(Update: Fabio Capello has suggested that Gareth Barry is fit and will at least be on the bench tomorrow.)
Will it be 1950 again?
In a game that has been hyped perhaps more than any other in United States national soccer history, one word siphons through the buzz. This game is simply “important.”
Important as a measuring stick of US soccer to the global world and important to catapult the casual fan in the United States back to the level of attentiveness that was rudely interrupted by Torsten Frings left arm in 2002.
Amazingly, the catalyst of the 2002 World Cup in South Korea remains the most identifiable figure on the team today. With that said, the way in which Landon Donovan plays the game–Donovan absolutely needs the skill and guile of others to make his own game shine–embodies the way the United States plays as a team….on most days. Lacking a major soccer Jordan, the US focuses on team play and cohesion.
Will unity, and a resolve for no unmitigated mistakes, be enough to break down one of powerhouses of the international game, The Three Lions?
Kickoff is set for 11:30am PDT part on ABC here in the States and up until the line-ups are revealed Bob Bradley’s strategy will remain the same as always, but the players and tactics used to conform to it will be shrouded in conjecture.
As we mentioned in a piece earlier this week, predictability was a trait closely associated with Coach Bradley through qualifying, a knukles-down sort of coach who can be heard during practices barking on his troops to take the intensity up.
“C’mon move!” “Be sharper!”
Bradley’s teams can best described through the traits his son Michael, one of the team’s central midfielders, exhibits on a pitch. “Junior” Bradley is a relentless ball hawker at central midfield who abounds with energy from the opening whistle to the close. He tackles hard, moves the ball quickly–though sometimes off-target–and rarely gives up on a play. Skilled in possession or an offensive tactician he is not.
You could say the same about the Yanks’ game.
The, perhaps, lone team advantage the Yanks’ have–beyond an individual moment of brilliance from Fulham’s Clint Dempsey–is speed, specifically speed on the counter.
The great conundrum facing Bradley–and every media hound attempting to predict how Bradley deploys–is when to unleash Landon Donovan with Robbie Findley–a poor man’s Jermain Defoe–in front of him.
Will Bob Bradley start the game with the pacey combination of Robbie Findley-Landon Donovan-Steve Cherundolo on the right of the pitch or will he wait to bring that grouping together until after England has tired. That, right there folks, is the main tactical question.
Beyond this the States will need to be the fitter, more steely and, without saying, the lesser mistake prone to have a chance on the day.
(For more pages in the Book on Bob Bradley, visit here.)
Now let’s get to the rest of our customary TSG preview.
As usual, we go:
• TSG What We’re Looking For
• 11 At The Whistle
TSG What We’re Looking For
• How do the Yanks handle a vicious combination of Aaron Lennon and roaming Wayne Rooney on the right?
If the US match-up comes down to Aaron Lennon vs. Carlos Bocanegra one-on-one, you’d be right to suggest the Yanks are toast just like Boca.
Bocanegra, the captain of the US squad, is a smart player who adheres to the gameplan and rarely makes mistakes. Problem is, his physical abilities are withered enough to make him a liability against speedy wingers.
Boca won’t go it alone though. He’ll likely have a lot of help with a tucked in Clint Dempsey in front of him, the younger Bradley tracking back and, to TSG’s school of thought, inexperienced Clarence Goodson covering behind him.
Boca just has to direct Lennon to the help quickly and avoid getting beat before it gets there. That’s, well, important.
Which leads us to….
• Who pairs Watford’s Jay DeMerit in central defense? Our guess? Clarence Goodson.
For as much as Oguchi Onyewu’s fitness is being touted in returning from a torn patella tendon, Gooch has played all of less than two hours of competitive minutes this year. In qualifying and tune-ups Gooch’s side of the pitch was often protected.
Clarence Goodson, gets the nod here for two reasons. One, he is a worthy adversary in the air. Goodson goes to the ball with abandon. If Peter Crouch gets an early run-out or Frank Lampard starts hucking some crosses into the air from a reserved position, Goodson should be up to that part of his assignment.
Further–as evidenced in both the Czech and Turkey friendlies–Goodson has good ability to cover on a blown assignment.
Goodson’s our selection here, but he’ll be challenged in cooperation with Jay DeMerit, especially with such a skilled player as Rooney. If England and Rooney start to find space, it may be a long-day for the Yanks.
One more brief note here, remember three substitutions. Can you afford to spend one to replace a player, in Onyewu, who is not fit?
• How high a line does the US defense hold.?
