US Men's National Team: 5 Things We Learned from Argentina and Paraguay
The United States just finished off their second of two friendlies for the March international break. They tied Argentina 1-1 with a very solid result, although not necessarily an excellent performance. But then they lost to Paraguay in an unfortunate result but a decent enough performance.
These friendlies served two main purposes. First, to allow Bob Bradley to get a general idea of the players he will be selecting for this summer's CONCACAF Gold Cup. Second, to provide the United States "A" team with some challenging competition.
The US continued their tradition of playing tough teams in friendlies, with Argentina being one of the top teams in the world right now, and Paraguay being roughly equal in standing and ability with the US team.
Over these two games, certain staples of the American national team faltered, and some young players cemented their spots as Team USA members.
Here are five things that we can learn from the USA's performance on Saturday and Tuesday nights.
1. Bob Bradley IS Willing to Experiment....a Bit
United States head coach Bob Bradley has taken some flak during his tenure as coach for sticking with the same old 4-4-2 over again. Additionally, he has also been criticized for relying on the same general collective of veteran players.
Bradley has definitely been slow to try out new tactics, at least before the 2010 World Cup. Having said that, since then, Bradley has tried a number of different formations. Though he used a 4-4-2 against Brazil, Bradley fielded a team playing a 4-3-3 formation against South Africa (a team almost totally devoid of players who Bradley who had been criticized for relying on) and against Poland the US played what is best described as a 4-2-3-1.
In the past, Bradley has rightfully been panned for choosing the same players over and over again.
This applies only to certain, less skillful players who Bradley relies on, and not players like Landon Donovan or Tim Howard.
Take, for example, Ricardo Clark. Despite an occasional performance, Clark played badly for the USA over and over again and yet was selected over and over again by Papa Bradley. Clark's fatal error that lost the USA-Ghana game for the Americans finally ended Bradley's fixation, but not without torpedo-ing the team's World Cup run.
On Saturday night against Argentina, Coach Sweatpants decided to go with another new formation, the 4-5-1. While it was a new formation, the team still played the defensive minded, counterattacking football that Mr. Sweatpants likes.
In the second half, looking to push back against Argentina after absorbing their blows for a half, the formation was switched to a 4-2-2-2.
But then, after actually trying out some different techniques, Coach Bradley brought the 4-4-2 back against Paraguay. I'm not saying it's a bad formation, and the US competed well against Paraguay, but it was a return to the old for Bradley which isn't necessarily bad.
But when it comes to his oft-maligned player selection, Bradley has definitely started to experiment more.
He's been consistently bringing in exciting young players such as Eric Lichaj and Juan Agudelo into camps and capping them more than once. In fact, Bradley deciding to put Agudelo in against Argentina may have found him a new starting striker, which brings us to the next thing we learned.
2. Juan Agudelo Is One of America's Top Strikers (Or at Least Will Be)
What do the only American striker who scored in South Africa (but not in the World Cup) and the player who equalized against Argentina have in common?
Actually, they have many things in common. Especially because "they" is really one, and that one is Juan Agudelo.
Agudelo, displaying great mental ability, squeaked in a goal against the Argies off of a freekick turned rebound. Throughout his time in the game, Agudelo was making challenging forward runs and doing what he needed to do.
Agudelo showed many aspects of his game during the past two friendlies that many other promising young strikers (Altidore comes to mind) have struggled with.
That aspect of the match was definitely a highlight for American fans, and it introduced them to the next great American striking prospect.
Unfortunately, many of the former next great American strikers have, for lack of a better term, fizzled out. I point your attention to Eddie Johnson and, a man who some in the blogosphere were praising for his goal-scoring ability pre-World Cup, Robbie Findley.
But, this poses a bit of a problem for Jozy Altidore...
3. Jozy Altidore Is No Longer the Default No. 1 Striker
Ohhh Jozy. How I once loved thee. I was probably one of Jozy's top supporters before, during and after the World Cup.
"Don't worry," I said, "he's going to get his touch under control" after his World Cup performance.
I tried to herald him as "America's Emilie Heskey" after the World Cup, on account of the fact that he didn't score any goals but helped to set up some opportunities.
Well, he's not that. Although, he could prove a good target man to Agudelo's poacher. An Altidore-Agudelo pairing could be very effective. Agudelo has the attacking edge that Jozy struggles to hold on to, and Jozy has the size and strength.
Despite his disappointing World Cup, he remained America's No. 1 striker. Charlie Davies was unfit, Agudelo was thought to be too young, and Edson Buddle hadn't been what Bob Bradley expected.
