In Part I of the US Midfield, I focused on the three locks to start every game for the US (barring injury)—Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and Landon Donovan.
While Bradley should start in the center of midfield with no exceptions, Donovan and Dempsey both provide versatility that gives Coach Bradley a variety of options for his lineup sheet.
Clint can play up top, as can Landon; both can also play in the middle or on either wing. Coach Bradley has mostly used Clint and Landon on the left and right sides, respectively, of a 4-4-2 midfield, but the dearth of depth at forward and the surplus of midfield talent could see Clint slide into the forward spot or Landon to a removed striker role.
If that’s the case, there are many choices Bradley could call on to fill the vacated midfield slot. The strength of this team is the midfield, not only thanks to the Big Three, but also in part to the supporting cast, all of whom could step on the field and get the job done if called upon.
Let’s take a look at the options to fill that fourth, or possibly fifth, midfield slot.
If we’re going on Bradley’s consistent decision-making—and it’s safe to say we can bank on that—Ricardo Clark will start in the center of midfield against England.
Whether or not you or I agree with that call, in all likelihood, it’s going to happen. I won’t lament the decision, as I normally have in past columns.
Rather, I’ll support it.
As I previewed in Part I, I expect Bradley to play Michael and Rico very deep, with Rico’s job being entirely to clog up the middle of the English attack, forcing the ball wide. With Bocanegra at one back and Spector/Cherundolo (probably the latter) on the other, Bob feels he has experienced, smart fullbacks who can take on the English wingers. If he can force the play down the wings (see the CC win over Spain last summer), Bradley feels he can pull the upset.
Clark just does that—eat space. Think back to the Australia game, and there was about a 40 minute run where the announcers didn’t even mention Clark, as he seemed to disappear from the game. Bad, right?
Wrong, because in that same span, Australia was unable to get the ball to Tim Cahill, their best player, and guess whose area of the pitch he was in? Clark’s.
If nothing else, Rico boosts our defense, even though he makes our style of play much more defensive. I feel we give up a lot of possession and passing range with Clark on the field, but against England, Bradley isn’t looking for those things, so Clark is an appropriate choice.
In this case, I’ll concede that Clark will start in the center of the midfield. Donovan will probably be on the right, Dempsey on the left, and one of Buddle, Findley, or Gomez will start beside Jozy. Why? Because that’s what the US have done almost exclusively for the last four years, and it helps us play the defensive, counter-attacking football that, honestly, has been pretty successful for us.
However, against Slovenia and Algeria, both of whom are defensive, counter-attacking sides, I think we’re going to need some additional offensive punch into the lineup.
My suggestion: Sit Clark and the striker beside Jozy, and sub on two more midfielders. This puts Landon in that second striker role of a 4-4-1-1, it allows Bob to still play empty bucket, and it puts our most skilled players on the pitch without really sacrificing defensive ability.
So who are the two new starting midfielders?
First is Jose Torres, aka “El Gringo.” After being passed over by the Mexican national side, Torres decided to claim his US nationality and join the ranks of the Red, White, and Blue.
Though he has only recently begun seeing significant minutes for the US, Torres has shown himself to be the most skilled midfielder the US have in terms of possession and passing. His second-half display against Turkey only bolstered a strong reputations among fans, and his displays week in and out for Pachuca merit starting recognition for the diminutive midfielder.
The common knock against Torres is that, while he provides offensive improvement, his lack of size and apparent strength makes the US defense weaker, which threatens the very tactical approach Bradley has always implemented.
This is a fallacy. Torres often plays a deep-lying role for Pachuca, and like Messi or Iniesta, he makes up for a lack of size with precise tackling technique and an ability to win the ball back quickly while covering more ground than anyone else on the pitch. His motor goes both ways, and his defense, contrary to popular belief, is actually quite excellent—if different from the bulky tackling style of a Clark or Michael Bradley.
That said, when the US face off against Slovenia and Algeria, both counter-attacking teams that play similar to the US, the difference will be who can create more opportunities, because both teams will be tough to score on.
In that case, Torres has to play. Put him in the center of midfield, and let him run for hours. His creativity and passing range will pick apart the defensive-minded teams who will be tough to counter against. A steady build up will be more effective against those sides.
In addition, however, play Landon in the hole between midfield and Jozy. More touches for Landon means more chances to score, and when the US get ahead early against those sides, Clark can come it and provide the defense to maintain that lead.
The natural replacement for Landon’s vacancy on the right?
Holden is great because he can play in the center-attacking role or on the wing, but for the US, the latter position fits him best.
Holden, the former Houston Dynamo-turned-Bolton Wanderer, made a name for himself at Clemson University and then in Houston, where he played as a CAM. He burst onto the national scene in last summer’s Gold Cup, especially his crackling goal against Haiti.
The fighting faux-hawk has turned in some solid performances for the US, and he is the only other naturally right-sided midfielder in the squad. There are some other options there, but none provide the crossing, short passing, and craftiness on the ball that Holden does.
Stu also tracks back quite well to defend, which would allow Spector or Cherdundolo behind him to get forward. Holden on the right provides discipline positionally and allows Landon to cover more ground in the center.
If Bob chooses not to go Stu’s route, there’s really only one other wide option.
Run DMB is one of the most experienced players in the squad, entering his third World Cup with 92 caps under his belt.
Beasley was one of the brightest American talents from 2002-2006, but his form during qualification for the 2010 Cup dropped dramatically, and his role in the national side went from star to fringe player.
Recently, however, Beasley has seen a return to good graces with Bradley, and his speed seemed to change the game against the Dutch in March.
It’s been a year-and-a-half, still, since his last international goal, and while he can play on the right and cut in, the US have better options.
Beasley may see minutes, but if the team stays healthy, I imagine they will be quite limited.
Reasonably, Bob could play Clint Dempsey on the right, or up top, and that would allow Beasley to slide left. If his form remains poor, there is another option on the left.
Like Holden, Feilhaber’s greatest asset is his versatility. He can play anywhere in the midfield, and when he’s on form, he’s as creative and threatening as any player we have.
Feilhaber’s weakness, unfortunately, is his inconsistency. One day, he produces gems, like his golazo in the 2007 Gold Cup final against Mexico that put the US in the 2009 Confederations Cup. On the next day, however, he can stink it up with the best of them—look no further than the May friendly against Turkey.
Bradley seems to like Benny, though, and when he’s on form, I do too. He has a lot more experience than Torres and could be used as the offensive spark instead of El Gringo. Benny seems to do well in the center next to Michael Bradley, and he could be an option for offense instead of Clark.
Should Clark get injured or fatigued, then there’s one final option for that defensive slot in the midfield.
Edu may struggle to find minutes during the Cup, but his play for Rangers this season and his recent string of success in the national side may earn him time if Clark struggles.
Edu is truly the most natural replacement if Clark fails to make the grade. All of the other options are offensive-minded approaches, and while I advocate such a strategy after the England game, certain results, matchups, or simply tactical comfort may call for Bob to play, as always, the 4-4-2 empty bucket, and Edu fits in right there where Clark is.
A bit better on the ball than Clark, Edu seems to be favored more than Rico in Internet/blog circles, and he can even slide back to centerback if the Americans struggle there.
I don’t expect to see much Mo, but if he comes on, he is quite capable of keeping with the level of play required to help the Americans advance.