It would be easy for Zak Whitbread to look back at the last nine months and think about what could have been.With better-timed good health, the 27-year-old Norwich City center back may already be on his way to the international career that has yet to materialize.
In the midst of helping the Canaries earn promotion to the Premier League last spring, Whitbread was called in for the United States' friendlies against Argentina and Paraguay in March, only to be forced to withdraw with a back injury. Not only did he miss a chance to acclimate himself with the U.S. setup for the first time on the senior level, but he missed what would've essentially been a tryout for the U.S. Gold Cup roster. Former coach Bob Bradley couldn't afford to gamble a roster spot on a center back he'd never had the chance to coach in a single camp.
The summer passed without Whitbread returning to the national team radar, and as the fall friendlies approached, the injury bug hit the Texas-born, former Liverpool youth player yet again. This time it was a hamstring injury that kept him out for more than three months and prevented him from registering as an option for Jurgen Klinsmann.
Having not played since an Aug. 27 match against Chelsea, Whitbread returned from his injury layoff this past weekend and was called upon to help contain Newcastle's front line and 11-goal scorer Demba Ba. Even though Whitbread was at fault for one of Ba's two goals on the day in the 4-2 Norwich triumph, he nonetheless earned postmatch praise from Canaries manager Paul Lambert and should have no problem holding on to his starting role -- provided he stays healthy -- considering the team's struggle for consistency at the position all season.
"It was a big ask. I think we did it with him last season against Queens Park Rangers, and he came in and did great. He never looked back," Lambert told the Norwich Evening News following the match. "And I thought he came in today and he was excellent. The goal, I think, he'll know that was a mistake, but his general game, considering he's been out for a long, long time, I thought was excellent."
Instead of focusing on what could have been, Whitbread is looking ahead to what still can be. There's room on the United States' depth chart at center back behind Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra, and there's still time to make an impression before the World Cup qualifying cycle commences. The 6-foot-2, blond-haired Whitbread is built in the mold of a traditional U.S. central defender. He has good size, can be dominant in the air, is a threat to score off set pieces and reads the game well. Continuing to start in the Premiership on a regular basis should keep him in the discussion for a call-up, which could come as soon as a yet-to-be-announced February friendly.
While Whitbread's return to action was a highlight of the weekend, he was not alone in standing out. Brad Guzan won in his debut as Aston Villa's No. 1 goalkeeper; Fabian Johnson continued his impressive form for Hoffenheim by delivering two assists in a victory; Onyewu tallied his second goal of the season to carry Sporting Lisbon to three more points; and Herculez Gomez sealed a transfer from relegation-threatened Estudiantes Tecos to Mexican Apertura runner-up Santos Laguna, where he will compete for one of Mexico's top teams while also getting a chance to see time in March's CONCACAF Champions League knockout stage.
On the other end of the spectrum there was Timmy Chandler, who got sent off in FC Nurnberg's loss to Hoffenheim; and Clint Dempsey, who followed up his record-setting goal achievement of last week by turning in a rare downer of a performance. He inadvertently redirected a shot past his own goalkeeper and had a late penalty kick that would have tied the score get saved in Fulham's loss to Swansea City.
Here is a closer look at how they and the rest of the Americans playing abroad fared over the past week (season statistics encompass all competitions):
Clint Dempsey, M, Fulham -- Started, played 90 minutes and had a late penalty kick saved that would've leveled the score at the time in Fulham's 2-0 loss to Swansea City on Saturday. Dempsey's 87th-minute attempt was stuffed by Michel Vorm, and the Swans added a late tally afterwards to deal Fulham the disappointing loss. Prior to that, Dempsey also inadvertently deflected Scott Sinclair's shot from outside the area into the goal for the opening score but wasn't saddled with the own goal. SEASON: 21 games, 21 starts, 6 goals
