For most USMNT soccer fans, the summer of 2009 can be looked upon as the best of times. The team gained notoriety by making one of the most unexpected runs in international play during the Confederations Cup and a “C/B” team played its way into a Gold Cup final proving that there is some development going on with the US's up-and-comers and role players.
If you’re a really optimistic fan (or most mainstream media), the team’s Gold Cup final loss created some great drama for the upcoming August 12th Mexico City clash.
It’s even better for a good number of American players.
A handful have gone on to earn European contracts, move up the pecking order of reputable teams, or solidify their playing time at current clubs. One very noticeable defender is even playing for a top five club in the world.
While the world as a whole is having a rough go of it, things are good for US Soccer—Unless you’re Bob Bradley.
Sure he’s done enough to keep his job until the World Cup wraps up in South Africa, but given USSF’s past actions, it was unlikely he was going to be dismissed before next year’s tournament anyway.
Yeah, he’s got a verifiable starting eleven, but to reiterate what Landon Donovan believes, the goal in South Africa isn’t to have a good showing and lose. The goal of playing in the World Cup is to win the tournament and hoist the trophy—something the US has never done.
There is one definitive fact that can be taken from this past summer: the US isn’t going to field a team of better players than teams like Brazil, Italy, England, Spain, or Germany.
What’s going to win it for the US is the right team.
That’s what the US has proven by upsetting their betters in big games, and that truth has been supported by any great US run in recent memory (does 2002 ring a bell?). Historically though, selecting the right team on game day hasn't been one of Bob Bradley’s strengths.
Instead, he has demonstrated a number of faults that might keep him from selecting the best 23 for the World cup. First, he’s notorious for his unrelenting loyalty and favoritism for out of form and struggling players.
The best example of this is DaMarcus Beasley, his most defensible choice based on Beasley's long history with the national team, but he has made other questionable selections: Conor Casey, Eddie Gaven, Bobby Convey, and Sacha Kljestan are a few. Most of these players have a connection either to Bradley or to the USMNT developmental programs.
It’s not so bad to have loyalty, but when it prohibits players such as Charlie Davies and Benny Feilhaber from getting playing time, or from granting developmental experiences to the likes of Jozy Altidore, Freddy Adu, Jose Torres, and now Stuart Holden, then his choices are a problem.
Sports is one of the few places where meritocracy—at least on the field—has some sway. For Bradley, that’s not always the case.
Secondly, Bradley’s match selections, formations and in-game tactics leave something to be desired.
Look at his last two finals: in both games, the score at half time was close. Yet, in the Brazil game, there were no adjustments made to combat the constant pressure and overlapping runs of the Brazilian defenders—a tactic Bradley had already seen Brazil employ in their last meeting earlier in the same tournament!
In the Gold Cup final, no changes or substitutions were made after Carlos Vela was introduced in the second half, or after Mexico scored their first goal, and an inexperienced US team was clearly overwhelmed.
Also, it is a rare occasion when Bradley is proactive and makes a change before his opponent, usually waiting well after the sixtieth minute to make a substitution. More than once, by the time a player has been substituted, the player being removed is well beyond exhaustion and long ago ceased to help the cause (Granted, most players need to be able to play the bulk of 90 minutes, but after long seasons, nagging injuries, difficult games and schedules, its not always possible or realistic).
To once again reference Donovan, if the US is only going to have a handful of opportunities to beat the best teams, then we need to field the best team possible for that specific situation. Unfortunately for Bradley, his team’s success has created more questions than answers for a man who struggles at player selection and tactics.
Here’s an overview:
Attacking: Which combination will work?
Chemistry and complimentary play is so important up front. When two players interact seamlessly, the possibilities are endless (see Bebeto and Romario World Cup ’94). But when it fails, it can have disastrous results (Insert any English duo that has failed to bring home the trophy since the 1960’s…most recently, Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney).
Since the US has shown it struggles to produce with only one forward, it’s expected that two will play. So which two?
Charlie Davies and Jozy Altidore are expected to see time and have worked well together, but what about Brian Ching? Ching is a highly regarded player in Bradley’s eyes even though he rarely contributes goals against the toughest opponents at the international level.
