Well, U.S. soccer fans, it’s been a while.
Other than an exhibition game against Brazil that was more exhibition than game, the U.S. haven’t suited up for a competitive game since ungracefully bowing out against Ghana.
A lot has changed since July—in the sense that a lot of change we thought was coming never actually game.
Bob Bradley is on for another four years, Landon Donovan is still playing in MLS, and with Charlie Davies still on the mend, we still don’t have any idea who to play beside Jozy Altidore.
This week, Bradley takes the first steps—albeit very small steps—toward the 2014 World Cup with a pair of friendlies on domestic turf against a couple of decent-but-beatable sides.
First up, Poland, obviously to be played in Chicago.
Let’s look at three keys for the U.S. first, with a brief breakdown of the Poles toward the end, finishing off with some lineup combinations I'd like to see from Bradley.
U.S. Key No. 1: Build Chemistry
Let me first state these games are not about winning. They are about developing the right mix of players going forward, especially building up to next summer’s Gold Cup.
That said, winning is certainly a priority—just not the top one. While a win or loss in either game this week affects the U.S. none in terms of long-term goals, losing matches on home turf to two teams we are simply better than is not ideal.
First and foremost, Bradley must start finding that mix of players, that clicking, sound unit with all eleven men on the same page.
It shouldn’t be too tough of a task, with a strong core of starters from the World Cup returning and likely to carry the load for the next year.
That said, there are some spots to fill, most notably at fullback, center back, and forward.
These games will provide Bradley a chance to try some different things tactically and personnel-wise to try and find the right mix.
U.S. Key No. 2: Find Another Creative Player
Landon Donovan will still be the “quarterback” of this team, if you will, throughout this qualifying cycle. However, due to a chase for the MLS Supporters Shield, Landycakes will not be available this week.
This works to our benefit, however, opening up an additional starting spot in the attack for someone else to (hopefully) flourish in.
Throwing out the guarantees (Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, and probably Maurice Edu and Jozy Altidore, for now), there is room for two more guys in the attack.
With some tactical flexibility at his disposal, Bradley could choose two more attacking midfielders (Stuart Holden, Alejandro Bedoya, and Benny Feilhaber seem the favorites), one attacking mid and a holding mid (Jermaine Jones, anyone?), or a midfielder and another forward (Eddie Johnson).
If it were up to me, I’d go with Holden in the midfield and give E.J. a run out. My reasoning for Johnson is two-fold.
First, I’m not sold on Altidore, yet. I think he’s a great talent and should be a big part of the national team for the next eight to 10 years, but right now, his immaturity and lack of skill make him rather ineffective against top sides.
Is Johnson better? No, but he provides a certain skill set (i.e, he’s crazy fast), and he’s been seeing quality minutes for Fulham (granted, due to injuries, but PT is PT).
Second, for whatever reason, the U.S. seem to fair better against strong sides (Brazil, Spain, etc) in a 4-4-2 or some near relative of that. While I liked what I saw against Algeria and Ghana from a 4-3-2-1 perspective, I’m not sure we can compete against the best without two banks of four in defense, so we need to find another forward unless Davies is back to full fitness and confidence really soon.
U.S. Key No. 3: Develop Depth and Defense
Honestly, if healthy, I really like the starting 11 we can put out on the field to compete against any team in the world.
The versatility of guys like Donovan, Dempsey, and Holden gives us freedom to play in many shapes throughout the game, and in Steve Cherundolo and Carlos Bocanegra, we have experienced, successful defenders playing some of their best soccer (both are starting on club teams at the tops of their European leagues).
But outside of the first 11, maybe 12 players, there’s concern. Moreover, some of those 11 or 12 are getting old, quickly, Cherundolo and Bocanegra especially.
