Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Confederations Cup Answers Questions

Going into the Confederations Cup, there were a series of questions that I had regarding the U.S. Men's National Team that I had hoped to get answered. Those four questions were:

1. Was the U.S. going to solve its full back problems, particularly the left back slot?

2. Was the U.S. going to find an attacking set up that didn't rely just on a target forward holding the ball, i.e. an option for a Brian Ching centric attack?

3. Was the U.S. going to find that vital play maker for the center of midfield?

4. Was Bob Bradley going to finally find a tactical set up that worked for the players he has at his disposal?

For questions 1 and 2, I would say that we have found good answers to those questions. Question 3 is still an unknown and I am not sure we are going to find that playmaker yet, although there do seem to be hints at some one who could fill that role. The answer to question 4 is a yes and a no.

The Answers

1. Was the U.S. going to solve its full back problems, particularly the left back slot? the injury to Carlos Bocanegra in the Honduras match in Chicago during World Cup Qualifying meant that Bob Bradley was forced to do something different. Rather than the starting center back tandem of Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu, Bradley was forced to start Jay DeMerit in the middle of the defense and the good fortune that came out of that forced decision was a revelation. Sure, DeMerit was shaky at times, but I think throughout the entire tournament, DeMerit steadily improved, making fewer mistakes and he reached the apex during the Spain game and the first half of the final. I think he was just exhausted by the end of the final, having played every minute for five straight matches and finding that he was just not fit enough to go five games in 13 days and be as sharp.

But putting DeMerit in the middle of defense and seeing a solid pairing with Onyewu, Bradley, in order to get his team captain on the field and not gut the confidence that DeMerit was showing, meant that Bocanegra had to play left back, a position he plays for his club, Rennes. Bocanegra proved to be solid out there on the left, he has enough knowledge to know when to move forward, a strong enough left foot to make good crosses and the defensive knowledge to position himself properly. He is clearly not as pacey as Jonathan Bornstein, but his knowledge and experience help.

Over on the right side, Jonathan Spector proved that he is set to become the U.S. right back. Spector, who normally plays centrally as well, was able to get up and down the right flank, made some great crosses (two assists in this tournament) and played very well defensively. Like Bocanegra, he is not as fast as I would like, but he plays a smart defense, has the necessary energy and is strong enough in attack that he should be the guy.

I think the Confederations Cup, and an unfortunate injury, allowed Bob Bradley to really find a defensive combination that works, that keeps its shape, is disciplined, experienced and meshed well. Sure, the U.S. is lacking pace, but if you need pace, you can have players like Frankie Hejduk, Bornstein or Marvell Wynne on your bench and accomplish that goal.

Coming out of the Confederations Cup, the U.S. now have a solid back line corps. If I were Bob Bradley, and I had to chose my top defenders right now, I would choose the following seven players* (followed by their preferred position and back up position)

Carlos Bocanegra (Left back, center back)
Oguchi Onyewu (center back)
Jay DeMerit (Center back)
Jonathan Spector (right back, center back)
Jonathan Bornstein (left back, left wing/midfield)
Frankie Hejduk/Steve Cherundolo (right back for both--depending on whose healthy)
Marvell Wynne (right back)

* FIFA allows 23 playes to be chose for the World Cup with three being goalkeepers, leaving 20 field players. Of that 20, Bradley will likely choose seven defenders.

2. Was the U.S. going to find an attacking set up that didn't rely just on a target forward holding the ball, i.e. an option for a Brian Ching centric attack?

This question is answered with another resouding Yes. For the past about 15 months or so, Bob Bradley has used Brian Ching and/or someone else as a target forward to hold the ball up for either midfielders like Landon Donovan or Clint Dempsey or a second striker to play off of. This is not a bad strategy when Bradley had no other options. But an injury to Brian Ching just before the tournament meant that Bob Bradley had to change tactics and so something else. That something else was Jozy Altidore and Charlie Davies.

Altidore is not a target striker, he does not operate well with his back to the goal. He is best when moving, using his pace, guile and strength to get around defenders. Charlie Davies is likewise not a target striker, but is also very quick and strong. What Bradley did to great effect, particularly against Spain and Egypt was not ask these to players to be a striking duo, but to be two strikers. Bradley put these boys out wide to start and give them the space to make slashing runs through the middle, allowing their pace and physical strength to get behind defenders. But setting the two strikers up to work somewhat independently also allowed midfielders like Donovan and Clint Dempsey to work a little inside them, cutting through the middle, which suited the squad quite well. Dempsey is not a winger and generally pinches inside a little, which then opens space up for the right back and Altidore and Davies to work the flank.

The tactical set up, I think, really surprised Spain in particular as they are probably used to seeing a U.S. team operate more with a target striker than two quick, independent strikers. But the tactical change in the absence of Ching showed that Bradley has options that he didn't have before the tournament and probably did not consider. The beauty of this discovery is that Bradley can make a change in mid game if he has to. For example, he could start an Altidore/Davies like combo and insert Ching later to exploit the gaps in central defense caused by opposing center backs who are run ragged by guys like Davies. Bradley could also do a combo, staring with Ching and a flank guy like Davies who should be given the freedom to go where he wants on attack and just flit around for Ching to find him. Or Bradley could just go with a target striker set up.

