(Part IV of the series coming real soon….)
Two months ago to the day, TSG wrote one of our more popular columns: “With Davies in Repair, Who Strikes?“
We followed this column with Part II that suggested that the answer to the USMNT striking problem may lay not with the players themselves, but with a different formation that took into account the rejiggered talents of the team that Bob Bradley could currently field.
So where do we sit today? Sixty odd days after the USMNT began addressing the issue for the South African replacement–sniffle–for one Charles Davies we’re still left with a lot of head scratching, if not even more.
TSG’s biggest question on the day and biggest requirement? How does the new look upfront impact Landon Donovan who clearly has the class now to be a difference maker, but needs the team and strategy tailored to his style. (Just ask Clint Dempsey about this….)
On our Landon issue, no current answers. With Landon absent for both friendlies, we learned little about potential replacements in Eddie Johnson and Jermaine Defoe Jr.–I mean Jeff Cunningham–who were called in to be considered for the role.
Cunningham scored in his starting debut, but was also knocked off the ball on multiple occasions. Eddie showed a little bit of pace, but a troubling lack of creativity in one-on-one situations. Further, since that friendly, EJ was moved to the discount rack at Fulham, buried on the bench and likely available to and at the mercy of the first suitor. No playing time for the potential South African hopeful.
Worse for the USMNT, it appears that Jozy can’t get a handle on things in Davies absence either, being wildy erratic and nearly invisible in the two friendlies–whether Jozy has been told to roam the offensive 1/3 or play hold-up is not known–what is known is that whatever role he was inhabited in Friendlyville it certainly didn’t breed confidence or create systemic opportunities.
JZA’s club situation has not shed any light on his future contributions either.
So going forward in this column, we’ll take a different tack in reviewing the possible players and combinations.
We’ll do the following: We’ll give some general priorities that Bob Bradley has favored through qualification. We’ll give our take on how the offense changes with various personnel and finally we’ll interject about the USMNT’s group stage opponents in helping us with our evaluation.
• Complement Mr. LA Galaxy Landon Donovan.
Let me lead this segment with a broader question: Should it be Landon Donovan or Clint Dempsey who the team is built around?
Wow! Did you see that question coming?
Don’t worry, TSG’ll help you. Clint Dempsey, whose got over 56 shots on goal this year for Fulham, finds his shots. Clint’s talent is a reactionary talent. He fills the gaps in the offense, or defensive vulnerabilities if you prefer, because of his splendid reading of the game. Clint is not so much a creator as a conduit and a finisher after opportunities are created for him.
Landon, as we know, plays differently. Landon is proactive, seeking to force the action of the game as a means of creating the imbalances that Clint feeds of off.
So we answered the broader question. With Landon as the chief offensive talent…and by the way, despite what Bill Simmons may suggest, Jozy is nowhere ready yet….the USMNT needs to recognize, as Bob Bradley has, who is going to muster the scoring against the best in the world in June.
The Landon experiment at left half–originally created by Coach Sweatpants to fill the USMNT deficiency more than anything else–worked for a number of now clear reasons: 1) LD likes to hitch in on his good foot on his runs, being on the left open this up 2) Landon’s best and most dangerous skill is, at TSG now calls it by his namesake, the “Donovan” the art of perfectly led pass that opens up the striker on a run and 3) Landon works best playing off a striker who has cleared out space for him.
Our forward-strike combination absolutely needs to account for making the best UMSNT player dangerous.
• Protect the left flank through the threat of counter attack.
The commentary on the starting left fullback situation hasn’t changed in nearly 6 months. Primarily, many are concerned that Johnny Be Good Bornstein is just not up to the international task. In fact, after Gold Cup 2007–where JB shut down a disinterested Messi for 1/2 of play–the reviews on Bornstein have mostly been….”Wait for the DVD” or worse.