Now, Agudelo is proving himself on the international stage, and Davies scored a brace in his debut for D.C. United, where he is currently on loan.
Jozy is no longer the automatic No. 1, and now he's a young striker with great athleticism and strength who really needs to polish his craft.
The raw talent is there, but he's still just that: raw.
4. The Midfield is Still In Flux
Before I say this, let me say I think Michael Bradley is a phenomenal young midfielder, and I'm a big fan.
That said, the midfield really failed to gel against Paraguay. Michael Bradley was needed to guide the team's attacking movements and create chances.
Instead, he fell back into a bad habit of the US Men's team, he tried to force it. The patented "kick it as hard as you can down the field" move didn't work so well for 'ol MB90 last night. That said, Bradley's shot towards the end of the game was maybe the USA's best chance of the night. Too bad it was saved.
Maurice Edu, the Rangers man, was pretty humdrum against the Paraguayans. Just an all around lousy performance. Keep your chin up, Maurice, and try again next time.
Against Argentina the midfield struggled as well. Coach Bob started the game with Jermaine Jones, Bradley, and Edu up top as an attacking midfielder. Mr. Sweatpants was aiming for a defensive effort, but Lionel Messi stymied the midfield quite well.
Jones only played the first half, and he didn't do too well either. For a man whose move to the US squad was so hyped, Jones has struggled to perform for his adopted country.
The second half was a better performance, with Bradley making some nice defensive moves but also committing a few mental errors, as well. One must remember, when judging Michael Bradley's game, that he has not been receiving too much playing time at Aston Villa, where he is on loan.
Now, perhaps if Stu Holden had been fit for this game, things would be different. Holden's ability at creating attacking movements, on such great display at Bolton, would have helped the USA in a big way. Sadly, Holden will be injured through the Gold Cup, so he will have to wait to serve his country.
There are a few other prospects that Bradley has to play in midfield, such as Mix Diskerud or Brek Shea (both young and talented players).
But he also needs to find a working mix for Jones, Edu, and Bradley. Though stylistically a bit similar, I believe that they are all solid assets. Maybe you don't play them on the field at the same time, maybe you play Bradley and Jones or Bradley and Edu, plus a third, more attacking-minded, midfielder. There are many possibilities, and I'm sure Coach Bradley will be trying out new combinations.
There Is Hope for the Defense
The worst part of the 2010 World Cup, for me, was the fact that the United States gave up more goals to attacks that went through their center defense than to attacks that started from the wings and moved in. The central defense was lacking, and Oguchi Onyewu was definitely not the same as he was pre-injury.
Onyewu may never be the same. Though he had a good moment defending Lionel Messi one-on-one, he still isn't playing at the same level he was before the injury. Now at FC Twente in Holland, Onyewu is being played mostly as a left back now for his club. Despite this, he started at center back against Argentina and, with the exception of the aforementioned Messi moment, disappointed.
But there is hope.
Jay DeMerit, the grizzled veteran of the defense, played admirably against Argentina and Paraguay. He is most likely the man who will marshal the defense going forward. But yet, there is even more hope in the defense.
Hope for change, that is. Change from a shoddy defense to a sound one.
The man who can bring about that change is Timmy Chandler. Chandler, a right back playing for Bundesliga side FC Nuremberg, has come out of nowhere to become one of the most promising American youngsters.
Although he is not American by birth, he was borne to Americans in Germany, and has declared (and now has been capped) for the United States. Chandler was sublime against Paraguay as he played well both in defense and attack. He moved the ball around well and was a genuine surprise.
This means that the Vice President of hope is Tim Ream.
Ream will be the man who replaces Onyewu's spot in defense and forms a partnership with Jay DeMerit. Already an established player for the New York Red Bulls in the MLS, Ream is starting to make a place for himself on the international level.
The final defensive prospect that played during the friendlies, Eric Lichaj, is (by a cruel twist of fate) also a right back. I suppose the depth cannot hurt, but I'm a little sad that the United States cannot have a talented young left back as well.
Lichaj plays for Aston Villa in the English Premier League, and when given a chance, has defended competently for the Villains. He has shut down fine players such as Tottenham's Gareth Bale, and played well for the US against South Africa.
Perhaps a new era can be dawning for the US in defense, as Bocanegra and Cherundolo near the twilight of their careers. Time will tell.
One final note: I did not add a slide about Tim Howard establishing himself as an elite goal keeper, because he already is. We did not learn that, because we already knew that. Kudos to Howard for a fantastic show against Argentina.