This is the second in a four-part series looking at the future of the U.S. Men's National Soccer Team. Read Part I—Defense here, Part III—Forwards here, Part IV—The Big Picture here, or visit World Football Daily, Man Cave Sports, and Hammy End for more of the author's work.
Before the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Michael Bradley was coasting on the outskirts of international footballing prestige.
Funny how things change.
Bradley's performance in South Africa has rocketed him to the top of just about any list of top, young midfielders in the world. Just four years ago, he wasn't even in the conversation of top American midfielders, yet now he is one of the most coveted box-to-box players on the planet.
Of the changes certain to be made from this year's squad to the future 2014 squad, the midfield should see the easiest transition, built around the 22-year-old Bradley as well as a mixture of both young guns and experienced veterans.
The difficulty with discussing midfielders comes when you consider just how many formations there are and just how many roles a midfielder can be asked to play.
To simplify, I've divided the players into two categories. First are your traditional "box-to-box" guys—classic central midfielders like Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mark Van Bommel who are comfortable both holding and getting forward, but would never feature as true trequartistas.
The second division is for "attacking" mids, offensive-minded, advanced players who could play just behind the forwards—think Mesut Ozil and Wesley Sneijder—or on the wings, ala Arjen Robben and Thomas Muller.
Let's start with the central midfielders.
"Box-To-Box" Central Midfielders
Just 22 years old, Bradley turned in a magnificent quarter of performances for the U.S., grading out among the top players in the Cup in terms of Castrol Index—a measure of player performance analyzed by FIFA, which Bradley earned an 8.94 out of a possible 10.
More impressive, perhaps, is the distance Bradley covered in just four games: 51.69 km, which by itself is 11th-best in the Cup (mind you, the only players he trails have played at least one game more than him), while his 12.99 km per game bests any other player in the tournament.
That motor will be crucial in driving the U.S. midfield for the future, and Bradley is sure to be a fixture there.
What will be interesting to see, however, is where Bradley slots in for the U.S. in the future. Will his 26-year-old legs produce as much mileage as his 22-year-old legs? If so, he could maintain that box-to-box presence in the mold of a Schweinsteiger, but he is capable of playing a holding midfield role, as well.
I imagine he'll continue in the role which he so thrived in this summer, and Bradley is most effective in this role when he has a complementary holding midfielder. Ricardo Clark has been the main player in this role for the last two years, but his struggles in South Africa may have sealed his fate behind other players, and he will be 31 by the time the next Cup rolls around.
Maurice Edu, however, stepped in admirably for the struggling Clark. Edu has a calmness and strength on the ball that Clark lacks, and his play week in and out for Rangers indicates that he's the perfect companion for the roaming Bradley.
Edu is comfortable as the deep-lying midfielder sitting just in front of the defense, a position which allows Bradley to venture forward without having to worry about overrunning the play.
Clark's struggles, namely ball control and spatial awareness, are in fact Edu's strengths, and he's just as adept at breaking up play and winning aerial battles.
Perhaps the best thing about Edu—his age. Just 24 years old, he has a good five or six seasons left in his prime, so he and Bradley have plenty of time to acquaint in the coming years and gel into a real tandem.
Another name that has floated around the U.S. Soccer rumor mill is Jermaine Jones. Jones is one of the best defensive mids in the Bundesliga for Schalke, but he has yet to feature for the U.S. due to injuries. A dual German-American citizen, he has featured for the German national team in non-FIFA friendlies, but retains his eligibility for the U.S. thanks to FIFA regulations.
But, like Clark, age will be a problem, and at 28, his window to feature is shrinking daily. I wouldn't mind seeing Jones start at the Gold Cup in 2011, however, and he could be an answer at center back, as well.
Looking at the youth side of things, Amobi Okugu of the Philadelphia Union has a bright future in the U.S. system as well. Okugu was Pac-10 Freshman of the Year for UCLA and was selected sixth overall in the 2010 MLS draft after just one collegiate season. He's a veteran of the U.S. youth systems, and though he was absent from the recent Milk Cup, he's another to keep an eye on.
Now, before we move on to the attacking midfielders, let's remember something crucial we learned from this Cup. From a tactical perspective, the U.S. showed something special against Slovenia, Algeria, and Ghana—the ability to play effective possession football with three central midfielders.
The most successful formation in international football today, 4-2-3-1 (implemented by Spain, the Netherlands, and Germany), utilizes three center mids, and going forward, the U.S. should look to this formation, or other variations of the 4-3-3, as a possibility.
With that said, there could be a third slot for a starting central midfielder. This time around, it was Benny Feilhaber who came on and played a very narrow left wing—essentially a third CM. Feilhaber was good, but while he was an upgrade from the empty bucket 4-4-2, he wasn't great.
Feilhaber is only 25, so he's still in that frame of age to be a possible starter in Brazil at the 2014 World Cup. He can play any position in the midfield which the 4-2-3-1 calls for, but for a player who is supposed to excel at passing, he's not exceptional, completing only 63 percent of his attempted passes at the Cup.
If Bradley, a runner/roamer, and Edu, a holder/defender, are going to be tripled up with a third central midfielder, it needs to be a sharp passer, a breaker-down of defenses, a threader with patience and possessing skill.
In that case, Jose Francisco Torres is the man. While many felt he struggled in his start against Slovenia, Torres actually completed 83 percent of his passes—on a bad night. At his best, Torres is a passer of pinpoint accuracy, and he understands where to put the ball as well. He doesn't offer a whole lot in front of net, but if Edu is covering and Bradley is charging, he won't be asked to do anything but slide in through-balls.
