Tuesday, June 03, 2008

U.S. Experimentation

U.S. Men's National team coach Bob Bradley seems wedded to a traditional 4-4-2 formation and this is not necessarily a bad thing. But as kartik pointed out, the American striking ability is pretty dismal at this point and the midfield pool of players is either very old or very young-see Eddie Lewis/Pablo Mastroeni vs. Michael Bradley/Maurice Edu/Ricardo Clark.

Now a coach has to find a way to play his team, with the players he has and the skills they possess, in such a way as to be successful. So lets take a deeper look at the possibility of playing a 4-5-1 while the U.S. is experimenting in the Spain and Argentina games. With the World Cup qualifier against Barbados pending, there is even more time to experiment a little. So here are some thoughts based on the player pool currently in camp now.

Goalkeepers. Frankly put, the United States produces some of the best goalkeepers in the world and while I have my suspicions as why, this is the one position on the field in which I have no doubts. Tim Howard is a world class goalkeeper and with young keepers coming up, like Brad Guzan, Chris Seitz, Dominic Cervi, Troy Perkins and others, I seriously doubt that the U.S. will be hurting in this position. Frankly since about 1988, goalkeeping has not been the U.S. problem and given Howard's age, I doubt it will be in near future either. I think, barring a total loss of form or serious injury, Howard will be the netminder for the U.S. during World Cup qualifying and the 2010 World Cup.

Defense. For about three years, the defense has been anchored by Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra. While the pairing has been solid, Bradley needs to look long and hard as some options. Bocanegra is aging and seems to have lost pace. Onyewu, while very big and physical, has something of a temper problem and could get into card trouble pretty quickly. Players like Jay DeMerit, Jonathan Specter, Danny Califf and some of the younger players like Marvelle Wynn and some of the crew on the U23 team need to be looked at. I like Wynn and Komani Hill (who still needs some development and the Olympics might be a good proving ground for him) for their pace and the ability to attack out of the back. a four man back line is probably necessary in World Soccer right now, my only beef is that I don't think Bocanegra and Onyewu are going to make it to the 2010 World Cup in top form. That being said, I would like to see DeMerit in particular in the middle and maybe think about moving Jonathan Specter into the middle to pair with him. Specter plays at West Ham United and gets a fair amount of playing time and DeMerit seems lots of minutes with Watford, so they can play at some of the highest levels.

Midfield. This is where the United States needs to find one or two playmakers in the middle of the field and where Bradley really needs to reconsider his options here. I would like to see a five man midfield with a pair of withdrawn midfielders playing a holding/defensive mindset to disrupt the opposing sides midfield development. In some respects this might be Michael Bradley's best role rather than trying to direct an attack and play defensive midfield. Pairing with Bradley would be someone along the lines of Pablo Mastroeni or even Ricardo Clark. Bradley and Clark have worked well together in the past, but I think someone with more experience like Mastroeni would be better.

In the attacking midfield trio we need players with lots of pace, and with attacking mindsets. My first choices rights now would be Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Freddy Adu. The appeal of this trio is that all three have an attacking mindset and are always looking for ways to go to goal, Adu and Donovan in particular. But all three possess pace, comfort and creativity on the ball and the ability to play on either wing or in the middle, causing enough confusion in defenses that they can exploit. Subbing for this trio would be hard. Eddie Lewis, right now, looks solid, but would be 36 in 2010, and when DaMarcus Beasley gets healthier, he can also be a speed threat (although he needs to get his crossing touch back), but other players like Nate Jacqua or Eddie Johnson would have to learn how to play this position.

Striker. In a word--Altidore. Now, Jozy Altidore has traditionally played in a two man front and he would have to learn to work a little more with his back to goal. But his strength, size and pace would make him a handful for opposing defenders. He has proven to be strong enough in the air to be a threat inside the box. He has more than enough speed to be a threat on counterattacks and won't get muscled off the ball too much.

Right now, Eddie Johnson cannot play a lone striker. Nate Jacqua might be able to and Dempsey could, but it is not his best position. I think Bob Bradley needs to look to add a couple of players in this position. Kenny Cooper comes to mind quickly, Brian Ching as well. Cooper has had a quality season so far for FC Dallas and Ching has been slow to start. Taylor Twellman, now that he is back from injury is also a quality lone striker whose strength in the air makes him a credible threat anytime he plays.

Generally, Bob Bradley has done very well for the U.S. Program. He has used to best effect a combination of European players and MLS players. He has mixed veterans with newer players and has made a point of playing the best teams in the world, away from home, in order to boost the teams performance level. I think it has paid off, but the U.S. needs more creativity on attack and that probably means a 4-5-1 or more accurately a 4-2-3-1. The beauty of such a formation would give the U.S. the ability to put a lot of speed and attack-mindedness on the field, with two strong holding/defensive midfielders to disrupt opposing counterattacks before getting into our defensive third.

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