What ever set up Bradley chooses, the fact remains, now he has options and he should use those options to show opponents something different.

3. Was the U.S. going to find that vital play maker for the center of midfield?

Right now, the answer to this question is still a no. But it is not as much of a no as before the Confederations Cup. There were two players that really showed that they might have the chops for this role, but to do so would mean something of a change for both players. Those young men are Benny Feilhaber and Michael Bradley. I hope that after this tournament, the nepotism charges should be dead, done, dusted, and buried forever. Michael Bradley was the definition of industry, a true box to box midfielder, as comfortable in defense as he is in attack. What Michael Bradley needs to do is improve his distributional skills and his on-the-ball skills so that he can hold the ball, pass the ball and pick apart defenses to unleash his attackers. At times in this tournament he showed that, particularly against Egypt and to a slightly lesser extent Spain. But he is not consistent enough to do it regularly and he is not as quick on the ball yet. Michael Bradley needs to read the game better, and faster, so that he is seeing five, six, ten seconds ahead. I think it can come, but he is not there yet.

Benny Feilhaber has that vision, he can read the game and defenses well. He can hold the ball and kill a game off, or he can play the ball quickly to chase a game. Where Feilhaber fails is in fitness. Feilhaber is simply not in a position to play 90 minutes every three days that is necessary in a tournament. When he gets tired, he gets sloppy and his decision making slows down and gets erratic. If Feilhaber gets fit, he can play anywhere in the midfield and make an impact. Right now, Feilhaber is a perfect super sub, a guy who can come on for 30 minutes and make an immediate impact, change the game as necessary. But if he is to become the U.S. #10, the playmaker, he has to prove he can go box to box like Michael Bradley.

In truth, if I could make a player with Michael Bradley's fitness, energy and defensive skill, and mix it with Feilhaber's vision, passing and tactical skill, the U.S. would have that playmaker. To bad we can genetically create such a player.

4. Was Bob Bradley going to finally find a tactical set up that worked for the players he has at his disposal?

This is a yes and no answer. Unlike Steve Sampson and Bruce Arena (Bradley's predecessor as U.S. Coach), Bob Bradley has proved that he can look at film of an opponent, break down their strenghts and weaknesses and set up his starting eleven to exploit opponent weaknesses and fortify the U.S. against opponent strenths. For example, look how Micheal Bradley, Rico Clark, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan killed off the Spanish midfield. Look how disciplined the U.S. was against Spain, letting them have the flanks to cross the ball in and letting big men like Onyewu and DeMerit clear every cross against the Spanish strikers. Look how Bradley exploited the weaknesses of Brazil the left and on counterattacks. Bradley could set his teams up for the staring eleven. That is crucial and it is the yes part of the answer.

The no part of the answer comes from his pattern of substitutions. Through out the tournament, Bradley's subs simply didn't get the job done. Except for the addition of Jonathan Bornstein on the left wing in the final, or the insertion of Feilhaber in the Egypt and Spain games, not one of the Bradley subs actually improved the U.S. game to any discernible extent. Therein lies the tactical problem with Bob Bradley. He fails his own team by not being able to truly alter the game plan when things go awry or the U.S. gets down a goal or two. In the group stage against Brazil, when the U.S. went down early, Bob Bradley didn't know how to make changes to chase the game. The smart move at 2-0 down was to go to your playmakers, Jose Torres, Benny Feilhaber and even Freddy Adu, players who can create. Bob Bradley cannot shift tactics or alter his game plan on the fly to accomodate the changes in circumstance.

Can Bradley get better at the change on the fly? I think so. He has certainly shown that he knows how to set his team up to start, I believe he can learn how to change the game plan and alter teh game with smarter subs. It is not so much who he puts in (although that is important) but also a matter of when. For example, in the Brazile game, putting Jonathan Bornstein in on the left flank earlier, would have helped shut down Maicon bombing forward on the U.S. left side. Putting Jose Torres into the match for Feilhaber would have kept some creative flair on the field and made Brazil stop and think about the change, buying the U.S. some precious time on the clock.

Coming out of the Confederations Cup, I am happy with getting a couple of these questions answered. I would like to have gotten more of them fully answered, but with a little less than a year out, the U.S. is growing confidence. Two big milestones were passed, i.e. that the U.S. can respond to adverse situations in a tournament and play with pride and effectiveness. Second, the U.S. outplayed Spain and won. The U.S. outplayed Brazil for 45 minutes and nearly won. That means the U.S. should not fear any team in the world and should play with confidence.

I think the U.S. could close out 2009 with two major accomplishments and call this the most successful year in National Team history. Those accomplisments are:

1. Qualify for the World Cup with a couple games to spare.
2. Beat Mexico at Azteca Stadium.

Go U.S.A. !!!!!!!

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