United States Men's National Team's Developing Storylines
Since the October friendlies are over and the players have returned to their club teams, it's a quiet time for the U.S. Men's National Team.
Which is why it's a good time to be a fan, as all one can do is speculate and deliberate.
So what follows are a couple of storylines that may or may not take center stage as the next friendly approaches against South Africa, on their turf, on November 17th.
The Midfield Question
Jermaine Jones' emergence as a viable center midfielder adds even more intrigue to an already crowded midfield player pool.
The only problem is the similarity with so many of the players, and it couldn't have been more evident than during the Colombia friendly.
Maurice Edu, Michael Bradley, and Jermaine Jones all stood next to each other, all reluctant to push forward, all wanting to be the first pass from the defense to the offensive line.
Edu and Bradley already struggle to avoid each other's role in the midfield, but now that Jones has been added to the mix, it's become overkill.
And even when one of the three ventured forward, he inevitably ran into a centrally drifting Stuart Holden, or later in the game, a in-cutting Clint Dempsey and Benny Feilhaber.
Considering Landon Donovan's ability to run inside as well, whoever ends up playing in the midfield will have to make a conscious effort to recognize spacing and width (something they should be doing anyway).
But seeing that the team struggled with these concepts in the Columbia friendly, and that the player pool has few true outside midfielders challenging for a starting position, how the team handles its recent penchant for overplaying in the middle of the pitch will be a continuing concern.
Still, Jones added a new dimension to this team. His ability to drop a long ball onto the foot of another player demonstrated the level of skill necessary to succeed at the international level. There is a difference between playing a ball near a player and passing it to him, and it usually ends up being the difference between an offensive opportunity and playing defense for 80 percent of a game.
The same could be said for his defensive acumen.
Jones didn't need to slide, make a diving tackle at the last minute because he was out of position, or run full speed for an entire game to make up for his lack of positioning. He was aggressive, won most of his challenges cleanly, and was a buffer in front of the center backs.
Usually, a challenger to the starting eleven develops over time, but Jones may usurp the midfield order and change the team's dynamic.
However, since Jones seems to be injury prone (the most recent report is torn ligaments in his ankle and an undecided return schedule) and in his thirties, it is doubtful that he will be a regular contributor, but if he can pass on his knowledge and lead through example, then his inclusion can only be beneficial.
And if Stuart Holden continues to get playing time at Bolton, Dempsey keeps scoring at Fulham, Landon Donovan remains productive, Benny Feilhaber succeeds (albeit against questionable opponents), and Maurice Edu gains experience in Scotland, there'll be an argument for or against starting any combination in the midfield.
This still isn't even considering wing play. Granted, no young talent has developed to be included in the starting 11, but at some point, wingers will be needed. Will they come out of the midfield, or will Bradley be forced to change the team's formation to gain width?
Answers as to what is best for the midfield (which usually ends up best for the team since the forwards can't seem to score, and the defense is in a state of flux) may determine whether this team succeeds or fails.
Out with the Old Defenders, in with the New...Sort of
One question was answered over the October friendlies: Steve Cherundolo will play right back until he can't do it anymore, and then Eric Lichaj will take over.
The right back's debut was more than adequate. If, at a young age, he can already handle a mediocre Colombia team, then he has the potential to become the heir apparent on the right flank.
What may be a more pressing question is just how serious is Jonathan Spector's downward spiral?
Spector hasn't had a strong performance for a while now, and being beaten repeatedly by his Colombian mark isn't helping matters. Is this an Eddie Johnson/Freddy Adu-like drop in performance, or will he rebound? He's young, like the other aforementioned players, but there are no signs of improvement.
Will he be in national team consideration in a year? Who knows?
Michael Parkhurst, Clarence Goodson, and Heath Pearce are all familiar names along the back line, but what's changed is Parkhurst and Goodson's calm and control compared to the Onyewu/Goodson partnership.
Over two friendlies, Oguchi Onyewu looked like the 2007 version, well before his memorable Gold Cup display: a step slow, clumsy, and out of place.