Who does he replace? If he takes off Davies, where does the US find its creativity and speed? If he replaces Altidore, then the US loses the size advantage and trouble he gives defenders. Plus, if Ching and Altidore are playing at the same time, the US will break its record for most dives in a game within the first half.
Then there’s Clint Dempsey. Dempsey scored the bulk of his Confederations Cup goals once he was moved up front. One could argue this was a genius move on Bradley's part as it threw opposing defenders off balance.
Or it could be seen as a delayed move that should have been made sooner, like from the start. Dempsey hungers for goals, but struggles defensively (when playing for the national team). That’s the definition of a forward. Why not play him there from kickoff? And if Bradley were to do so, who would be his best partner?
Finally, there’s Donovan. Given he’s produced his best at outside midfield lately and should stay there, he can play up front if required. It’s another look the US could show a team, and based on the midfield, Bradley can afford to move these players around until he finds the best combinations.
On some days, certain attacking combinations will work, but what Bradley's going to have to do is be able to make a change, and know which change will produce the desired result, and more importantly, which ones do not. If he is forced to make a change, by South Africa, he cannot make a mistake and field the wrong duo.
Midfield: A supporting cast he must get right
It’s amazing how quickly things have changed for the US. After the last world cup, it didn’t look like the US had a single justifiable central midfielder. Now, it’s the team’s deepest position.
Michael Bradley has earned his spot through both his national and club team performances, but like the forwards, who is his best counterpart?
Is it Ricardo Clark? Benny Feilhaber? Jermaine Jones (the recent German addition), or Maurice Edu (whom definitely gets a mention as he would have gotten a call up if not for off-season surgery).
Other than being the coach’s son, Bradley’s biggest problem is that he’s not a defensive midfielder, but he’s billed as one. Bradley makes the best runs from the midfield position, and he’s scored his share of gritty goals when the team’s needed him to. In reality, he's one of the last true central midfielders.
As long as Jones is given a shot (but again, considering Bob Bradley’s past decisions, he may not), he is probably the best pairing, that is, as long as they compliment each other well.
Go back to Michael Bradley’s several opportunities to play with Benny Feilhaber to see that something that might look good on paper doesn't always work. The creativity between the two should have made for a formidable middle of the field. But the Bradley/Feilhaber has never produced to the level it should.
The same goes for Bradley and Edu (all though that was before Edu hit his recent form).
Michael Bradley’s best partner has been Ricardo Clark. Unfortunately, Clark’s temper, poor decisions (His Confederations Cup dismissal wasn’t a fluke—Youtube his red card for kicking Carlos Ruiz in the face during a MLS game, and you might have to ask yourself if Clark’s early exits are a trend), and penchant for disappearing acts for large parts of games, and there are questions as to if Clark benefits the team with his inclusion.
Notice, I haven’t mentioned a single attacking midfielder.
Freddy Adu and Jose Torres didn’t receive any playing time during the Confederations Cup, so who knows how they will play alongside Bradley? Stuart Holden could also be considered an attacking midfielder. If he’s chosen (they’ll be an argument as to why he should be included in a bit), should he be utilized in the middle? He saw time at that position in the Gold Cup.
The attacking midfielder option can’t be stressed enough. It gives another choice in the attack, opens up play, is often the connection going from the back to the front, and is a staple position on most of the best teams in the world. A defensive/attacking pairing should be at least a choice, if not the default, come 2010.
Again, the same problem exists on the outside of the midfield. The starters are obvious: Dempsey and Donovan, but what if one of them needs to be deployed up top, is injured, or having a bad game?
In modern soccer, there is no other position that demands a definitive answer more than out wide. Christiano Ronaldo has proven this. The quickest answer is Benny Feilhaber who has played quite well outside in the past (review the Spain game), and more than any other person on the national team, changes the feel of the American side. Plus, he is a strange calming agent, and therefore, should see minutes.
But, beyond him, Bradley has done little to recruit a necessary second string, however, by pure luck, Stuart Holden has produced well and should be considered.
Most fans have not realized how important Holden is. He plays almost every attacking position. He can be deployed at right, left, or center, and up front. This makes him valuable. He is one of the few alternate players that has been given a decent amount of playing time and has shown to be competent, calm and creative on the ball. Finally, his long range accuracy makes him dangerous from anywhere, and like Rossi did for Italy, could change a game in a heartbeat.