Brad Friedel, GK, Tottenham -- Started, played 90 minutes and made four saves in Tottenham's 2-1 loss to Stoke City on Saturday. SEASON: 14 games, 14 starts, 64 saves, 18 goals allowed, 4 clean sheets
Brad Guzan, GK, Aston Villa -- Started, played 90 minutes and made six saves in Villa's 2-1 victory over Bolton on Saturday. The start was Guzan's first in place of the injured Shay Given and was his first of his career in a Premier League match. SEASON: 3 games, 2 starts, 11 saves, 1 goal allowed, 1 clean sheet
Marcus Hahnemann, GK, Everton -- Not in the 18 for Everton's 1-0 loss to Arsenal on Saturday. SEASON: 0 games
Tim Howard, GK, Everton -- Started, played 90 minutes and made two saves in Everton's 1-0 loss to Arsenal on Saturday. SEASON: 14 games, 14 starts, 33 saves, 17 goals allowed, 2 clean sheets
Eric Lichaj, D, Aston Villa -- Not in the 18 for Villa's 2-1 victory over Bolton on Sunday. SEASON: 1 game, 1 start, 1 goal
Zak Whitbread, D, Norwich City -- Started, played 83 minutes in Norwich City's 4-2 victory over Newcastle on Saturday. SEASON: 4 games, 4 starts
Conor Doyle, F, Derby County -- Not in the 18 for Derby County's 2-1 victory over Bristol City on Saturday. SEASON: 5 games, 1 start
Robbie Findley, F, Nottingham Forest -- In the 18, did not play in Nottingham Forest's 1-0 loss to Crystal Palace on Saturday. SEASON: 19 games, 11 starts, 5 goals
Jonathan Spector, M/D, Birmingham City -- Started, played 90 minutes in Birmingham's 2-1 loss to Hull City on Wednesday. Spector also started and played 90 minutes in Birmingham's 2-1 victory over Doncaster Rovers on Saturday. SEASON: 23 games, 23 starts
Mike Grella, F, Brentford -- In the 18, came on in the 86th minute of Brentford's 0-0 (5-4 in penalties) loss to Barnet in the Football League Trophy on Tuesday. Grella was in the 18 but did not play in Brentford's 2-1 victory over Hartlepool United in league play on Saturday. SEASON: 14 games, 3 starts, 4 goals
Frank Simek, D, Carlisle United -- Not in the 18 for Carlisle's 2-1 victory over Scunthorpe United on Saturday. SEASON: 1 game, 1 start
Anton Peterlin, M, Walsall -- In the 18, came on as an 84th-minute substitute in Walsall's 1-1 draw with Charlton Athletic on Saturday. SEASON: 17 games, 11 starts
Jemal Johnson, F, Southend United -- Not in the 18 for Southend's 3-0 loss to Cheltenham Town on Saturday. SEASON: 7 games, 2 starts
Jon-Paul Pittman, F, Crawley Town -- Not in the 18 for Crawley Town's 3-0 victory over Burton Albion on Saturday. SEASON: 11 games, 1 start, 1 goal (7 games, 1 start with Oxford United)
Terrence Boyd, F, Borussia Dortmund -- Not in the 18 for Dortmund's 1-1 draw with Kaiserslautern on Sunday. SEASON: 0 games
Timmy Chandler, D, FC Nurnberg -- Started, played 43 minutes and was sent off with a straight red card for a harsh foul in Nurnberg's 2-0 loss to TSG 1899 Hoffenheim on Saturday. Chandler hit Sejad Salihovic with a late, sliding, studs-up challenge to the shin just before halftime, reducing his team to 10 men. He received a two-game ban for the card and will miss matches against Bayer Leverkusen and Hertha Berlin before being eligible to return against Hannover 96 on Jan. 27 (the Bundesliga has a one-month break). He will be eligible for Nurnberg's third-round German Cup fixture on Dec. 20. SEASON: 18 games, 18 starts, 1 goal
Steve Cherundolo, D, Hannover 96 -- In the 18, did not play in Hannover's 0-0 draw with Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday. SEASON: 15 games, 14 starts
Fabian Johnson, M/D, TSG 1899 Hoffenheim -- Started, played 90 minutes and assisted on both goals in Hoffenheim's 2-0 victory over FC Nurnberg on Saturday. Johnson delivered two left-footed crosses from the left wing to find Vedad Ibisevic in the center of the area, where he accounted for both of the game's goals. SEASON: 14 games, 11 starts, 1 goal
Jermaine Jones, M, FC Schalke 04 -- Started, played 90 minutes and picked up a yellow card in Schalke's 2-1 victory over Hertha Berlin on Friday. The hard-tackling Jones has seen yellow in six straight league matches and in seven of his last eight matches in all competitions. SEASON: 14 games, 10 starts
Alfredo Morales, D, Hertha Berlin -- Not in the 18 for Berlin's 2-1 loss to FC Schalke 04 on Friday. SEASON: 3 games
Daniel Williams, D, TSG 1899 Hoffenheim -- In the 18, came on in the 66th minute for Hoffenheim's 2-0 victory over FC Nurnberg on Saturday. SEASON: 12 games, 8 starts (1 game, 1 start with SC Freiburg)
