Tuesday, May 11, 2010
U.S. midfield still seeks winning balance
By Jeff Carlisle
When Bob Bradley first took over as U.S. national team coach, one of the trickier tasks facing him was reconstructing the team's midfield. The international retirements of Claudio Reyna and John O'Brien meant the Americans suffered a significant drop in experience, and the team's ability to manage tempo and keep the ball took a hit as well.
The ensuing years have seen Bradley experiment with all manner of players in a variety of positions. And what has emerged is a versatile collection of performers capable of doing considerable damage. Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey -- assuming their talents aren't needed elsewhere -- provide most of the creativity: Donovan with his passing and clever movement off the ball, Dempsey offering the possibility of the unexpected with his slashing runs and trickery. Players like Michael Bradley (the coach's son), Maurice Edu and Ricardo Clark offer the necessary steel and range needed to disrupt opposition attacks. Then you have performers like Benny Feilhaber and Jose Torres, who are tidy on the ball and can keep the U.S. attack ticking when needed. Stuart Holden provides much of the same, although he can offer a more classic wide presence with his crossing ability.
The problem, of course, is that they can't all play at once, although it's clear that having options is never a bad thing.
"It's not like the '98 team where if you get the wrong combination [in midfield] you're screwed," said former U.S. international Eric Wynalda via telephone. "You've still got a chance to get results even if you get it half wrong, because all of these guys can play."
Yet a month before the U.S. takes the field against England on June 12, the delicate balance between defensive solidity and more precision in attack remains elusive, especially in the middle of the park where no heir in the mold of Reyna or O'Brien has emerged. On days when Bradley and his midfield partner, be it Clark or Edu, are connecting their passes, then all is well, especially given the shield they provide defensively. But there have also been games where the duo spent a considerable amount of time putting out its own fires. The knock-on effect is that establishing any kind of attacking rhythm is next to impossible, resulting in Dempsey and Donovan being starved of the kind of service they need.
"Distribution [out of midfield] is important," said former U.S. international John Harkes, now an ESPN analyst. "Key guys need to get on the ball, but you can't force it. You have to have a balance. Yeah, you want to try and get the ball to Donovan or Dempsey's feet, but maybe it's not a good position for them to receive it there. You have to play what's on."
Over the course of this World Cup cycle, coach Bradley did give more technical players like Feilhaber and Torres opportunities to secure a starting spot in the center of midfield, yet neither displayed the defensive fortitude needed to make the position his own. Given the choice, the U.S. manager has shown he'll err on the side of defense every time.
Of course, the need for greater possession -- a responsibility borne by everyone in the lineup, not just the midfield -- sparks all kinds of debate. At the 2009 Confederations Cup, the U.S. hit upon a counterattacking strategy that was at times devastating, but often meant the team was defending for long stretches. In the semifinal victory over Spain, the U.S. had just 44 percent of the possession while being outshot 29-9, driving home the fact that such statistics can be misleading. The score, the opponent and the personnel on the field can all skew possession one way or the other.
"Possession is overrated," Wynalda said. "The bottom line is that the game is decided by very quick decisions that involve risk. Possession is usually the polar opposite. The good news is that we have some guys in our team -- they may be in midfield, they may be up front -- that have the ability to make the kind of decisions that can change the game."
That said, the ability to keep the ball at the right time remains critical to the Americans' chances of reaching the second round. And while the U.S. has rarely been a possession-oriented team, its inability to take the sting out of the game -- if only for a few minutes -- illustrates how much Reyna and O'Brien are missed. In the Confederations Cup final loss against Brazil, and later in a World Cup qualifying defeat against Mexico, the U.S. spent an inordinate amount of time defending and simply wore down on the way to narrow defeats.
"If we can't establish some sort of rhythm at certain points in the game, it's going to be a long day," said Alexi Lalas, Wynalda's former international teammate. "And what happens when that one counterattack, that one that we need, isn't there or breaks down? It's kind of risky if you're defending the whole time, and you don't get that moment or you blow that moment."
Given the widely varying styles presented by the Americans' group stage opponents, what constitutes the most effective kind of possession figures to vary from match to match. England will be expected to carry the game to the Americans, allowing the U.S. to reprise its counterattacking style from the Confederations Cup. But a team like Slovenia represents the kind of organized defense the U.S. has struggled to break down in the past, putting a greater emphasis on patience and guile. The same is true for Algeria. What form the Desert Foxes will be in is anybody's guess, but their talented midfield should give the U.S. problems, regardless of what tactical approach they take.
For that reason, coach Bradley likely will make extensive use of his corps of midfielders, and given the varied skills they possess, that ability to change gears could prove decisive. The health and form of the forward line will determine if either Donovan or Dempsey stays in midfield or moves up top. And even if they start the game in midfield, Bradley indicated his habit of moving one of them closer to goal late in the match is one he may continue.
"[Dempsey] brings qualities up front, because he's very good at finding seams between teams' back lines and the midfield," Bradley said. "Obviously, he's creative in those situations. If you play Landon in that role, his ability to run from the second line and his speed becomes something that can be a real threat."
That would also free up a spot to insert another creative player like Feilhaber, Holden or Torres.
"The beauty of our team is that we play the game we're in, especially in regards to our midfield," Wynalda said. "We have different styles, we have different personalities, and if Bob Bradley gets it right on the day, there's no reason why each one of the teams that we're playing against aren't beatable. We can beat them."
The U.S. can be beaten, as well, and the performance of the midfield will have a huge say in which direction the Americans go come June.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at email@example.com.