But he lacks experience, has made some mistakes because of his lack of time, so he should come off the bench.
In the end, since Bradley has not found any other outside players with promise, Feihaber and Holden appear to be his best options.
In the midfield, there will be players left off the roster. Torres and Adu could easily be left behind. It is hard to believe that Freddy Adu would not make the squad, but his last outing proved little. It’s questionable whether or not he will improve before 2010, and he is not a Bradley favorite.
Granted, if there is a question (and Holden may be the question) Bradley will include Adu to silence critics, but no matter whom Bradley chooses, someone that could change a game might be left off the roster if he doesn’t make some sacrifices up front or in the defense.
Defense: Is speed an actual factor?
For the first time ever, the defense seems to be the most solid selection on the team—all though it may not seem as such at first glance.
Obviously, Oguchi Onyewu will play, and it will be Jay Demerit or Carlos Bocanegra next to him. Demerit appears to compliment Onyewu better, but Bocanegra is serviceable and offers more offensively.
It’s at outside back that people will question the selections, and the argument is speed, or the lack thereof, but is it really an issue? To be clear, are there reasonable selections beyond the top three choices—none of which, by the way, have an actual advantage with speed.
Steve Cherundolo, Jonathan Spector, and Carlos Bocanegra seem to be at comparable levels, with Bocanegra appearing to be a little more comfortable when he plays in the middle. Because of this, he is a question mark out wide. Yes, he was strong in the Spain game, but had trouble against Brazil as he failed to put pressure on individuals giving service into the box, so his ranking as a first string left back is up in the air.
Spector could also be played outside right or left. Again, the criticism is that he is slow, but compared to whom? Plus, his skill and offensive output make him a defensible pick. The same can be said for Cherundolo.
Thus, while the order may not be clear, the top five defensemen are already selected for the American side.
Beyond these five, while there might be some that disagree, the level of skill, offensive output and tactical awareness drops off to the point that none are viable options against top flight opponents.
While a fan favorite, Frankie Hedjuk is too inconsistent with his crosses, his aerial defense, and tactical decisions. Red cards and horrible spot fouls are his calling card.
Bornstein is not strong or smart enough to compete with the elite, and Pearce is too inconsistent and tactically unaware. If they are called upon to play against the likes of Brazil, Argentina, Spain, or England, there will be a gaping weakness in the back.
Bradley’s best bet is to call up the next best central defender, perhaps Clarence Goodson or Chad Marshall, and solidify the outside with Bocanegra. For his last defensive spot, maybe Bradley could take his best prospect with the most upside potential. Perhaps it’s the Mexican defect Edgar Castillo.
While there may not be much depth in the defense, there is more breathing room than anywhere else on the field other than in goal.
Goalkeeping: The American Trademark
There may be a couple of individuals arguing that the level of talent has dropped slightly at this position, but Tim Howard is an elite goalkeeper, and his backups, most likely Brad Guzan and Troy Perkins (after his Gold Cup display, he’s done more than enough to replace 38 year old Marcus Hahnemann), are more than serviceable.
Unfortunately, Perkins cannot overtake Guzan at this point in time. Guzan is a Bradley favorite with time spent on a Bradley club team. Still he struggles with his decision making and has trouble getting hold of the ball from time to time, which to some would be enough of a question mark to see if the more technically sound and composed Perkins could be a better replacement at this stage.
As can be seen, there are many questions heading into the end of qualifying. Yes, everyone, including all of America’s opponents, know who the starting eleven will be, and at some point, Bradley will have to make adjustments.
Someone will play badly, there will be an injury, or a smart manager will choose tactics that shut down option A—Unfortunately, there has been no hint of a plan B.
What the US needs is an alchemist that turns any combination into gold. To do this, roles need to be defined. Expected positions need to be delegated, and experience needs to be obtained.
Unfortunately, there is little time left. The qualification stage offers few legitimate opponents. After Mexico, depending on what team shows, Costa Rica might be the only other competitive match.
In two games, can Bradley decide on most of his second string? Hardly.
And how many quality matches will there be in the final months heading up to the World Cup? Most likely not enough, and the Bob Bradley that we’ve seen up until now has done little to assuage any fears. It may have been the best of times in 2009, but expect the worst by the summer of 2010.