David Yelldell, GK, Bayer Leverkusen -- In the 18, did not play in Leverkusen's 0-0 draw with Hannover 96 on Saturday. SEASON: 1 game, 1 start, 1 save, 4 goals allowed
Edson Buddle, F, FC Ingolstadt 04 -- Not in the 18 for Ingolstadt's 1-0 loss to St. Pauli on Sunday. SEASON: 19 games, 11 starts, 6 goals
Ricardo Clark, M, Eintracht Frankfurt -- Not in the 18 for Frankfurt's 0-0 draw with SpVgg Greuther Furth on Monday. SEASON: 1 game, 1 start
Luis Robles, GK, Karlsruhe -- In the 18, did not play in Karlsruhe's 3-1 loss to MSV Duisburg on Friday. SEASON: 5 games, 5 starts, 14 saves, 13 goals allowed
Matt Taylor, F, SC Paderborn 07 -- In the 18, came on in the 89th minute of Paderborn's 2-0 victory over Hansa Rostock on Friday. SEASON: 14 games, 5 starts, 4 goals
Michael Bradley, M, Chievo Verona -- Started, played 90 minutes and picked up a yellow card in Chievo's 2-1 loss to Udinese on Sunday. SEASON: 13 games, 12 starts
Quentin Westberg, GK, Evian Thonon Gaillard -- In the 18, did not play in Evian's 2-1 loss to Toulouse on Saturday. SEASON: 3 games, 3 starts, 8 saves, 3 goals allowed, 1 clean sheet
Jozy Altidore, F, AZ Alkmaar -- Played the final 45 minutes of AZ's 0-0 draw with Excelsior, which was completed on Wednesday after being suspended at halftime because of fog on Nov. 20. Altidore also started and played 90 minutes in AZ's 4-0 victory over De Graafschap on Saturday. SEASON: 24 games, 20 starts, 9 goals
Oguchi Onyewu, D, Sporting Lisbon -- Started, played 90 minutes and scored the game-winning goal in Sporting's 1-0 victory over CD Nacional de Madeira on Saturday. Onyewu got to a flicked-on free kick by the far post in the 22nd minute and headed it home despite having the goalkeeper rushing at him to tally his second goal of the campaign. SEASON: 13 games, 13 starts, 2 goals
Sacha Kljestan, M, RSC Anderlecht -- Started, played 90 minutes in Anderlecht's 2-1 loss to KV Mechelen on Friday. SEASON: 23 games, 23 starts, 2 goals
Alejandro Bedoya, M, Rangers FC -- Not in the 18 for Rangers' 2-0 victory over Hibernian on Saturday. SEASON: 24 games, 18 starts, 4 goals (16 games, 15 starts, 4 goals with Orebro SK)
Carlos Bocanegra, D, Rangers FC -- Started, played 90 minutes and picked up a yellow card in Rangers' 2-0 victory over Hibernian on Saturday. Bocanegra returned from a brief injury layoff to go the distance for the Scottish leaders. SEASON: 16 games, 16 starts, 2 goals (1 game, 1 start with St. Etienne)
Maurice Edu, M, Rangers FC -- Started, played 88 minutes and picked up a yellow card in Rangers' 2-0 victory over Hibernian on Saturday. According to the club's official website, Edu and Rangers have engaged in contract talks to extend the U.S. national team midfielder's stay with the club, where he has been since 2008. Edu's current deal goes through the end of the 2012-2013 season. "He's one of these guys who doesn't always catch the eye, but if you ask his teammates about him, they'll say he always gives performances that are helpful to the side," Rangers manager Ally McCoist said. "We've been very pleased with him. The one thing Maurice does do is work extremely hard -- he's a real grafter and a workaholic. That's a massive part of his game." SEASON: 21 games, 21 starts, 2 goals
Dominic Cervi, GK, Greenock Morton -- Started, played 90 minutes and made five saves in Greenock Morton's 2-1 loss to Partick Thistle on Saturday. SEASON: 5 games, 5 starts, 25 saves, 7 goals allowed, 1 clean sheet
Jonathan Bornstein, D, Tigres UANL -- Not in the 18 for Tigres' 1-0 victory over Santos Laguna in the first leg of the Apertura final on Thursday or for Tigres' 3-1 victory over Santos Laguna in the second leg on Sunday. Despite not playing a game all season since transferring from MLS, Bornstein will go down as a member of the championship-winning side. SEASON: 0 games
Defenders Clarence Goodson (Brondby IF), Michael Parkhurst (FC Nordsjaelland) and Brad Rusin (HB Koge), midfielder Conor O'Brien (Sonderjyske) and forward Chris Rolfe (Aalborg BK) are all on break until March 3, when the Superliga season resumes. Parkhurst's side is four points behind FC Copenhagen for first place but currently sits in a UEFA Champions League qualification spot. On the other end of the spectrum, Rusin's Koge has just one win in 18 matches and sits dead last, needing a true turn of events to avoid relegation.