There's one line that's inevitably repeated when one of my closest USMNT friends and I get together to discuss the current condition of the U.S. team. Over time it has evolved, but it started out as something like this:
"He's our coach."
then morphed into:
"He's our coach, and he's part of the system. He's not going anywhere even if he practices nepotism."
was altered once again,
"There's no possible way they're firing this guy before the World Cup."
And finally it has become:
"He's already picked his team. There's nothing that can be done."
Most sports fans can recognize each response as some attempt to ground a fellow fanatic as he attempts to scrounge up some completely irrational hope for the future of his or her team. My friend tried his best, and to be honest, after the Charlie Davies' injury, I was one step from entering a psychiatrist's office and lying about my childhood in order to receive a heavy dose of anti-depressants to get me through SA 2010.
As a USMNT supporter, I live on a very fragile precipice. I realize that the team's depth chart is slim. If Donovan, Dempsey, Howard, or even Altidore at this point goes down injured, there's no replacement. I also know that the lack of scoring during run of play is a quiet crisis.
Once my World Cup expectations had lowered from quarter final dreams to hopes of a good group draw with a second round, second place advancement if lucky, I started perusing other qualifiers searching for an acceptable team to adopt for the summer. Without any luck, completely desperate, I started watching every game I could find on television trying to find one player, and from there, one team to support.
That's when I found myself watching the Liverpool/Manchester United match. Two infamous managers facing off. Both dealing with managerial challenges that affected their tactics, first team choices, and substitutions.
When the game ended with an impressive win for Liverpool that raised more questions than answers: What does it mean that Liverpool can beat elite opponents without Gerard? Is Cristiano Ronaldo so good that he single handily saved Manchester United?
I realized that while injuries, current form, and coaching have more than likely limited the U.S. team's possibilities this summer, the team could still impress with some slight alterations.
Here are the factors that underlay my alterations:
1. To the best of my ability, I based recommendations on decisions that Bob Bradley might make.
For example, it's not likely that Bradley would bench his son, or that he's going to start letting Tim Howard take corner kicks, that Charlie Davies will return from injury in time for the World Cup, or that Eddie Johnson becomes a premier striker. Basically, I tried to avoid wishful thinking or alternate realities.
2. The 23-man roster has already been selected give or take one or two fringe players.
The aforementioned injuries, current form and opportunities have answered many of the questions surrounding most of the true possibilities for a roster spot. There are few controversial or tough decisions left. Personally, I feel most of the pretenders have been culled from the lineup, and the possible contributors have stepped up when called upon. That may be good for this world cup, but it does not bode well that the player pool is not rife with competition and worry that a major contributor might be forced off the roster.
The Bradley Checklist Before Leaving for South Africa
Find a Defensive Midfielder.
This problem has been present for far too long. It should have been a number one priority for over a year. There is not a single competitive team without a defensive midfielder, and the U.S. will be headed for a quick exit if one is not found before the summer.
Unfortunately, there is not a solid defensive midfielder on the current roster. Michael Bradley has little sense of positioning, defensive anticipation, and man marking ability. Ricardo Clark is inconsistent, disappearing for large stretches of games, and makes poor defensive decisions. Francisco Torres is not the answer. He may be able to distribute, is more skilled and calmer than any other player, but the first time an adult male goes in on a challenge with him and he'll be on the sidelines nursing an injury.
The good news is that there are other options still available. Jermaine Jones has been approved to play for the United States, and Maurice Edu has returned from injury. Both should appear in the upcoming friendlies until their current form and value can be properly evaluated.
Solidify The Defense With a Definitive Starting Four, Settle on a Leftback, And Choose Two True Substitutes With a "Wild Card" Third.
As many other writers have noted, the U.S. defense is in shambles. The depth is shaken by injuries, but luckily, the major players should return. However, in what form and at what position? Will Demerit play? If so, where will Bocanegra be? Will Bradley sit Onyewu if he is not playing well? Who will be the left back?
There are too many questions right now. By the time the team is on the plane, Bradley should have made clear who is going to play, at what position, and what players are to do that come off the bench. Edgar Castillo, and maybe even Jonathan Spector should both have opportunities at left back. I don't care if Bornstein scored a goal, he's too inconsistent to compete with the best. Bradley might feel the same was as Castillo has been called up for the Slovakia and Denmark friendlies. It also should be clear if Spector or Steve Cherundolo is a better starting choice at right back.
And if a fringe player is included, it should be for intangibles, special skills, or a particular role he can play. For example, maybe a player attacks well, has speed or size, or is a strong man marker. Whatever the reason, the last pick should have a clear, strong offering that cannot be produced by a current starter.
Roles Need To Be Clarified.
This is a practice that many successful coaches share, not only within the realm of soccer, but throughout sports. It's a priority of Phil Jackson, and whatever transferable skill a coach can steal from Phil Jackson, he should.
Every player needs to know what is expected of him. I'm not sure if that's always been clear on the USMNT, and even if it's a small role, they need to know that their role is integral to success.
Clint Dempsey needs to know if he should take risks at outside midfield or if he should play defense and possess the ball. Altidore needs to know if he should take on the defender or attempt to draw the foul. Sometimes U.S. players seem to play without any sort of idea as to what the game plan is or how they contribute to the team's goal.
Tactics Need to be Changed For Each Game, Adapted for Different Opponents, and Suitable For Different Personnel Choices.
The United States has become too predictable across the board. Offensively, the U.S. will be careless with the ball, take low percentage chances, attempt crosses, and hope to score on free kicks.
Defensively, the team will be undisciplined in the midfield and conservative in the back, stepping away from attackers, attempting to play second, third and fourth goalies, rather than being aggressive and stepping to challenges. Expect a goal every other game from an uncontested shot outside the 18-yard line, which is way too easy and unacceptable an opportunity to allow at the international level.
No successful team should be this predictable.
To an extent, Bradley should change his approach based on the personnel and tactics of other teams. Against, shorter, slimmer, CONCACAF teams, crosses and set plays may be productive, but against taller, stronger, European teams, possession, flair, and incisive ground passes may be a better approach.
The same should go for the defense. The team cannot play goalkeeper (and shouldn't!) for Tim Howard. They need to decide whom they should mark closely, who to double team, foul, back off of, which teams like to cross, which like to make extensive runs, etc., and adjust accordingly.
The personnel, which should be relatively stable from game to game, should be altered, via substitutions, based on what is happening on the field, and subs should be used without reservation...and in a timely manner.
All of these recommendations are possible, and from time to time, Bradley has shown glimpses of smart decisions. Hopefully, he was watching as Liverpool beat Manchester United and took inspiration from the match.
Benitez had already done all four priorities on the checklist in preparation for that game. He had a defensive midfielder (Javier Mascherano), a clear defensive alignment, specific roles (it was clear that Lucas' job was to disrupt the offense in transition, that Torres was to attack, like always, nonstop, and Kuyt was to support him.), and the tactics were specific to Manchester United. There was no way they would play Hull City the way they played Manchester.
If Bradley addresses any of these needs before South Africa, then I might be able to have a new conversation with my fellow supporters.