Secondarily, there is the Great Mexican Hope of Edgar Castillo. We’re on record as favoring Castillo for a half back role. His defense–and the Mexican league is not a bastion of defense–is not up to Bob Bradley’s standards, we’re surmising.
Even DaMarcus Beasley’s current form doesn’t answer the lingering and stinging question of “Who shuts down the left side?,” lest we remind you of Beasley against say, Gautemala in 2008….the word “sieve” comes to mind.
Coach B has tweaked furiously to get the combination right to protect that left side, make a threat in counterattack, and attempt to push the opponent’s offensive motion up the States’ right flank where Conor Casey attacks at the point, Stu Holden’s abundant energy lies, the cover of Mike Bradley is sufficient and a decent–if not speedy–combo of Jonathan Spector and, until recently, Oguchi Onyewu lay in wait.
And, notice this subtlety, frequently Bradley has the right halfback (Holden, Rogers, Benny) playing inside on the wing…trading the width in the attack for the ability to push the opponent wide when they’re on the attack.
It’s a subtle tactic, but it has been rather effective (with the exception of Spector’s challenging run in the first half against Honduras on October 10th).
Conversely, and the focus on the left side, has been use the attack to protect a weaker left defense that features the less mobile Bocanegra and the less experience JB and a focus on keeping the ball away from that side of the pitch.
So…what offensive line-ups, tactics and strategies can Coach USA consider:
(Caveat A– depending the opponent Coach USA will use multiple combos up top during World Cup 2010)
(Caveat B — these are just some ideas…there are more obviously)
• #1 – The Davies Replacement
Summary: In short, easier said than done. The plan? From the likes of Marcus Tracy, Robbie Findley, Jeff Cunningham, and Eddie Johnson a potential starter is yielded. To the opposite side, likely goes Jozy Altidore or possibly Conor Casey in the target man role.
Nothing much changes. The team is used to the counter potential off Landon’s flank. One of the quadrumvirate above fills in with the speed necessary to make it happen and the USMNT goes with 99% of the strike capacity they had when CD9 was pinging around the pitch
Glen Johnson & Wayne Bridge: The former the likely the starter and the latter the likely 1st sub for opponent number one, England, in South Africa. The former likes to get up the bit and is exceedingly vulnerable to the counter attack. The latter has difficulty containing speedy wingers. Sound like some potential for attack if the USMNT exploys pace up top?
They’re not there yet: Robbie Findley, too green. Jeff Cunningham, too old and slight. Eddie Johnson, has never put it all together. Marcus Tracy, not quite the pace. (For those that have not seen Tracy, generously he’s more two parts CD9 Jr., one part Altidore Jr. Has the speed, but it’s not blinding. In short, none of the current prospects can fill the CD9 void.)
One mistake counts: . The World Cup is the best. Just one mistake–a ill-timed yellow or red card, a failed defensive assignment, in a game from the youngsters, specifically Findley and Tracy, can lead to more harm than their potential good.
The skinny: It’s wait-and-see. Likely any of these candidate would need an absolute monster start to 2010 to be considered for the starting XI. This, as we know, is highly unlikely. Hope is where it’s at.
• #2 – The Dempsey Hub
Summary: With a lone striker, likely Jozy Altidore, sitting above, Clint Dempsey comes in and is employed in the withdrawn striker/forward role. Dempsey holds up the play in the middle, feeding Jozy and a surging Landon from the left. This is the most likely USMNT strike scenario right now
The Great Dempsey Shake-up. The USMNT gets Clint Dempsey on the field as a focal point of the offense. He’s in a role that he’s more familiar. He’s absolved from playing defense track back that he seems allergic to from time-to-time.
More middle pitch. No secret that the USMNT struggles with linking in the center of the pitch. Adding a player of Dempsey’s caliber to own possession, might just change the complexion of that linking…and improve it.
