U.S. World Cup Starting 11: Four Players Who Must Show Up Besides Landon Donovan
If there's one thing Bob Bradley's U.S. team has made clear, it's that they're going to make every game exciting. This team isn't going to put teams away early, but thankfully, they can't be counted out, either.
Since the beginning of 2010, the difference between winning and losing has been two goals or less, no matter the talent level of the opposition or the American side selected.
Through it all, Bradley has created a team with a core, a supporting cast, and a number of new invitations to the party. He has crafted a system where every player has a role. Any team can be beaten on a given day, but if the best under-performs or the supporting cast doesn't reach expectations, the team loses.
The players that follow are a few key individuals for the United States.
For many, questioning whether or not they should be playing is heresy and idiotic. But in soccer—and in particular the World Cup—the eventual winner usually ends up being the best team.
These players are believed to have cemented their position in the starting eleven.
However, because of the type of game Bob Bradley wants the team to play, the complexity of their roles, and the players able to replace them, their starting spot may not be so secure.
How could there be any questions surrounding the playing time of the current second-leading goal scorer and one of America's best players?
But that's exactly what has happened, as Bradley has not been able to find the perfect spot in order to utilize Dempsey's talents.
The Turkish friendly was the latest experiment. In the first half, Dempsey played somewhere between a second forward and an attacking midfielder.
Of his own admission, Dempsey didn't have the best of halves (he moved to his more traditional position as an outside midfielder in the second half), literally struggling to dribble, let alone create any offensive rhythm.
Nevertheless, he notched another international goal in the second half, and for those that railed against playing Dempsey up front, the first half was enough of a justification to keep him in the midfield. Dempsey was pushed so far forward that he was essentially a third forward—a style of play he has admitted to enjoying more than the traditional midfield role.
And that is the Dempsey conundrum.
Bradley admitted that the second half was about pushing the attack. Moving Dempsey out-wide allowed for a more offensive approach. Bradley was rewarded with a goal for his tactical tinkering.
However, Dempsey has the same issues that David Beckham had in 2006 for England: defensive lapses.
In 2006, England struggled with how to use Beckham properly. His service, set piece acumen, and positioning made him a dangerous addition to the attack, but he was slow, a poor defender and had a knack for untimely tackles. If England found itself against a team with a fast, skilled winger, would it spell disaster?
This is a valid question, as England was expected to go far in the tournament, more than likely seeing the likes of Portugal, France, or Argentina. If such a scenario arose, then Beckham had the possibility of being lined up opposite of Ronaldo, Ribery, or Messi.
Of course, the tournament didn't work out that way, but it was a possibility.
It's 2010, the United States could have the same problem, and it could happen in the first game. Even though Theo Walcott, one of England's speediest attackers didn't make the last 23, it doesn't mean England is without speed and talent on the wings.
Add to the mix Fabio Capello's predilection for playing Rooney as a lone striker, and the U.S. squad might require a more defensive midfield. If Dempsey does not opt for defense first, then he's going to have to score in order to justify his place in the starting eleven.
That's the rub with him. If he scores, he's worth all the trouble. If not, he becomes a defensive liability.
This is what long-time fans and followers of Bradley's team criticize in Dempsey. Once upon a time, Dempsey was a more well-rounded—or at least equally focused—outside midfielder, but in order for the goals to come, Dempsey has shirked some of his defensive duties.
This is fine on a European team like Fulham where the appropriate cover can be purchased, but for the United States, with a limited pool of possible players, those options don't exist.
No one is faulting Dempsey for this development in his game (Bob Bradley is just as much at fault for this predicament as he has forged this team and the team's philosophy), but does Dempsey's approach best serve this team, and if not, is there an alternative?
The easy answer is no. Outside of the defense scoring on set pieces, Dempsey and Donovan are more likely to score, and have scored more times, than all of the forwards on the roster combined.
That's why Dempsey was deployed upfront. There's more depth on the wings for the U.S. than natural goal scorers and elite forwards.
