It's been nine long months since I last wrote an article about our young, courageous American National soccer team.
Since then, the US side has had plenty of up's and down's. For the most part, changes to the starting 11 has followed popular opinion (at least mine), but many of those spots are still fluid and could change before their next match.
Among all the fluidity, though, Coach Bradley has made one thing abundantly clear: this team is going to be tough in the back third and lightning fast on the wings. In the three matches they've played in Round 4 of the World Cup Qualifiers the US has tried to enforce that, reaching a certain degree of success. Those matches have also left other questions unanswered.
WCQ - ROUND 4
Nothing was more exciting than watching the Americans dismantle Mexico 2-0 on Feb. 11 in their first Round 4 match. At the time, many Americans probably thought that the US was well on it's way in becoming a major world power in the world's game.
Few could have guessed, however, that it was Mexico's lack of organization and inability to maintain shape and balance (especially away from Estadio Azteca) that would be their undoing—a point we would all come to realize in their recent match in Honduras, as they were manhandled 3-1.
Michael Bradley came of age with two outstanding goals (one in the 90th minute to seal the win), the US defense was air tight, and the most critical moment had to be Mexico's Rafael Marquez's thoughtless decision to challenge GK Tim Howard with his spikes, for which he would receive a booking of the red variety.
Howard, upset and winded, would end up with a caution, and would have to sit out the US's next game due to the accumulation rule.
The US team would travel to El Salvador to play their second match on March 28. The US team hadn't allowed the El Salvadorians a goal in over a decade, and has lost to them only once in 18 previous matches. History became a useless footnote as soon as the Americans took the field. This game would be reminiscent of the match against Guatemala a few months ago as the US team walked into a proverbial buzz saw.
The atmosphere was raucous, the fans were insane, the opponent was intense and energetic from the opening whistle, and the American team would be without a number of starters: GK Howard, CB Guch Onyewu and WB Steve Cherundolo. In their places, Coach Bradley opted for Brad Guzan (GK), Danny Califf (CB) and Frankie Hejduk (RB).
The Americans spent 80 minutes sleepwalking. They stubbornly tried to mount their attack through the middle of the field, despite El Cuscatlecos' insistence in packing in the middle leaving the wings uncovered, and playing six and sometimes seven back. Their counterattack proved intelligent as El Salvador scored twice off of US mistakes in their attack.
But 72 minutes in and down 2-0, Coach Bradley made two decisive maneuvers. Reserve Striker Jozy Altidore entered the game minutes prior to the second ES goal, and immediately drew the attention of the Salvadorian defense with his size and speed. Shuffling the formation to get more ball movement, Coach Bradley moved Beasley to LB, and he would send a barrage of long balls at the attack for the rest of the match.
Attacking in the 77th minute, Frankie Hejduk received a perfect through ball while overlapping a stationary Brian Ching and played a perfect cross into the six, where Altidore was waiting near the far post. Altidore headed the ball back opposite post before the keeper could react. It was now 2-1, and a new game.
In the waining moments of regulation, while Salvadorian players littered the field on their backs in apparent pain and exhaustion, the Americans mounted one last attack, and this time Hejduk himself, pushing Altidore out of the way, would head in the equalizer.
The Americans would escape with a 2-2 draw and 1 point, but more importantly, fans would see an emerging star in Altidore, and a fierce attacking flair in defender Hejduk, who looked more like the Frankie Hejduk that starred for the MLS's Miami Fusion nearly a decade ago, rather than an aging veteran, and was making the most of his opportunity to start in place of an injured Steve Cherundolo.
Against Trinidad & Tobago in Nashville on April 1, the Americans would employ a revamped and somewhat surprising line up. Coach Bradley moved Beasley to LWB, Donovan to LM, Dempsey to RM, inserted Pablo Mastroeni at CDM, Onyewu back at CB, kept Hejduk at RWB, Howard back in goal, and Altidore got the start up top with Brian Ching.
Danny Califf (CB), Sasha Kljestan (CM) and Heath Pearce (LB) worked their way out of the line-up due to their mediocre play in the previous match.
The US showed nerves early. GK Tim Howard inadvertently played a ball into Trinidad F Stern John inside the penalty area in an attempt to clear, which caught John by surprise. The ball rebounded out innocently for a goal kick.
Beasley drifted too far into the middle of the defense in support on numerous occasions, and in the 11th minute, unmarked T&T winger Edwards streaked wide open for a ball that had him all alone in the flat; luckily the Soca Warriors couldn't get the ball into the net.
Nerves would be settled in the 13th minute however. Carlos Bocanegra crushed a long ball from the defensive side which found Brian Ching's head.
Ching, outside the 18 and near the flat with his back to the net, headed the ball onto Landon Donovan, who was just inside of Ching by about four yards making a diagonal run. Landon dribbled into the penalty area and sent a gorgeous cross into the six, finding a sprinting Jozy Altidore who only had to put his ankle in the right spot to produce the game's first goal.
Right from the start, it was obvious that Landon Donovan would be a big part of this attack.
It's been so long since fans have seen Donovan do anything positive in a US jersey. Donovan wreaked havoc on the T&T defense, as the Soca Warriors could not contain him. He could have finished the game with six assists had his team mates put his service in the net.
Altidore would get the hat trick, scoring two more in the match, and all were assisted by Donovan. His second goal came in the 71st minute, when he received a drop pass from Donovan, shook a defender at the edge of the 18 taking one dribble step, then beat the keeper far post. It was masterful.
From a broader perspective, the attack was relentless and fluid deep into the match. Six to seven players got involved and all were effective, and the US team had more shots on goal than in any game in recent history.