The fact that an undersized Parkhurst and inexperienced Goodson remedied a shaky first half begs the question as to whether Onyewu had a good run of form and what fans have seen over two games is who Onyewu really is, or if lack of playing time and rehabilitation from an injury are the real cause of his below-average performances.
And if the poor displays continue, should he continue to be included?
Bradley, loyal as always, seems to think so, but with Goodson continuing to progress and pressure coming from up-and-comers like Omar Gonzalez, Onyewu needs to turn things around sooner.
The left back position remains a mystery. The answer isn't the inconsistent Pearce or Bradley's favorite Bornstein. Where will the answer come from? And when? The four year search continues.
Tactics: Too Much Offense or Too Little
Bradley's tactical attempts left analysts and fans foaming at the mouth.
In two games, the U.S. coach has tried both a 4-5-1 and a 4-3-3, not to mention his conventional 4-4-2 and the same formation with interchangeable pieces.
Inevitably, any formation must take on the responsibilities of a more conventional look, but the different alignments suggest different emphasis.
The 4-5-1 predicated ball control and midfield dominance against Poland, but with so many centrally or vertically focused parts, Poland's more talented wingers were largely free to roam the sidelines, sparking counterattacks and adding numbers to their attacks.
Which formation should the U.S. play?
Still, the U.S. was able to respond in kind with offensive numbers and a decent amount of possession (you can't win if you can't score, right?), and the formation was able to accommodate America's most talented players, since most of them play in the midfield.
Considered a disaster by most, the 4-3-3, at least on paper, appeared to be a smart choice, as the team's three best midfielders could be on the field at the same time, protect the defense, free up the offense from some of their defensive duties, and hopefully shut down their opponents' wing play.
Unfortunately, what works on paper doesn't always work in reality. The formation encouraged the U.S.'s poor defensive habits; in particular, the midfield was apt to drop into a shell-like formation, essentially negating all attempts at high-pressure, aggressive defense.
Also, the tactics left the team with only three offensive weapons. Not a strong choice for a team with few offensive superstars.
Ironically, all the reasons the 4-3-3 worked for Uruguay are the reasons for the system's failure for the U.S.
Uruguay has two elite attackers.
Diego Forlan was able to track back in order to receive passes from the defense, allowing him to create plays on his own and support the rest of the attack.
Will Bob Bradley figure out what's best for his team?
Luis Suarez is a talented, young striker that is always dangerous on the ball. Add an overly aggressive defense, willing to pressure and disrupt any attack, and the 4-3-3 works.
Nothing from the U.S. mirrored Uruguay's game plan.
The formation might have worked if Dempsey and Donovan were there to support Altidore.
But with Brek Shea on his debut and Holden on the other side, it wasn't the right choice for what Bradley wanted to accomplish. Maybe Bradley will give it another shot with different players in the future (highly unlikely based upon Bradley's past experiences with experimental formations. If it fails, he tables it. See 2009 away friendly against Costa Rica).
The flaws in the differing formations hint at personnel problems. Can the players that are most likely to play for the U.S. adapt to what the tactics demand?
How fast will they adapt? How much time do they have to adapt? Does the team have the necessary components to employ the new tactics?
A key factor in finding out if the team can progress will be it's ability to control the wings.
If the team can't get service from the outside midfielders (highly unlikely as there are few youngsters making international waves), then support will need to come from the outside backs, and this may be just as unlikely, especially on the left side of the field, and if Cherundolo and Lichaj are forced to cover for mistakes in the center of the defense, the sidelines may belong to the opposition.
Brazil's dismantling of the U.S. in August, in large part through their flank attack, may be a portent of more to come.
But it's not like this is new. Brazil did the same in the final game of the Confederations Cup.
How the U.S. addresses issues of space and width will be an ongoing concern.
Personally, I believe that the U.S. should look to embrace the central inclinations of its most talented players, force the outside backs to join the attack, press on defense to make up for it, trust the defensive midfield depth to cover the center of the defense, and get as many attackers forward as possible.
It will be interesting to see what Bradley does and which players will be around to give it a shot.
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