USA Vs. Slovenia: For the U.S. It's Form Versus Function
In a recent interview, Bob Bradley claimed that his toughest decision is to choose between the current form of his players and their potential.
Bradley's job hasn't gotten any easier.
Without a doubt, the United States' draw against England was a great outcome, but it's not smooth sailing into the second round.
Slovenia is a defensive-minded side who won its first game. They may not hold possession nor go on the attack as much as England chose to against the United States, since a draw will still keep them in contention for a second place finish in the group. So, the Americans will most likely have to alter their strategy for Friday.
This may prove difficult for the United States' starting 11.
In the group's opener, England did more to tie or lose that game than the U.S. did to win it (the difference being the United States did do enough to come away with a draw). Fabio Capello did everything possible to bungle his player selection—other than fielding the starting lineup for Burnley.
In the last eight years, England has never done well with both Gerard and Lampard playing at the same time. The team has always been better off fielding a defensive midfielder behind one or the other.
The same could be said for his wide selection. He would have been better off going with his fastest, most skilled wingers. Once Sean Wright-Phillips entered the game, he overwhelmed his coverage. It could have easily been a different outcome if he would have started the match.
Still, Bradley's team did enough, even though the individual skill of England's starting 11 should have beaten the United States hands down.
But they didn't.
They didn't in part because the majority of the Americans played about as well as they could have. Michael Bradley's distribution, for the first time in a long time, was timely, smart, and needed. The defense stayed organized and Jay Demerit—and the team as a whole—contained Rooney—a phenominal feat for any team, not seen since Barcelona dismantled Manchester United in a Champions League Final.
Can such a performance be replicated? To take it a step further, can the form be sustained for an entire tournament?
If it can, then Dempsey's skill (and luck), the forward line's strength and speed (no matter the selection), and the team's execution on set pieces (since just about every other country is lacking in this department) should be enough for America to do well in the tournament.
But can the United States endure the Ricardo Clark Experience once again?
Can the team afford to exclude Landon Donovan from the game?
Can the defense stay as organized as it has been?
Can the team rely on Dempsey to bail them out of bad situations every time?
For almost two years now, the answer has been a resounding and unequivocal yes.
But if there is a lapse in form—something that happens to just about every team on a great run to the finals—what then?
That's Bradley's dilemma. This team did just enough, but at some point in time they will probably have to do much more.
Nevertheless, he will most likely start Ricardo Clark. There's absolutely no way he's substituting Donovan, even if he's barely touched a ball. He can't pull Dempsey, and he's certainly not going to make a game-changing substitution before the 65th minute mark.
It's not as if Bradley isn't aware of his options.
Listening to his press conferences, he is aware that any of his first five realistic options off the bench changes the entire dynamic of the team. However, for some time now it's been clear that Bradley is a cautious and stable manager.
By game time Friday, form will win out over function.
Clark will play, the team will rely on Dempsey's brilliance, pray that Donovan finds a way to be involved in the game, that the defense will continue to execute to perfection, and Tim Howard will stay relatively healthy.
That's a long list of things that need to go right in order to keep winning.
It does not matter if Bradley's unwavering support for players throughout their struggles doesn't help the right ones (the players most likely to need coddling don't have to worry about being substituted).
Nor does it matter that the paparazzi does a better job of following James Van Der Beek 10 years after he was relevant than Ricardo Clark does covering his man.
And there is no way he pulls off one of his star players, even if he is exhausted or having a bad day.
While Bradley claims it's extraordinarily difficult for him to decide on form or function, in reality, it isn't. He'll go with what worked in the game versus England—not that he should do anything different.
The team did tie England. They have all earned another shot.
Unfortunately, that team didn't produce much offense. The United States does not need to control the game for 90 minutes, but it does need to have bursts of possession and remain dangerous offensively.
Opposing defenders need to be wary of the speed and strength of Altidore and company. Donovan has to make incisive runs, and the team needs to have some success on their set pieces.
The starting 11 was hard pressed to do much of any of the aforementioned actions against England. It's fine for the first match of the group stage, but if the United States advances in the tournament, will England be the best team they face? It's unlikely. At some point, the team will be required to do more against an opponent equal to England.
For Bradley his most difficult decision will not be the actual lineup, the formation or tactics but making any change at all (and in a timely manner).
When that time comes, American fans better hope Bradley opts for function over form if the latter can't get the win.
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