Now that it's 2010, final preparations for this summer's World Cup can begin in earnest. To start it off, the United States Men's National Team has begun its last camp tryouts. While the main players and positions are already decided, there are still a few spots that must be sorted out.
What should be his major concern?
But as Bob Bradley sorts through his available options, he is going to have to use the most unorthodox of criteria. Bradley has a few intangibles he must consider before he selects his striker options for his World Cup roster:
The Players Must Be Considered Offensive Threats (At Least in the Minds of the Opposing Defenders)
Many analysts named a lack of scoring chances as the major problem in the most recent U.S. friendlies.
While on the surface the statement is true, that criticism is oversimplified.
The blame for this inability to create has been placed on a lack of creativity among individual front runners. Yes, it's true—the majority of the sport's creative masterminds play for a country other than the US—but individual creativity isn't the only way to manufacture scoring opportunities.
Speed, size, and athletic ability all have a place in the game. Brian McBride (aerial ability), Charlie Davies (speed), and Jozy Altidore (size) are three examples of forwards—past and present—that have threatened opposing defenses with one attribute or another.
None of these players have ever been considered one of the top ten attackers in the world, and yet they remained a concern for defenders.
This idea—that an United States attacker spells trouble—was not present at the end of 2009. No forward was shadowed, let alone double-teamed. There was not an obsession with enough defensive cover when playing the US, nor contemplating whether or not to have a defender playing in a deep position, just in case.
The opposing defenses were not overly concerned with a freak offensive display on the United States' part. The only goal scored during the last two friendlies was on a mistake in distribution by Denmark.
When defenders are not concerned with the forwards, then they have the ability to push extra numbers into the midfield. This allows the opposing team to put pressure on the American players.
Dictating the available space and placing high pressure is one of the most critical components of success in the modern game.
This is one of the reasons why the American midfielders appeared to have little time to control the ball or make a pass in their recent matches, and it may also be why US defenders are so apt to play the long ball downfield. They have few immediate options and might be feeling the pressure to get rid of the ball.
The attacking threat (and threats can be imagined) mitigates this approach. Against Spain, Carlos Puyol was hesitant to play one-on-one against Jozy Altidore.
To elaborate: an elite defender, who plays for one of the most prestigious clubs in the world, was afraid to play aggressively (his chosen approach) against the raw talent of a nineteen-year-old American .
Altidore's perceived threat forced Spain to remain relatively honest (until they were desperate for a goal) during their match with the US.
The same could be said for Charlie Davies' speed. In one of Davies' last games, it was his speed that forced Honduras to respect the US attack. If a pass got behind the defense, then Davies was off to the races. This did happen a number of times in the game, and eventually ended up in an assist for the forward.
It will be interesting to see how Honduras plays, now that Davies' speed is out of the US equation.
Since those games, Altidore has been proven to be a raw, inconsistent talent that has trouble under pressure, and Davies won't be on the roster due to injuries. The most prevalent forward threats are gone.
It allows opposing teams to focus on shutting down the midfield, home of America's best players (Dempsey, Donovan). Without time, space, and options, it's difficult for any player to start, let alone sustain, an attack.
By this summer, Bradley needs to cultivate the idea that American front runners are dangerous. Most of his current selections—Eddie Johnson, Jeff Cunningham, Conor Casey, and Kenny Cooper—don't scare anyone, and those that do, do so only intermittently.
The Forward Attack Will Have To Be a Tandem, and the Right Tandem
Granted, most elite teams are moving towards one front runner. Unfortunately, the United States does not have this luxury. America has not yet developed its Didier Drogba, Fernando Torres, or David Villa. For now, the U.S. is going to need to play two up top.
This choice is a matter of necessity. There is not a single American attacker that can handle the forward duties alone. No player is well-rounded enough to hold the ball, win headers, dribble, run and finish against elite opposition.
This is not an overly cruel knock on American players. There are only so many top-tier attackers.
Furthermore, the United States is lucky enough to have a number of diverse options. While one player may not be able to do it all, two can certainly hold the ball, win headers, dribble, and exhibit speed.
The biggest problem in this area has been Bradley's inability to select the right tandem. Instead of choosing speed and size, he chooses size and size. Or, he opts for a player that can win the ball in the air, but teams him with a partner lacking strong enough ball control skills to maintain possession until help arrives.
Bradley is going to have to move outside of his comfort zone to fix this problem. He no longer has the ability to select his ideal partnership in Altidore and Davies, but rather than looking for a new speedster with a modicum of skill to match with Altidore, he has gone in a different and altogether dismal direction.
What Altidore needs (I'm assuming he'll play up front, as there are few alternatives), is the right complement. Davies offered speed and a deep threat. This opened up space and time for Altidore (something he desperately needs, with his on-again, off-again touch).
If speed isn't an option, then Altidore needs an individual with keen positioning and ball-handling skills that can hold a one-touch pass and allow other players, including Altidore, the time to get open.
Yet, there has been a dearth of speedy attackers utilized opposite Altidore. Eddie Johnson and Jeff Cunningham are the only two that come to mind; the first has not played at a high enough level in a long time, and the second might have lost a step or two, considering his age.
There are other options as well. Altidore could be used as a super-substitute, and another combination could start games. It's an unlikely choice, but maybe it's speed and creativity (the US has a few creative players), or dribbling and an aerial attack, that offers the United States the best opportunities up front.
But again, Bradley has not seriously experimented up front. Robbie Findley and Marcus Tracy are just two options that may offer diversity.
At least they've been called into the January camp.
Whatever new players make it onto the roster for the Honduras game, they need to play. Bradley has made it known he's considering other options, making the comment that Clint Dempsey has seen time playing forward for Fulham and will be considered.
This means he recognizes there's a problem, and that's a start.
In 2010, the US' Best Forward Options May Not Have To Score Goals
A statistic was flashed across the screen during the pregame show for an American friendly last year, and at first, I viewed the stat as irrelevant: In 2009, 20 different players have scored at least one goal for Bob Bradley.
That's just one year under his tenure. It's an American record.
While the statistic reveals the lack of consistency and finishing prowess up front, it also reminds individuals that the United States can score.
It may come on set pieces. Other players may have to join into the attack, but Americans can find the back of the net.
The future of football is headed in this direction anyway. The attacking unit will be expected to score goals, and the attacking options will be more than just a forward or two.
The United States has these type of players. Bocanegra has scored on corners. Michael Bradley finishes every loose ball in the box (his greatest talent).
Seemingly, some American player has scored when the United States has needed it most...as long as chances were available . Unfortunately, the national team has forgotten how to optimize its attack.
Bradley's approach—at least as far as selecting strikers is concerned—should be to pick the individuals that have the strongest potential of fulfilling the subtle demands of the forward position, and not worry so much on whether or not a particular goal striker can score goals.
I know this approach may frighten many as it brings to mind the rationalizations that justified selecting the likes of Brian Ching, but if readers go back and review the attacking criteria, Ching was never a threat to opposing defenses, and he was never part of a true forward tandem.
And that's where the difficulty lies. Which possible forwards can best create those goal scoring opportunities?