USMNT Midfield Talent Surplus More of a Curse Than Boon
Now that the coaching situation has been decided—for better or worse—the U.S. national team can turn its attention to development, progression, and preparation for its 2014 World Cup Qualification Cycle.
Particular attention will be paid to which players are improving, which 2010 holdovers will continue to contribute, let alone hold starting positions, and where controversy and conflict abound in the coach's selection.
For the most part, there's not enough depth in the U.S. player pool for a tremendous amount of controversy. One viewing of the Brazil friendly reveals the dramatic drop-off between the talent of the United States' first eleven and the rest of the team.
But like the glut of top goalkeeper talent ten years ago (Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel, a young Tim Howard), the current team is rife with midfield potential and anemic at most of the other field positions.
Bradley's biggest challenge may be how to utilize his depth without leaving any key elements out of his lineup.
And these decisions might get more difficult as the qualification cycle gets started.
The lack of American players transferred to European clubs could be the first sign that roster spots might not be as solid as they were going into South Africa.
The summer's tournament was supposed to be the coming out party for Michael Bradley, but despite a strong performance, there was little interest from bigger clubs. Perhaps Borussia Monchengladbach downplayed interest in their player. However, more than a few analysts predicted Bradley would have his choice of teams at the end of the summer.
Part of the problem may have been the American's midfield woes. Bradley never seemed comfortable with any of his possible partners. There was never really a midfield game other than defend, defend, defend.
When managers are considering players, especially the elite clubs, they have to ask, what will he add to my team?
In Bradley's case, he didn't give much of an indication. Sure he can run all game, and he may score a timely goal, but that's not a definitive answer. For top teams, they have players who can score, and they all need to be fit.
With all the problems in the center of the midfield, Bradley didn't give managers enough of an indication of what he can add that the likes of Chelsea, Barcelona, and even Bayern Munich don't already have.
While Michael Bradley probably has little to worry about concerning his role with the national team (he captained the U.S. in the Brazil friendly), if the center midfield can't work out its problems, at some point fans will ask what part Michael Bradley has in the matter—since he's the spark the midfield's built around, it may be more than people realize.
Still, the holding midfield role remains the U.S.'s biggest question mark.
Beyond chemistry issues or lack thereof with Michael Bradley, the United States can't seem to find a player or two that can put his stamp on the position. If the U.S. can't find a player able to defend the back-line and distribute the ball, then Michael Bradley can't be free to support the offense.
Here's a short list of players that can or have played in the center opposite Bradley:
Players that have seen a decent amount of national team time: Maurice Edu, Ricardo Clark, Kyle Beckerman, Sacha Kljestan, Benny Feilhaber, Stuart Holden, and Jose Torres.
Players that have the potential to see national team time in the near future: Brad Davis, Brad Evans, Dax McCarty, Jermaine Jones, and Jeff Lawrentowicz.
This is only a brief list and only contains players that are officially marked as part of U.S. Soccer's Player Pool. A number of them can play other positions, like Feilhaber, Holden, and Torres, but the point remains, there's one spot for twelve players, and I haven't included any players currently under the radar.
Most of these athletes can handle themselves in regionals and qualifiers, which is the first step, but few of these players have been able to make the leap in play necessary to compete against elite opposition.
When, who, and how these players find time time to develop will be one of the biggest challenges facing Bob Bradley.
The decisions becomes even more difficult as the domestic players, or those that have only recently left the MLS, seem quite similar to one another. It takes a while for these players to get comfortable and discover their role on the team. Without playing time, they may never.
As long as Michael Bradley remains America's top midfielder, there will only be one spot available during competitive matches (Let's be honest, while CONCACAF teams have improved, it's not at the levels most European teams experience, and the level of play in international friendlies vary with the timing, team, and availability due to club conflicts), so possibilities to gain experience and impress remain limited.
It's no better on the wings.
Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan appear to have these positions locked down. They leave little room for others, which is why players that may be able to add something to the team can't get time on the field.
It's an easy refutation to say that the players would get time if they were better than Donovan and Dempsey—which, at face value, is true—but considering the dearth of talent at other positions on the field, it's frustrating to see a number of talented players wasting away on the bench.
Benny Feilhaber was the big name thrown around after the World Cup. Many analysts claimed he should have gotten more time on the field.
He probably should have.
But who should sit instead? Bradley? A holding midfielder? Feilhaber isn't the standard for defensive play. Dempsey or Donovan? Hardly.
This issue will be one of the toughest facing Bradley for the next two years.
American fans may find it difficult to accept that the U.S. can't field its best players because most of them all play the same position.
And it should be one of Bradley's goals to figure out a way to get as many of these players as possible onto the field.
The lack of goals also affects the midfield. If forwards can't hold the ball up, score goals, retain possession (i.e. play their position), then Bradley has little incentive in adding another midfielder in exchange for a forward (This may be counter-intuitive, but if the forwards can't score, why have two on the field?).
Still, there's hope for change. Bob Bradley needs to infuse the team with a freshness in order to avoid a slump in team performance; he must change something.
The current changes in the game are forcing teams to tweak a normal 4-4-2 formation, and Bradley has a number of first-team players that can play multiple positions (See Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Stuart Holden, Benny Feilhaber, and Jose Torres for examples of players with flexibility).
There are ways to get more midfielders on the field unlike some other teams.
Bradley has room to experiment, but he'll have to let go of his caution and avoid his tendency to fall back on the orthodox in order to remedy this situation.
From the final whistle of the Ghana loss this summer, the task of re-tooling the U.S. squad for 2014 was going to be difficult. An aging defense needs to be replaced. Forwards must move beyond supporting players and, frankly, score goals.
But, the fact that most of the most talented U.S. players play the same positions may be the most underrated challenge facing this team.
Thankfully though, necessity forces change.
Maybe a few of these players will move into forward roles (Dempsey and Donovan), and maybe a few will move backwards to fill defensive holes akin to the later career moves of Roy Keane and Lothar Matthaus.
In any case, Bob Bradley has four short years to figure it out or his second term won't be much different than the second phase of most international managers.
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