For die-hard USMNT fans, the past few weeks have been filled with surprises in what has otherwise been a mundane and somewhat “sloggish” World Cup qualifying cycle.
Throughout qualifying, you could count on a two things from men’s national team coach Bob Bradley. Bradley would entrust key qualifiers to a select group of experienced players. He would then supplement with primarily MLS players that had already bought into his system at other locations.
Bradley used 92 different players through qualifying interchanging newcomers on the periphery of the starting line-up and the bench. To use a parallel to baseball, Bradley kept “strength up the middle” and used the wide outfield spots to test out new players.
Strategically, Bradley employed a number of different formations, meandering from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 to a 4-5-1 and eventually back to the 4-4-2.
Bradley’s teams could be counted on to exhibit their leader’s focus on tough on-the-ball pressure defense, moving collectively as one and voraciously defending the backline and goal often at the expense of generating fluidity in the offense. Additionally, Bradley–as we learned through Filip Bondy’s book “Chasing The Game,” favors the on-the-ball defense and positioning upon a turnover as perhaps the crux to his entire system.
However, flash forward to May of this year and the US Men’s Team seems to be more experimental than any other time in the qualifying cycle. As the 30-man roster was announced, Charlie Davies was unable to participate and long-time Bradley confidante Conor Casey remained unbeckoned in Colorado. Once again as the 23-man roster was announced, another notable was absent. Stalwart Brian Ching, a Cup vet and a dutiful servant to Bradley especially during the US’s “B-team” Gold Cup run last year, found his name among those not submitted to FIFA. In the veteran strikers’ stead were three strikers with a collection of single digit caps affixed to their international profiles–Robbie Findley, Edson Buddle and Herculez Gomez.
The surprises didn’t end there. Facing the task of figuring out the new collective of strikers to deploy, Bradley elected to move up a midfielder in Clint Dempsey just two Saturday’s ago in arguably the Yanks most intense test pre-World Cup friendly against Turkey. Using Landon Donovan in the hole on the right and seeking to group, arguably, his three strongest attackers (Donovan, Dempsey and Altidore) in one locale on the pitch, Bradley tried to punt the ball into a mass of his strongest on-ball players.
Didn’t work well, but sure was surprising.
The second half of that contest contained more surprises from the normally predictable Bradley. Though admittedly less surprising, Jose Torres inhabited a true holding midfield role and the US pushing a speed attack from the right side as Donovan directed Robbie Findley in front of him and Steve Cherundolo pedaling in from the rear. That’s the first time US fans witnessed a player in the true holding role since, since….perhaps Sacha Kljestan in some trials in ’08 and ’09 pending how you viewed his role and you may to go all the way back to Claudio Reyna to be matter-of-fact.
So what are we to expect from Coach USA as the US takes the field against the Three Lions in Rustenberg in what many label as the most important soccer game of the past 50 years for the United States.
We’ll kick off our ENG-USA coverage this week, with a view into the potential Bob Bradley playbook whose binding will be cracked this Saturday.
For all the dynamic changes of the past few weeks, there are still some historical examples that we can point to that should give us an idea.
• Defensive First Frames
First, expect Bradley to attempt to “steal” the game here. In it is rather academic to talk about the US “going for a draw” or “seeking a win.” The strategy will be dictated more by how the US can be most competitive and then by game circumstance more than anything else. If the US is up 2-0 and they were playing for the draw, well, what does that mean?
A better consideration is to be placed is on style, and you just need to look at three pivotal games over the recent run that show an identifiable pattern. Against the Mexicans in August, the Hondurans in October and the Dutch–in a friendly–in March. Bob’s playbook was a tale of two halves.
The first halves of these affairs were case studies in “defend, resist, and capitalize if opportunities somehow present themselves.”
The Azteca was the only game where the US knocked in a first half goal and the play was both extraordinary and brilliant, but not indicative of the US game plan that half. As you well remember, Landon Donovan took a pass in traffic and slotted perfectly–the marble had to be sent just so–to Charlie Davies testing the offsides line from afar.
That’s it–the only score in these matches in the first half for the Yanks. For a solid majority of the time, Bradley elected to camp back, defend his goal and take opportunities that didn’t see his team lose shape.
Expect this against England. It’s why you won’t see a Jose Torres deployed in the first half. It’s also why Bob Bradley commented in his press conference last week that the front line, in essence, should have been “sharper” with chances against Turkey–though possessions were the only scripted offense for the half. You can be sure that Jozy Altidore was one player Coach Bradley was talking about in that statement because his theoretical ability to maintain possession. Altidore is certainly a player that Bradley didn’t want to see missing pitch time this week.
