While fans and analysts may have been dismayed by the come-from-behind 2-1 U.S. victory over El Salvador Wednesday night, the result seems to have made things a little bit clearer for Bob Bradley.
Bradley has announced his 20 man roster for the upcoming match against the Dutch on Wednesday, March 3, and based on his call-ups, it appears that Bradley has a good sense of what he has at his disposal and what to expect from his options, both those included and those that did not make the final cut.
Of those left off the roster, the most glaring omission is Brian Ching. After offering a quality finish to equalize against El Salvador along with a strong performance once he entered the game, some expected he had done enough to claim a spot for South Africa, as well as earn a call-up for the remaining friendlies.
Perhaps Ching's absence is more positive than negative. Brian Ching is a familiar face for Bradley. He has been called up during the qualifying season and was included in the team for the Gold Cup.
His latest performance is another example of exactly what you get from Ching: strong work ethic, an aerial presence, a penchant for holding the ball up and waiting for support, the ability to produce against regional opponents, and, as always, a question mark against elite competition.
So why not include him against Holland in the hopes that he will work out his kinks?
At this point in his career, is Ching going to change drastically over three friendlies—and limited time during those three friendlies, as Bradley will most likely give other forwards a look?
Furthermore, Ching is at most third in the pecking order for American attackers. He comes from the same mold as Jozy Altidore, so both won't be on the field at the same time. Both players have size, are expected to win balls in the air, will attempt to hold the ball up, and are not expected to be the focal point of a speedy counter-attack.
Once all of this is taken into account, then it makes sense not to include Ching in the Holland exhibition. Ching appears to be a step above Conor Casey and a step below Jozy Altidore. This isn't going to change by the World Cup, so there's little reason to waste valuable time including him next Wednesday; there are more pressing matters.
Like the ongoing struggle to finding a pair of attackers.
It's been suggested that the U.S. might want to consider playing with one attacker since Altidore is the only forward with a definite spot. Most of the U.S. depth is in the midfield, so play to the team's strengths. Soccer tactics are evolving into a one front runner attack anyway. The U.S. should get on board.
In an ideal world this approach would make sense. Unfortunately, the United States does not have a forward that can fulfill the demands of the lone striker. Can any American attacker compare in skill to Didier Drogba, Thierry Henry, or even Emanuel Adebayor?
But just because the United States doesn't have an attacker at the highest level doesn't mean it's doom and gloom for the United States ( after all, it was the U.S. that beat Spain, not Togo.). It only means the U.S. needs to play to its needs, not its ideals.
Bradley understands this, and that's why he's called up Eddie Johnson and Robbie Findley.
While the selection of Johnson and Findley could be questioned (both players have not done well for the national team lately), searching for a compliment for Jozy makes sense. Findley and Johnson represent speed and that is why they have been included.
The bigger question is why not an alternative to speed? What about a creative player or a pure finisher?
The short answer to that question is that Bradley tends to shy away from such hard to measure qualities. Bradley has been reluctant to move Dempsey up front on a semi-permanent basis, or include Freddy Adu, a creative element that can't lock-down a position in an overcrowded midfield.
At least he's looking for speed.
Bradley's midfield selections reflect the same thought process. He knows that Donovan and Dempsey are his most likely choices for outside left and right. However, if he must move Dempsey or if he's not healthy, then he needs options. No players from the MLS pool shone consistently. So he must look at his other options.
His first choice supporting wingers are Stuart Holden and Benny Feilhaber. It makes sense that Holden receives a nod. Plus, he needs to see how Holden will perform against top-tier opposition. Can he rely on Holden if he needs to move Dempsey or Donovan up front?
A larger question is Benny Feilhaber. He has been inconsistent, injury prone (like he is right now), and may need to play in the middle.
Enter DaMarcus Beasley.
The manager really has limited options here. Few wingers have stepped up to fill the void for the U.S., but now that Beasley looks like he has regained a semblance of his former-self, Bradley will give him a go.
The same holds true for the middle of the pitch. Michael Bradley is an automatic, and like Jozy, he needs a partner. Ricardo Clark is injured but expected to make the squad. Still, there needs to be other options in the center.
Clark has a penchant for losing his head and disappearing during matches. Now that Edu is healthy, is he a better choice?