The issue becomes even more complicated if Robbie Findley can duplicate his Turkish performance with any sort of consistency. His speed, positioning, and decision making (his chip to Donovan was absolutely perfect, and he deserved his place in the lineup on that day), are exactly what the forward line needs.
His forty-five minute display against Turkey may be a glimpse as to what Bradley has seen from Findley in practice and why Findley has been called up time and again even though his performances before the Turkey friendly have been average at best.
If Findley does become an attacking asset, Dempsey has a scoring drought and the opposition utilizes the winger's space behind him, then what's Dempsey's worth?
Dempsey would argue that he puts in the effort. And no one is arguing he hasn't had an effect, especially offensively, for the U.S., but the question is how to best utilize him with the current team, the opposition, and his best qualities.
It cannot be underestimated the damage that may occur if Dempsey struggles.
He did disappear in the early part of the Confederations Cup (the U.S. lost its first two games), he has gone long stretches without making an impact (and there are high expectations that he should when he plays for the United States since he is one of the most talented and high profile athletes on the team), and he has made untimely errors trying to "create" or contribute (almost single-handedly costing the U.S. a goal).
Dempsey would argue that he covers a large amount of ground during games and that this is proof of his contributions. This statistic is skewed since he plays outside where a large amount of ground is covered.
If Dempsey doesn't score or doesn't assist in the U.S. scoring, does it matter if he's covered the most ground?
In the end, the American side needs Dempsey to score. That's why he plays. If he doesn't score, then at some point the question will be asked: Does his current style of play benefit the team or is there someone else on the bench that is better suited for the U.S. game plan?
There's also a subplot to this dilemma. Dempsey is 27, and by the next World Cup he'll be 31. Based on the pace, the physical demands, and the defensive responsibilities for a winger (especially now that outside backs are becoming the most agile players on the pitch), mean that Dempsey is going to have to find an alternate position. So far, he hasn't been able.
The fear for many Dempsey detractors isn't that he's overrated, but that his offensive focus may be too one-dimensional for the position he plays, and it may come back to hurt the team.
On paper, there's absolutely no reason why Michael Bradley should not be in the starting eleven. He has more experience, has scored more timely goals, and has been a part of more influential games than any player his age on the current roster—especially in his position.
Bradley is known for his scrappy goals, his searing, late-game forward runs, and his endurance, which translates into an never-stopping, everywhere-on-the-field feel to his game.
Americans love a player that leaves it all on the field.
But again, just because a player covers a large amount of ground, does that translate into an effective use of energy, skill, talent, and time?
The U.S. has been labeled the most fit team at the World Cup, and at the same time ridiculed for focusing on fitness and not on the game. It's not a race; the goal is to put the ball in the net more times than the opposition, not cover the farthest distance.
Bradley's impact is further compounded by his position.
Most of a defensive-focused midfielder's efforts are best described as the "dirty-work" or behind-the-scenes efforts. The player needs to fill passing lanes, cover for others and pick up attackers entering his zone. The ball may never come his way, which means he's doing his job, but it also means he may never get any credit for all the hard work.
The credit comes when he makes a last second tackle, and Bradley has had his fair share of highlight reel, last second tackles.
Once Bradley makes a timely challenge or crosses the field to clean up a loose ball, he's usually credited with having a good game. It's the nature, and difficulty, in evaluating his role, and why, depending on who's rating his play, his success varies so widely.
The Turkey friendly was an example of just how much sits on Bradley's shoulders. Not only did he and Ricardo Clark carry the burden of protecting the center of the field, they were also expected to start the offense.
This is where Bradley struggled.
Only once was Jose Torres placed in the middle where he took on the offensive responsibilities so that Bradley was free to focus solely on defense, sit back, wait for space to open up, and allow himself to make a forward push.
Bradley has been criticized in the past for his offensive struggles. He's had trouble with all aspects of his passing. He can dribble. He can shoot, but the most important offensive duty for a holding midfielder is effective distribution.