That leaves us with some gaps to fill in defense. Oguchi Onyewu had a shaky World Cup and still hasn’t played any for AC Milan, so it’s anyone’s guess where he’s at mentally and physically. Same goes for Jonathan Spector, who showed how good he can be in the 2009 Confederations Cup and hasn’t done anything of good note since.
Those two have to prove their merits, and with Heath Pearce gone for the Poland game, you could very well see Spector start at left back. It’s likelier Bocanegra will start there, however, but that frees up room in the center for Onyewu and another defender to see quality minutes.
Clarence Goodson seems the early favorite, and his play leading up to the World Cup and for club since supports that favor. He’s big, strong, great in the air, and steady on the ground.
On a personal hunch, however, I’d like to see Jones slot in on defense. He would give the U.S. a skilled passer and savvy ball hawk in the back, something a U.S. defense has never had. Plus, he solves the center back speed issue (as in, we don’t have any) that plagued us throughout the last cycle and killed us against Ghana.
There are other matters Bradley must address, like bringing in youth and finding a go-to formation, but those will be settled later.
Now on to the opponents.
I’ll be honest, I don’t know much about this side. And honestly, it’s not really important to know every nook and cranny of this team.
This match is about what the U.S. can do and dictate on the field. I’d rather see us play to our strengths rather than the opponents’ weakness.
Still, it’s good to know what you are getting into, so with a jot of research we can highlight some key points.
As co-hosts of Euro 2012, the Poles aren’t competition in qualification, so their international preparation for the tournament will be friendlies like these. Clearly then they will come into the game looking for a win.
Jakub Blaszczykowski of Borussia Dortmund, better known as Kuba, is a dangerous winger and the most creative player in the Polish side. If fit, he will likely start on the right side of a 4-3-3, possibly just to the side of Dortmund teammate Robert Lewandowski.
The Polish are very weak at the back. In fact, they will probably start two former strikers at fullback in Luke Piszczek (also of Dortmund) and Łukasz Mierzejewski.
Should Eddie Johnson start, he could run into a familiar face in Michał Żewłakow, who spent the last four seasons in Greece as a defender for Olympiakos. He’s the Polish captain and will likely start in the center of defense.
Head coach Franciszek Smuda has been out of ideas lately with Poland, however, suffering bad losses recently to Cameroon (3-0) and Spain (6-0), so he’ll be looking to try anything and everything against the U.S.
GOALKEEPERS (2): Artur Boruc (AC Fiorentina)Przemyslaw Tobacco (Roda JC Kerkrade)
DEFENDERS (3): Luke Piszczek (Borussia Dortmund), Kamil Glik (Palermo), Michael Żewłakow (Ankaragucu)
MIDFIELDERS (6): Rafal Murawski (Rubin Kazan), Bartosz Salamon (U.S. Foggia), Jakub Blaszczykowski (Borussia Dortmund), Adam Matuszczyk (1 FC Koeln), Ludovic Obraniak (Lille OSC), Radoslaw Majewski (Nottingham Forest)
FORWARDS (2): Robert Lewandowski (Borussia Dortmund), Ireneusz Jelen (AJ Auxerre)
*Only players based internationally have been publically announced by Poland, as far as I can tell from research
DEFENDERS (8): Carlos Bocanegra (Saint-Étienne), Steve Cherundolo (Hannover), Clarence Goodson (IK Start), Eric Lichaj (Aston Villa), Oguchi Onyewu (AC Milan), Michael Parkhurst (FC Nordsjaelland), Heath Pearce (FC Dallas), Jonathan Spector (West Ham United)
MIDFIELDERS (7): Alejandro Bedoya (Örebro), Michael Bradley (Borussia Moenchengladbach), Maurice Edu (Rangers), Benny Feilhaber (Aarhus), Stuart Holden (Bolton Wanderers), Jermaine Jones (FC Schalke), Brek Shea (FC Dallas)
FORWARDS (3): Jozy Altidore (Villarreal), Clint Dempsey (Fulham), Eddie Johnson (Fulham)