Team USA Has Some Soul Searching to Do (Part One)
This is part one in a two part series illustrating the recent struggles endured by the US National Team. Part one will analyze Bob Bradley's influence, and part two will look at how specific players have helped or hurt themselves in the last month.
In 2006, the United States' World Cup run came to a screeching halt just five minutes in. Czech Republic striker Jan Koller beat Kasey Keller five minutes into their opening match and opened the floodgates. A brace from Tomas Rosicky followed, and the tone had been set for the overwhelmed Americans.
Sure, Bruce Arena's men were the only team to get a result against Italy. But the US wasted a chance to advance against Ghana in their third match, and Bruce Arena was fired as a result.
After the first two matches of the Confederations Cup, it seems like the current edition of Team America is travelling down a similar path. Will this story have a similar ending?
In the early days of Bob Bradley's tenure, he looked like a quality upgrade over Bruce Arena. Bradley had to deal with the departure of two American legends in Brian McBride and Claudio Reyna, and did so by successfully integrating some fresh blood into the fold.
One of the new faces, Benny Feilhaber, scored a spectacular goal to deliver the 2007 Gold Cup title.
Others, like Michael Bradley and Maurice Edu, have become coveted players in Europe and look like they'll be fixtures on the international scene for years to come.
Team America also still had the comforting presence of vets like Landon Donovan and Tim Howard to help steady the ship and mentor the incoming youngsters.
With a seemingly good mix in place, how have things gone so wrong?
The struggles being endured by the USMNT under Bradley are a recent phenomenon. His early tenure featured some excellent results. This squad handily won the 2007 Gold Cup, fought to a 0-0 draw with Argentina, and narrowly lost to a Spain squad that would capture the European championship just weeks later.
Under Bradley, the US has risen to become the indisputable top dogs on CONCACAF.
In their last four matches, the US has allowed a goal in the first seven minutes three times. This points to a crippling lack of organization in midfield and defense. The Americans aren't communicating well with each other and as a result, they've made some uncharacteristic mistakes.
A tenacious defense is what allowed Team America to survive the England-Spain-Argentina gauntlet last summer while only conceding three goals in those matches. This same defense has shipped ten goals in their last four, with four of those goals coming from opposition that is vastly inferior, at least on paper.
These recent struggles have led me to believe that Bradley's incessant tinkering is to blame. It's a rarity to see the US field the same players, or even use the same formation, in consecutive matches.
DaMarcus Beasley at left back? Please. He is not, has never been, and will never be a defensive-minded player. That's a move that nobody would have made even when he was at his best between 2002 and 2006.
Jozy Altidore up front by himself? I love Jozy, and he'll be a world-class striker someday soon, but he hasn't managed to make a single appearance for Xerez. I'm all for getting him involved in National Team matches as often as possible, but you can't give somebody so inexperienced such vast responsibility in important matches. Not yet.
Lineups need to be solidified. I know the top-choice defensive midfielder (Edu) and striker (Ching) are unavailable right now, but the other nine players on the pitch need some sense of continuity so that they can develop into a cohesive unit. Going from 3-5-2 to 4-4-2 to 4-5-1 each match isn't doing anybody any favors.
Fans have also been critical of Bradley's eye for talent, and justifiably so. He has recently insisted on including veterans in the squad whose current form would not normally merit inclusion.
I hate to keep piling on DaMarcus Beasley, but he didn't turn out frequently for Rangers last season and he's been troubled by knee problems recently. His lack of playing time has led to poor form and even worse, a lack of confidence. But, rather than sending a message by calling up a deserving youngster, Bradley refuses to upset the established order.
You could say many of the same things about Pablo Mastroeni. He's only 32, but he looked to be going on 40 against Costa Rica. In the international game, you need a strong defensive midfielder to command the center of the pitch, and Mastroeni is a step too slow these days.
While Mastroeni and Beasley have been mainstays on the squad, folks like Jose Francisco Torres and Freddy Adu continue to ride the pine. Adu was brilliant during the Beijing Olympics, yet he can't even get Bradley to look in his direction.
Torres looks comfortable on the ball and could be the playmaker that the US so desperately needs, yet Bradley forces him to watch men 10 years his senior turn in performances half as good as what Torres could bring.
There comes a time when a coach has to start taking some risks with the player pool or risk stagnation. The US appears to be facing an even worse fate, sliding backwards after the initial boost they received from Bradley.
Sunil Gulati has claimed that Bradley's job is safe, but Bruce Arena used to be untouchable. Once the program tastes success, expectations rise. If performances don't rise as well, then changes have to be made.
I suspect that without a great performance at the Gold Cup, Bradley will be gone. The opportunity to take a former footballing minnow to international respectability would be a relishing challenge.
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