Furthermore, Bradley has trouble with his anticipation and defensive positioning.
Chalk it up to chemistry, but whatever the reason, Bradley has had trouble getting on the same page with any midfield partner he's had. Oftentimes, both center players can be found covering the same man, filling the same space or stepping too late to an attacking opponent.
Again, the Turkey friendly is a strong example. At one point, Bradley had forced a back pass to Donovan's man, but instead of keeping his space and marking his man, he followed the short ball into Donovan's space. Donovan, realizing the imbalance, dropped off in an attempt to cover, but the ball had already moved on.
This is the downside to Bradley's tireless motor. He'll run all over the field because he can. Sometimes though, the best choice may be to not move at all.
The rebuttal will be that he left it all out on the pitch.
Meanwhile, Maurice Edu waits in the wings. He and Jose Torres did a decent job in the Czech friendly before they were moved and substituted in the second half, respectively (and the floodgates opened).
Edu has some experience, is familiar with intense pressure, and he offers a bit more offensively than Bradley. He isn't as likely to make attacking runs or cover as much ground as Bradley, but he is as likely to scrounge for a rebound goal. Edu is also a little more grounded positionally, and for some players it's easier to adapt to a grounded center-mid.
In the end, Michael Bradley will play all ninety-minutes, and it will be up to his counter-parts to adapt.
But with the depth in the midfield especially in the center, the emergence of both Jose Torres and Stuart Holden as well as Maurice Edu's almost comparable experience, there might come a time when someone asks if the team is best served by another midfield pairing.
With all the turmoil along the back line, it's been difficult to find a starting four, but because of Bob Bradley's defensive nature, there are two individuals that must play in order for the team to succeed.
Unfortunately, there are no replacements for them.
Who would have thought that Onyewu's presence in the center was his most important contribution?
The defender previously maligned for his size and influence (he's most likely to be the one called for a foul in a collision), fills a large amount of space, which seems to calm his compatriots.
Jay Demerit was lost in the Turkey friendly alongside Goodson, but once Onyewu entered the game, the center of the defense seemed to sort itself out.
Maybe it is his size, maybe it's the mental impression left on his teammates, maybe it's the lack of playing time with other players, but for whatever reason, the back line seems more organized with Onyewu on the field.
Some would argue that Cherundolo helped relieve the pressure, and maybe it did. However, the center defense improved in the second half. Demerit was more likely to step, and there was a little more pressure placed on the middle of the Turkish offense.
It's not a knock on Goodson that Onyewu needs to play. He just recently emerged as a benefit to the usual starters, but the team appears calmer with Onyewu in the lineup.
Also, without Bocanegra in the middle, Onyewu is going to have to be the organizing, calming presence as the captain is needed elsewhere.
The controversy at left-back is over.
With Heath Pearce removed from the final 23, Jonathan Bornstein still appearing overwhelmed and Jonathan Spector's inconsistency, Bocanegra should be playing on the left by default.
Add to it that he is the captain of this team and has a habit of scoring on set pieces, and he's going to be playing somewhere along the back line.
One would think there is more to be said about this issue based on the controversy, injuries and struggles in the defense, but it has become overly simple. The two biggest defensive contributors over the past four years will still be playing, and there is no controversy or replacement.
If they don't play well or don't play at all, the U.S. loses for sure.
Bob Bradley has locked himself into a certain style of play for this World Cup: organized team defense, capitalization on the counter-attack, set pieces, and an opponent's mistake.
Every single player, and most importantly, the best athletes on this team, all have clearly defined responsibilities. But what's scariest about the U.S. Men's National Team isn't who is included in the twenty-three, but whether or not this well-oiled machine runs properly.
It's already been well documented that how Donovan goes, the U.S. goes, but he's not the only one.
If any of the above mentioned players struggle, it will be a difficult time for the Americans. However, the Turkey friendly has shown—beyond this team's resilience—that Bradley is able to try something new (like Jose Torres).
Hopefully there's a Plan B to his Plan A.
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