Also, if Michael Bradley is developing into a stronger defensive presence, then maybe his father might look for a different compliment in the middle. Instead of a more defensive partner, perhaps a calming and intelligent presence like Torres would add a new dimension to the team.
Michael Bradley has had issues with his distribution, and the team has reacted well in the past when a controlled, calm, and deliberate midfielder has entered the game (Benny Feilhaber has played that role before).
Again, no MLS players gave Bradley an option out of the ordinary. Sacha Klejestan has struggled, and Kyle Beckerman is a domestic version of Ricardo Clark.
A side note: I know Bradley spoke some encouraging words about Klejestan's performance, but Klejestan's performance needs to be put into context. He has struggled. There were a few bright spots in his play, and Bradley is a player's coach. It makes sense he would compliment Sacha's play.
Consequently, Klejestan did little in the game overall, and he should have put one, if not both of his first two shots in the net. His goal was the type that 1.) Isn't going to happen against a strong opponent; they're not going to make that mistake in the defense, and 2.) At the professional level you better be able to put away a 2-on-1 at the top of the eighteen.
The team needs central players that have a stronger impact on the game and put their shots away (Michael Bradley will be playing that role for the first eleven. He'll push forward and take those shots). This is why Sacha's name wasn't on the list traveling to Holland. Bradley knows where to reach him if he's needed.
It looks the same for the back four. The starting slots are already accounted for, and the ones that are healthy were selected. So it's time to assess the team's defenses depth:
Clarence Goodson has asserted himself as the fourth central defender ahead of Chad Marshall. Bradley needs to see how he'll do against elite attackers as well as develop a chemistry with the rest of the players.
Heath Pearce had a strong performance against El Salvador, and, since the search goes on for competent outside backs, he got the call.
When Pearce is on, he's as good, if not better, than Johnathan Bornstein. Once upon a time, he was the first choice leftback. He's calmer, has more of a presence, and is a stronger attacker than Bornstein. Unfortunately, he's twice as inconsistent. If he performs well in Holland, maybe he'll hit a good run of form going into the World Cup.
On the other side, Simek would be a great option if he's healthy and ready for elite competition. Not too long ago, Premier League teams were considering Simek as a bargain buy from his current club Sheffield Wednesday. Then he was injured.
If he's back, he just might add some depth and free up Jonathan Spector to play elsewhere on the depleted backline.
The same strategy was employed against El Salvador as Borstein played in the middle with Goodson.
It's easy to see Bradley's logic with his overall selection for next Wednesday. The only real frustration is the lack of creativity in this lineup.
Bradley's teams execute his gameplan well, are defensively minded, and demonstrate sound fundamentals. Such an approach keeps a team in games against America's regional opponents, but it's a mediocre philosophy.
Creativity, originality, and a specialized skill set (i.e. talent in areas of the game that the average professional player does not exhibit), once all other elements are considered equal.
The U.S. players that have already earned a ticket to South Africa have demonstrated one if not a number of the aforementioned traits.
Donovan is the U.S.'s all around best player, Dempsey has the best skills and is the most creative with the ball at his feet, and even Stuart Holden has earned a spot because he can serve the ball better than anyone else on the team.
It's disheartening when the only "real" move in the El Salvador friendly comes from the team's leftback Heath Pearce—and notice, he received a call-up. It would be nice to see one or two more creatively-prone players on the roster.
Granted, there aren't many American players that are overly creative that don't already have an important role on the team. Nevertheless, especially up-front, the United States has struggled to breakdown strong, disciplined defenses. Will Findley and Johnson—known qualities with average creative abilities—be the answer?
It's highly unlikely.
With Dempsey and Davies out, and Findley already showing what he can offer, then Johnson is the only interesting choice in the attack. And once Bradley subs one forward, will he leave the other in for the whole game? Playing the likes of Holland is a once in a lifetime opportunity. It would be a shame to waste it only looking at three forwards, but that appears to be the plan.
There were other options though. Marcus Tracy (if he has fully recovered from his injury), Kenny Cooper (now overseas), and even Freddy Adu (since he can't help Bradley in the midfield, why not try him up front?).
In the end, Bradley is on the right track with his selection, but he doesn't make his job any easier by believing the answer to his attacking woes lies in players he's already seen on a number of occasions.
Hopefully he'll work out his creative conundrums over the next two friendlies.