• Rely On the Central Midfield To Cover The Pitch and Dictate the Play
Perhaps the reason we need to back-off Michael Bradley–his challenges in distribution and penchant to make ill-timed tackles–is that Michael Bradley–in a style perhaps learned from his father–gives up on plays a lot less than his counterparts.
Combine this with Rico Clark–a more limited player in the same vain. And the elder Bradley is looking at two players that are, first, “disruptive defensively” in the midfield as opposed to catalysts or conveyors of the attack.
I’m not as concerned about Ricardo Clark’s mis-positioning in the Turkey match because, well, that’s a fleet team. When you look at what England has in the middle of the field, it’s categorically not speed merchants. Players, and potential 1st game starters, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, and Michael Carrick (and even Gareth Barry) would lose a shuttle run competition to Bradley, Clark, or even Maurice Edu nearly every time.
This is an advantage that Coach Bradley will prey on.
In my opinion, whether it’s a fit Michael Carrick or a returned-to-fitness Gareth Barry, the Lions need to be concerned about two things: (1) Can Barry or Carrick move the ball effectively against the ball-hawking pair of Rico and Junior and (2) Will Gerrard or Lampard, both who tend to eschew dropping back as a method of play, come back and help in possession, linking and general distribution.
Bradley knows this and his midfielders will be deployed somewhat high–not as high as the Turkey game though–in attempt to clog.
• US wing fullbacks are tasked with keeping shape before going forward with one exception.
Anyone remember the Chicago qualifier in June 2009? How about the qualifier against Mexico in Columbus in February of last year?
Remember anything about the wide backers in these games? Whether it was Jonathan Spector (multiple occasions) or Jonathan Bornstein (a few occasions) against the Hondurans or Heath Pearce and Frankie Hedjuk against El Tri (both in abundance), the States’ fullbacks were involved in the attack for the States.
Now contrast this with three games I’ve cited above, add in the Turkey game and add in this past weekend’s tuner against Australia. Notice a difference?
Few occasions–except out of outright opportunity or lack of options–where the States flushed their fullbacks forward. Bradley’s going to keep with wingfulls home–whether they are up the pitch in concert with a pressing defense or laid back–they will be instructed not to lose shape even if it means a lost overlap option.
The one exception? Whenever you see the US take a stab on Saturday on the “speed” side which now looks to be the right side with Donovan deployed above Cherundolo and aft of Robbie Findley.
…Which, in turn, makes vet Steve Cherundolo–as now most expect him to start–such a pivotal figure in this game. Can he defend for a full 90′ minutes against a more physically imposing side and will he have anything left to help make that attack lethal when it’s required ahead of him?
• US Attack: Four Methods
….with movement off possession by Altidore
…. with set pieces from Landon Donovan
…. with whatever Deuce can think up or can muster
…. with speed up the Findley-Donovan-Cherundolo flank
And that may be all that is in the playbook. Sure you may see a moment when Michael Bradley or Rico Clark trail and shoot or Spector take another–and hopefully better foray–in central possession, but these opportunities will be anomalies.
The rest are expected. The biggest question from the list above will be how the former Princeton head man uses his speed. Will Bob Bradley opt for pace from the beginning to push England backline back to give him room to move the ball out of the back and through the midfield or will he wait on the speed deployment until the second half.
I think Bradley waits. While all the England backline players–with the exception of perhaps Glen Johnson–are rigorous in their defensive discipline, halftime adjustments–if it’s a close game–will likely have the biggest bearing on the final outcome.
This is why I think Bradley deploys Findley–pending game situation–during the 2nd frame. You just don’t know how to adjust in real time as well as if those coaching-enforced tactical changes come at half time.
The two players that will say aid in this decision for Bob Bradley–are the aforementioned Cherundolo and Bradley’s faith in Herculez Gomez ability to get loose on a seasoned defense. If Gomez can be considered a reliever, than Robbie Findley does have the potential to start.
Pending game situations–here is your basic Bob Bradley blueprint.
Throughout the week we’ll be adding more and more commentary on the England-USA affair. If you have questions or want us to add anything else. Well, just let us know.
One more note in closing here. When thinking about what Bob Bradley plans to do, focus on a player’s attributes and experience, not their name or precise attributes. For example, for Findley, think speed. For Donovan, counterattack. This is how Bradley views his players, as a collection of aggregated skill moving as one, not as unique individuals to fit into the master puzzle.