A roaming Jeezy: As we saw in the impassioned October 14th game at RFK, with Casey playing up the pitch as the target man, JZA was allowed by Bradley to roam around the offensive 3rd. Should JZA and Donovan find their rhythm, this could be devastating–a little strong wording we know–for the USMNT offense as JZA could read the play off of Dempsey and know if he should provide a lead pass opportunity for Donovan or merely stay out of his way.
Does Clint Dempsey go clubbing?: This point has become redundant at TSG. Clint Dempsey, magninmous for club….sulky for the USMNT. Does a move like this rejuvenate Clint? Can he stay focused and positive the entire game?
Can Jozy pull a Spain?: This strategy isn’t just reliant on Clint Dempsey in the forward role. It’s reliant on Jozy occupying a defender or two and being a threat in the post up game. JZA showed it in the Confed Cup in Spain, but you’d be hard-pressed to point out a string of two games in a row where the youngster has been a factor.
The skinny: Probably you’re best bet here as Bradley likes to favor experience and certainly needs experience on the pitch. This also effectively puts your best top 6 on the pitch….allowing Holden to play the right wing where he’s proven himself more than any new face that arrives on the scene.
• #3 – The McBride
Summary: Probably not going to happen, see Bruce Arena, World Cup 2006, 1 USMNT goal. The USMNT employs a single striker up top–most probably JZA if that’s the case.
Your Time to Shine.Grab your shucker, Mr. Altidore. The world is your oyster. Can Jozy make WC ’10 his coming out party? If so, then USMNT certainly has its pickings in the five behind him: Jermaine Jones, Benny!, DaMarcus, Landon, Castillo, Mikey Sweatpants, Rico and Stu. Can it work?
World Cup 2006 Revisted: A different coach and a different team that will arguably be more prepared. That being said 2006 saw McBride in a street fight against multiple big-time defenders. We all know it wasn’t pretty; and struggling to score is an understatement for the 2006 team.
The skinny: Whether it’s Jozy or Conor Casey in that lone striker role, the USMNT will need to track meet it up the pitch to provide the support for whoever is that target man. With better defenders and quick midfielders on some of the opponents, I just don’t see this being a viable option.
• #4 – The Landonator
Summary: The USMNT moves their best offensive weapon, LD10, up the pitch to fill the role vacated by Charlie Davies. DaMarcus Beasley or Edgar Castillo step in to Donovan’s role.
Landy Unshackled: Free from tracking deep and providing cover over the top of Bornstein or Boca, Landon plays defense up top and is one pass away from opening the gates and putting the US on the attack.
Donovan 50% – Perhaps–actually definitely–the biggest negative here. It’s the threat and the execution of the pristine Donovan pass that opens up space and make Donovan so effective. In forward roles before, LD’s devastating accurate passes have gone without a capable striker coupling, making LD less effective.
Two wrongs don’t make a right: Unless you are certain of the contributions of Castillo or Beasley, you’re essentially weakening LD by removing the pass from his repetoire and your weakening the left winghalf position that Donovan has shored up. As TSG is wont to say, you don’t rob Peter to pay Paul.
The skinny: Plausible, very plausible. However we think Coach USA is too comfortable with Donovan in that left flank role to move him up. Also, should this happen, where does Dempsey go? Over to Holden’s position?
Obviously the jury is still out on the striking role and strategy. The European friendlies did little to illuminate Coach USA’s thinking. If we had to guess, Bradley was looking for two things: 1) a pace-y forward to assert himself and 2) for Jozy to own his position. Neither truly happened.
Now we’re on to the January camp. We’ll get some more answers, but until we pair Landon with the striker coupling up front, TSG says wait to christen the pairing upfront.
Let me end this column by wondering why it’s not a more popular or why there is not more commentary on the notion that Landon Donovan started thriving once he had a classy striker and speedy striker in front of him. This isn’t a knock on Landon, but, as we mentioned above, it’s the threat of the pass that makes Landon’s runs so effective. TSG has spoken ad nauseum about it and thinks that notion deserves more press from others.