World Cup 2010: Michael Bradley's Central Partnership Will Decide USA's Fate

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World Cup 2010: Michael Bradley's Central Partnership Will Decide USA's Fate
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

There's a bald-headed presence in recent U.S. matches. He's a blur of almost-white on white. It's as if he's everywhere at once.

He has the ball. He's making a tackle. He's committing a foul. He's yelling instructions, scoring goals, and exuding passion.

Of course, it's Michael Bradley.

A perennial fixture since his father Bob Bradley took control of the national team, he's gone from the woodshed labeled "nepotism" into a deserved role in the starting XI.

Even if his father would not have been the national team coach, in all likelihood Michael Bradley would have made it into the senior team.

He's worked his way through the youth ranks, and after his performances for the U-23 national team, it was almost an inevitability that he would one day be playing for the men's side.

Yes, his father's association with professional clubs exposed Michael to a level of soccer and possibilities only offered to a select few of American's young talent. But with his penchant for timely goals, his ability to go full speed for 90 minutes, and his endless drive, he's earned his spot.

Now, as a number of people have predicted, he's having his breakout World Cup.

Bradley has been arguably the most consistent player for the U.S. in South Africa, and with his timely goal against Slovenia he's kept America's hopes of moving on to round two alive.

There's also a good chance his performance is keeping his father up at night.

It's not because of the way his son is playing though.

It's because no one can seem to play with Michael Bradley...an ongoing storyline since the beginning of America's qualification cycle.

The problem lies in Bradley's ability to do a little of everything. In an era of specialization, he is the anomaly. Without a complimentary midfielder as well-rounded as him, the game gets difficult for the Americans.

This is a two-fold issue.

First, if a part of Bradley's game is lacking (most commonly it's his distribution, but that hasn't been a problem so far in the tournament), it better be his partner's specialty, or there's going to be something missing in the U.S.'s play.

Say possession was a problem in the previous match. For the next game, Benny Feilhaber (a player with strong dribbling skills) is partnered alongside Bradley. However, Michael Bradley doesn't struggle with his possession this time. Instead, the team ends up not being able to transition quickly on the counter.

Well, Feilhaber has been selected to shore up possession and not focus on transition, and thus the team struggles.

This ever-changing issue in the central midfield has prevented Bob Bradley from developing the right partnership in the middle for his team.

Secondly, Michael Bradley's defensive positioning is a problem. A few analysts have commented on the team's problematic spacing. It's a complicated issue, but it centers around Bradley.

The defense plays deep—extremely deep. This is a strategy implemented by the coaching staff. The team doesn't press much in the opposition's half, usually waiting until their opponents reach half field before defending.

Well, Michael Bradley doesn't play a defensive position.

He runs to shut down players, makes tackles in space (at one time the worst possible tackles, but over this past club season, he has refined his game), and supports his teammates in defending skilled individuals.

At times, Bradley's free role leaves space. Be it a lack of anticipation, too much space to cover, a misunderstanding, or missing chemistry, opposing players sneak into spaces previously unavailable as soon as Bradley moves.

This is when the problems arise.

Whether it is a cause of the minimal opportunities to forge an understanding with a partner or a deep lying defense that can't cover space fast enough (it's more than likely a combination of both),  whatever the reason the flaws in the American defense create openings somewhere between 20-40 yards away from goal. These situations end up becoming dangerous opportunities for America's opponents.

Initially, the defense reacted by staying put when opposing players got into space.

But long range goals ended that type of decision making. This goal by Italy's Giuseppi Rossi is a great example.

The ball is given up in the midfield with only the defense left to defend, and Rossi hits a great long-distance shot.

In the U.S.'s last match against Slovenia, Slovenia's first goal is another example of horrible positioning (excuse the music please).

The U.S. has finally started to adapt and step to the player with the ball. But there are times when that's too far out for a defender to follow without midfield cover. The defense would end up with a large gap in the center of the field.

This can be seen in both the second goal scored by Slovenia and during Steven Gerrard's goal in the England-U.S. game.

In the end, neither approach really works.

