Mexico to prove himself again to Bradley.

What Gomez did last season with Puebla was nothing short of remarkable. His 10 goals tied him for the scoring title, the first American ever to lead a foreign league in goals. But what was more amazing was his ability to change a game: six of those goals earned Puebla a win or a draw.

That timeliness made him a surprise late pick by Bradley to the 30-man provisional squad. And Gomez made the most of his chance, scoring a goal off the bench to even it up in last month’s friendly loss to the Czech Republic and booking himself a trip to South Africa.

“It’s crazy,” Gomez admitted, “especially where I was six months ago. It’s been an amazing journey. It really has been nothing short of a miracle.”

Let’s get serious now. The feel-good stories make for fun copy, but that’s not why Bradley brought this trio to South Africa. They’re here to make a difference with their strengths and to help the US in one way: get some goals.

The fact remains that Clint Dempsey is now the only American to have scored in the past two World Cups. Now, the US need goals in a hurry. Slovenia becomes a crucial game, especially after the Green Dragons took care of Algeria in their opener. As the Americans keep reminding us, if they lose this game, they’re out.

Someone needs to step up. Regardless of whether Findley or Buddle start, or if Gomez gets his first World Cup minutes, the goals have to come from somewhere.

For my money? Why not one of them? I knew they’d be in this position all along. Didn’t you?

MLSsoccer.com managing editor Jonah Freedman is covering the World Cup from South Africa. His “Throw-In” column appears every Thursday.