Torres showed just how green he is against Slovenia, though. He'll need a few more seasons to fully develop, but I think he's a real bright spot for the future.
But, as always, the starters will probably change from game to game. Very few countries, if any, have the same eleven starters throughout qualification or even throughout a single tournament. It's about depth, and fortunately, the U.S. have that in all midfield positions, the central midfield not excluded.
For the sake of this article, then, I'll select three central midfielders (and three attacking mids later) so as to take into account different formations or strategic selections.
2011 Gold Cup starters: Bradley, Edu, Feilhaber
2013 Confederations Cup starters: Bradley, Edu, Torres
2014 World Cup starters: Bradley, Edu, Torres
For the last four years, the two attacking midfield positions (the outside midfielders of the U.S. 4-4-2) have been virtually set in stone. Unless called up top, Clint Dempsey lined up on the left wing with Landon Donovan his opposite.
No one can argue with the selections. The two are the most prominent players on the national team, with Donovan as its all-time leading scorer and Dempsey as its best performer at the club level. Both have excelled at the international level as well, with Dempsey netting the Bronze Ball Award in the 2009 Confederations Cup and Donovan scoring three times and displaying one of the best World Cup performances of any American player ever.
But there's one problem: Donovan is 28 years old, and Dempsey is 27. They will certainly feature in the Gold Cup next summer, and while they very well could find their way into the 2014 World Cup squad, they will have four more years of tread on their tires.
Just look at this year's squad for a reference point. The oldest outfield players on the squad, Steve Cherundolo and Carlos Bocanegra, were each 31, and the only players older than them, Tim Howard (32) and Marcus Hahnemann (38 on June 15), are keepers.
Thus, age will be an issue for both. If they can stay relatively healthy, perhaps they will still have enough gas in the tank to feature prominently. Dempsey is more likely than Donovan thanks to a) his age and b) his style of play.
Donovan is a speed player, notching a top speed of 30.31 kmh (one of the best rates at the Cup), but that number is likely to drop as he ages. Dempsey, on the other hand, relies more on strength and dribbling ability, skills that, if anything, improve with age.
But Donovan, as we know, has a motor and a heart that can overcome even Father Time. I expect he'll remain the right-sided midfielder for the U.S. through Brazil 2014, and the only ways he doesn't stay there are injury or position change. I could see him moving to a more central role or even up top if the U.S. changes their tactics.
Same goes for Dempsey. It depends on the strategy and manager of the future, but he'll be starting somewhere in this cycle.
As potent of a duo as they are, Donovan and Dempsey won't start every game on the wings. For one, both could thrive in central roles or as forwards.
Donovan is probably the better option centrally and does play like a true No. 10, but I can't see the U.S. deploying a lone forward yet, so his skill is better off on the outside. As for Dempsey, he often plays his best ball as a forward, and he may age better up top than out wide.
If either moves positions in the 4-4-2, or if the U.S. jump aboard the 4-2-3-1 bandwagon, there are a variety of names that could feature in advanced attacking roles with Dempsey and Donovan.
Of names mentioned already, Feilhaber's versatility could allow him to play in an advanced role, more likely in a central place. However, as I alluded to earlier, Feilhaber's versatility is as much vice as virtue. While he does a lot of things well, he doesn't do any one thing excellently, as I'm not sure how much he'll feature in this cycle.
Torres could also play an advanced attacking role, but he doesn't have much experience there. For club side Pachuca, he played a deep-lying playmaking role. Advancing him too far might take away his strengths with little gain. DaMarcus Beasley already seems too old, so that's all the mention I'll give him.
The brightest talent ready to step into a more prominent role for the U.S.M.N.T. might be Stuart Holden. Like Feilhaber, Holden is versatile enough to play on either wing or in the center of midfield. He's young enough (24) to be a factor in the next World Cup, and he offers better service and speed than Feilhaber does.
Holden's play in the last year since a great 2009 Gold Cup has been good enough for Premiership side Bolton Wanderers to sign him for the 2010-11 EPL campaign, and if he can find a place in the first team consistently, he might find a way into the starting 11 for the national team as well.
To keep this article from reaching David Foster Wallace levels of prolixity, I'll just list the last few names by location of play.
There are MLS guys: Sam Cronin, Eddie Gaven, Robbie Rogers, and Luis Gil (pay close attention to this 16-year-old at Real Salt Lake).
There are players who could play for multiple countries: Andy Najar, Michael Hoyos, and Mikkel Diskerud.
There is the next generation of young stars currently training for non-domestic clubs: Lester Dewee, Charles Renken, Jared Jeffrey, Joseph Gyua, Will Packwood, Erik Benjaminsen, and Sebastian Lletget. Of these, Lletget is my nod as a future star for the national side.
Finally, there are players on the brink of this year's squad who are plying their trade outside of the country: Alejandro Bedoya, Sacha Kleijstan, and the ever-controversial Freddy Adu.
One of the most interesting stories in this next international cycle will be Freddy Adu. Will he ever get it together? Can he still be an asset for the U.S.M.N.T.? Maybe there's a place for him in the midfield or as a second striker, but Freddy has as long a road to the top as any of these other names—maybe even longer.
2011 Gold Cup starters: Donovan, Dempsey, Holden
2013 Confederations Cup starters: Donovan, Holden, Lletget
2014 World Cup starters: Donovan, Holden, Lletget
Before you explode with venomous outrage, chalk up Dempsey's absence to positional change—but you'll have to check out Part III for more on that.