The first choice would be to remove Michael Bradley, but few U.S. midfielders have the endurance or ability to score goals that he possesses.

Even more so, Bradley's overall game has improved. Add to it his consistent performances so far in South Africa, and any manager would be hard pressed to keep him on the bench.

Still, there is a solution, and Bob Bradley fell upon it during the second half of the Slovenia game.

Maurice Edu.

The same reasons why the Bradley/Torres partnership in the Slovenia game failed are the same reasons why the Bradley/Edu partnership and the short-lived Torres/Edu pairing have worked well (Jose Torres and Maurice Edu partnered in the first half of the Czech Republic friendly. Notice, it was 1-1 at the end of the first half).

Maurice Edu is a grounded, defensive-minded midfielder. Both Torres and Bradley are not as positionally grounded and do not play as well together.

The same could be said for Benny Feilhaber, Stuart Holden, Clint Dempsey, or Landon Donovan (all players who could see time alongside Bradley).

Bob Bradley explained his decision to play Edu in the second half of the Slovenia game as an elementary choice once he decided the team needed to push. This may seem counter-intuitive. Why put on a defensive midfielder when the team needs to attack?

But that's what Edu allowed the rest of the offense to do. Edu stayed home; he was the anchor both the offense and the defense could revolve around. He freed Bradley from defensive assignments so he could join the attack (which ended up in a goal), and he gave the team time to get back on defense as he slowed the Slovenian transition.

It's a wonder that Bradley hadn't turned to this strategy sooner (clearly he had been considering it based on his comments), since it's the recipe France used to win the World Cup with Zidane and Makelele.

Also, Maradona has been using the same approach with this year's Argentinian squad. Namely, Mascherano and the four defenders support Messi and everyone else. Based on their last result, it's working.

There may be two reasons as to why the elder Bradley did not discover the Bradley/Edu tandem earlier.

One was that Edu was injured and the other was that other players deserved a tryout. There were only a few friendlies to get a look at everyone.

And yet, there's no telling whether or not Bob Bradley will opt for Edu again. He spoke about the Edu substitution as a situational decision. There's a good chance he could choose Clark or Torres again. He said there was nothing wrong with Torres' play, just the wrong person for conditions.

Still, Michael Bradley is the constant condition.

Certainly, there will be a time and place for Torres' passing, Feilhaber's ball control, and Holden's service, but Michael Bradley isn't going anywhere. He will need a counterpart just as constant.

Perhaps Edu should be given that opportunity.

The other option is Ricardo Clark. In many ways he embodies many of the same attributes as Edu, but he has been more likely to fall prey to serious mental lapses—whether it's a poorly timed tackle, a lack of focus and positioning, or the loss of his mark.

Also, he's not as likely to score as Edu.

Like Michael Bradley, Edu has a penchant for scoring scrappy goals inside the eighteen-yard box.

Still, there is a downside to this potential pairing.

Edu did struggle with his distribution, and there are times when Michael Bradley does as well. Also, Bradley tends to be less of a presence if he's having trouble passing and can't push forward.

So what will the U.S. do if both Edu and Bradley struggle with their passing?

Maybe that needs to come from the wings.

Many have called for the positional changes of Dempsey and Donovan, and Bob Bradley seems to feel the same. Even if it's only temporary, he likes to switch the players to give them different options.

The team will live or die based on Donovan and Dempsey's imprint on the game, so maybe put the impetus on them. The Slovenia game has proven that the team reacts positively once Donovan asserts himself. If the team lacks service, distribution, or ball control, why not implement it on the wings?

The majority of Bradley's midfield options can play out wide. Excluding Ricardo Clark, every midfield bench player has been utilized on the sideline, and most have put in serviceable performances when played there.

If Bob Bradley stabilizes the center of his midfield, he could free up the rest of his offense and solidify a defense that has struggled so far.

With the substitution of one player (Maurice Edu), Bob Bradley could put his team in the best position possible both defensively and offensively—something he's struggled to do since he took over this team.

It's interesting that it all comes down to understanding how his son plays.

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