The key to this game wasn't necessarily Altidore's hat trick. Quite simply, the US scored goals. Frankie Hejduk eluded to that very point in a post-game interview.
WB's Hejduk and Beasley were involved in the attack. Donovan was involved in the attack. Brian Ching was involved. Dempsey and Bradley were involved. It wasn't just the Jozy A. Show. This is the American team every stateside soccer fan was waiting to see. For decades, the US team has been void of an organized attack, and absent a true threat at Striker, save for the flashes Brain McBride would show from time to time. US Soccer may have just found it all.
The Line Up
Curious is this current collection of Americans on the pitch. Against T&T, Coach Bradley put an interesting line-up and formation on the field. Right off the top, the central midfield was odd.
Bradley had his son Michael and Pablo Mastroeni at the central positions. Broadcaster John Harkes mentioned that Bradley would be in an attacking position and Pablo holding, but in truth, the two midfielders played most of the game side by side, with one holding on the left and one on the right, playing as eternal "stoppers" throughout the match.
Neither looked comfortable at all, though, as communication break downs between the two left CB's alone to defend in the middle, and neither ever got up into the attack in a timely manner.
Midfielders Dempsey (RM) and Donovan (LM) played out on the touch lines and moved up high on the attack, but one of them was almost always making a run into the vacant middle of the field behind the forwards. Ching and Altidore played one above the other, with one playing nearly even with the wingers and one up top at a striker position.
This tactic was quite evident on the game's second goal (71 minutes). Hejduk had the ball at the mid-field stripe out at the touch line. Dempsey and Altidore made runs into the open middle in front of the Salvadorian defense. Quickly, the ball moved diagonally from Hejduk to Altidore then to Donovan on the other touch line.
The Salvadorian defense, scrambling to cover all the movement, lost Altidore, who had tucked in behind Ching who was at the edge of the defense. Donovan breached the flat, then dropped the ball back to Altidore. Jozy then only had to shake one defender before he scored.
The Argentinian National team employed this formation 5-6 years ago to a limited degree of success, sort of a 4-2-3-1, or 4-2-2-1-1. Teams who cover man-to-man will leave a huge hole in the middle of their defensive third and right in front of their backers, which attackers can make constant runs into and through.
Whereas it is a great formation on the attack, defensively it leaves gaping holes for the opponent to exploit. Often times one of those six attackers plays into the middle, and when dispossessed, the opponent has an open spot—the area the attacker vacated—to run free, and the counterattack is on. This US team is no stranger to getting burned by the quick counter strike.
Like a hockey team on a power play that continually gives up the shorthanded goal, this US team always seems to be susceptible to the counterattack, regardless of formation.
No matter what combination of players Coach Bradley plays at CM, they never seem to get back in time to help stop the quick strike. With the WB's up on the attack, the two CB's for the US have a lot of field to cover and are often exposed due to the inability of other players to get back and offer support.
Against the world's best next summer, don't look at this latest formation as the answer. Coach Bradley is tinkering with different looks to see what produces the best results. Obviously, Donovan (LM) and Beasley (LWB) are in unfamiliar places on the field, but it's all about the dynamics on the pitch; how they play off of one another and how teammates get involved with them during play.
If these two players make the team better in this current formation, they very well might play there. The obvious problem here is that Beasley is not a shut-down defender. Carlos Bocanegra routinely came to his aid against T&T, leaving Onyewu alone in the central defense, and Mastroeni and Bradley were nowhere to be found. World Class clubs can take advantage of this with great regularity.
A bigger problem the US must face—if we make the foregone conclusion that Altidore is the answer at Striker—is that this squad doesn't have a solid Central Attacking Midfielder. The issue has shown it's ugly head in all three qualifying matches to some degree. Michael Bradley is not a formidable CAM. Is it Donovan? Dempsey maybe?
If Coach Bradley moves Landon into the middle full-time, who plays the wing? It will be interesting to see if Bradley moves his son to a holding CDM (his natural position), Donovan to CAM, Beasley back up to LM, keep Dempsey at RM (who really isn't a true back-to-the-net Striker anyway) and use Cherundolo and Hejduk as WB's once Steve is healthy.
These three matches have shown us a quality US side. The idea of both WB's coming up, overlapping the wing mids and entering the attack proved deadly. Altidore is coming of age at the right time, and is steadily improving at a fast rate. Donovan's emergence as an assist master and Ching's timely, precise passes are further evidence that this attack is on the up and up.
On the other hand, the defense has been suspect in the last two matches. Devoting efforts and players to the attack leaves the back uncovered. This is why it's imperative to identify one holding midfielder—a true "stopper"—whose job is to defend the middle and support the CB's.
When there are two holding CM's on the field, there is room for error, as one is always out of position and neither is sure which is supporting the center of the defense. We saw this countless times on April 1. It seems the Americans have the wings, the back and the top taken care of, but the middle is sorely deficient. If a team cannot control the middle of the field, it cannot win at the highest level.
After the Trinidad & Tobago game, former US National Team player Alexei Lalas mentioned that the Americans need to capitalize on their opportunities.
He pointed out that in qualifiers, a team may get six to eight opportunities to score, but in the World Cup against a team like Germany, for instance, there may only be one chance. The US team really didn't make the most of all it's opportunities; not against Trinidad & Tobago, not against El Salvador and not even against Mexico.
Nevertheless, it will be exciting to see what this team looks like and where they will be in the CONCACAF standings when they conclude their 10th and final WCQ match. World Cup 2010 is staring us all straight in the face, as it looms merely 14 months away.