It’s no secret—US Soccer fans, pundits, and observers alike are pretty much in agreement that Ricardo Clark is the biggest weakness in the US starting 11.
Yes, we have some striker issues, but Clark’s offensive ineptitude virtually cancels out any defensive presence he adds to the team. And speaking of defensive presence, whom did Gerrard beat for the opening goal?
Ricardo Clark (though Gooch’s positioning was suspect, at best, and so dumb it eats paste, at worst).
Let me follow that by saying this: I know why Bob plays Rico. For one, he brings a heap of international experience to the table, having featured in great US performances like Brazil/Spain 2009, as well as being a fixture in the midfield throughout qualifying.
In addition, with Bob’s propensity to play empty bucket, Clark gives him a defensive-minded midfielder who can start counter-attacks by breaking up the opponent’s passing. He also gives Michael Bradley freedom to go forward, where he can put dangerous shots on goal or distribute to other American attackers.
In all honesty, Clark wasn’t bad on Saturday. Yes, he got beat on the Gerrard goal, but he played well after that, at least in terms of what Bob wants from him. Several English attacks in front of net were broken up by Clark, and his ability to pressure passing lanes helped Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney turn in forgettable performances.
It’s not for his performance or form that I’m calling for Bob to replace him. It’s simply this: the US have to change the way they play for the Slovenia game.
The tactics against England were pretty obvious—take away the center of the pitch and push the English attacks down the flanks. This put the onus to create on the English wingers, and Steve Cherundolo’s brilliance shut down the left-sided attack, while the right side impressed but failed to score
Clark was a big part of that, and Bob was using him to start counters and break up the center of the midfield. Possession wasn’t going to win the game for the US against England. It had to be a defensive battle with a couple of good chances on goal to put the US in a position to win or draw—and that’s precisely what happened.
Against Slovenia, however, the US will have to play differently for two reasons: first, Slovenia are a defensive-minded side that will also look to counter, so Clark’s ability to disrupt passing lanes will rarely be effective.
Second, with three points in hand, Slovenia can play for a draw/win like the US did against England, putting nine men behind the ball and looking for a cheap goal. A win assures Slovenia’s advancement to the knockout stages, and a draw puts them in prime position to advance.
You can bet Matjaz Kek will make the US bring the game to them, something we aren’t entirely comfortable doing, and attempt to exploit us should someone venture out of position.
For those reasons, the US need to set out an offensive team, one with our most creative players on the pitch in positions to link up. Bostjan Cesar and Marko Suler are big, strong central backs who will be difficult to defeat in the air, so the best plan of attack is on the ground.
In this kind of attack, Clark is rendered useless, essentially. In the same vein, playing Robbie Findley doesn’t make a lot of sense because a Slovenian team hesitant to push forward will be not be burned by his speed, and Findley’s game on the ground leaves a lot to be desired.
Where does that leave Bob, then?
Well, there are two options, basically, seen below.
Option No. 1
In option No. 1, Jose Torres comes on for Clark, while Stuart Holden comes on for Findley. This puts Landon Donovan in a central attacking role, while Holden plays outside and Michael Bradley sits further back than the England game.
Option No. 1, call it a 4-4-1-1, is good because it puts Torres, our best possession player, on the field, and he and Michael Bradley are in a prime position to link the defense up to the attack through the feet of either Donovan in the free central role, Dempsey cutting in from left to right, or Holden down the line, who puts in an exceptional cross.
It also suits Jozy, who is strong enough to play a target against the Slovenians and has the speed to make runs behind the defense if asked.
The weaknesses of such an approach is the absence of an entirely defensive-minded midfielder, which the US are not used to playing without. Also, it’s not a system the US are comfortable with, having played most of their games in the pre-Cup buildup with a 4-4-2
Option No. 2
In option No. 2, Torres still replaces Clark, while Buddle comes on for Findley. Buddle is a better player on the floor than Findley, and though he lacks Findley’s speed, his physicality is a better fit for a strong Slovenian defense.
This option works because it’s familiar to the US. We can stick with the 4-4-2, playing much like we did against Turkey, and Findley or Gomez can come on as subs for either striker to provide fresh legs. Also, Torres fits the empty bucket well, and his defensive skills, though different from Clark, are still very good—he is not afraid to get stuck in, he anticipates exceptionally, and he knows how to time a tackle with the best of them.
Option No. 2 has its own faults, though. It’s still a fairly defensive lineup, and we are leaving a creative player like Holden on the bench for Buddle , who requires great service to be effective.
Either option, however, is better than what we put out against England.
To put it Ecclesiastically, to everything there is a turn—a time for defense (England), and a time for offense (Slovenia).