If you go with the assumption that Jermain Defoe doesn’t start, and I think that’s a viable gambit for Coach Bradley, then the Yanks can hold a higher line in defense. This is important because the Yanks–especially in the first half–will attempt to generate offense from loose balls and turnovers in the Lions’ defensive end.
Holding that line will be dependent on how the Yanks keep Lennon intact as well as pinning Ashley Cole back in to the left.
Which leads us to…
• Who starts up top for the Yanks?
For those new to the USMNT, here is the starting point here. Three out of the four true strikers on the US didn’t play a single minute during qualification. Wow.
TSG has debated the starters up top ad nauseum this week.
After consideration–and with a very large asterisk–I think the Yanks deploy a unit of Jozy Altidore and Robbie Findley up top to start the game. This is what I think Bob Bradley does.
If it were TSG, well we’d be kicking off with the twin battering ram of Jozy Altidore and Edson Buddle.
Findley is Bob Bradley’s call because I think Coach USA wants to keep the pressure on the Three Lions from the beginning here.
The Real Salt Lake sub, who’s best performance for the Yanks was a few weeks ago against Turkey, entered that game in the 2nd frame. The reasoning from Bradley on the day? Weather. Temperatures at game time for the Yanks’ were a very humid 85 degree farenheit against Turkey.
Rustenburg on Saturday, 65 and overcast. The speedster’s gas tank should not drain to empty before the final whistle.
Opposite Findley will be former Hull City big man striker Jozy Altidore. Altidore will need to maintain possession and create chances with much more efficiency than he has during any time in his club or country career if he is going to be effective.
If you’re looking for a player who is the biggest wildcard to change the complexion of the offense on the day, that man is Jozy Altidore.
11 At The Whistle
G: Tim Howard:
The skinny: One of the best goalie’s in the tournament. As a mark of respect for the Everton man, when naming the Yanks’ starters for World Cup matches, ten are usually named instead of eleven. Everyone knows Howard is a given. Howard will need to command his box on the day like no other day in international competition before.
DEF: Steve Cherundolo, Jay DeMerit, Clarence Goodson, Carlos Bocanegra
The skinny: The second player who could be extremely pivotal for the Yanks on Saturday is rightback Steve Cherundolo. Cherundolo’s game–after a shoulder injury earlier in the year–is crescendoing at the right time. Can he push up the flank and challenge Ashley Cole’s wing for a full 90 minutes while stymying the likes of Joe Cole and even Steven Gerrard from the right. Important question and herculean task.
With the defensive line-up here, the Yanks, beyond Bocanegra’s corner, have a weakness that was on display last Saturday against Australia–it’s the weakside of Cherundolo and DeMerit on set pieces.
Cherundolo is on the shorter side and DeMerit has been suspect in the air since returning from an eye injury. I think Fabio Capello elects to play Heskey up top with Rooney, but if he selects Crouch, the defense must be on guard every time a ball goes up and over to the Yanks’ right side kitchen.
MID: Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley, Ricardo Clark, Clint Dempsey
The skinny: Dempsey’s deployment to start the game may be up top, but if he’s in the midfield (and as long as Steve Cherundolo is starting on the right), you’ll see Dempsey tucked in on the left aiding Boca in pushing Lennon into a more confined spot. I like this match-up for the Yanks because I think Dempsey, by himself and coupled with Jozy Altidore in front of him, is smart enough to take opportunities against Glen Johnson, whose defensive game must scare the bejesus out of England fans.
Through the center the combination of Bradley and Clark will attempt shut down every pass that Gerrard and Lampard try throughout the field.
On the right, Donovan will be moved up slightly in an effort to trail Findley and keep Ashley Cole from bombing ahead.
STR: Jozy Altidore, Robbie Findley
The skinny: Confidence that Altidore-Findley is the combination up top starting Saturday. Virtually zero. In fact, if TSG were handing in the card, we’d surely have the boiling Edson Buddle in England’s defensive cauldron.
You could honestly see any combination up top for the Yanks, including Clint Dempsey starting up there. If I had to wager my ice cream money though, I’d pick Altidore-Findley.
• Dempsey slides up top, Bolton’s Stu Holden takes the pitch
I’m not sure I see Stu Holden starting in his first World Cup game, but if any player exhibits the necessary combination of poise and calmness for the role, it’s Holden.
Holden would come in on the left side of the midfield to protect above Bocanegra is Dempsey is tasked being withdraw and working off Jozy Altidore toeing the Three Lions backline.
• Oguchi Onyewu starts ahead of Clarence Goodson
Does arguably the best US defender during the qualifying cycle get a run out even if he’s still speckled in rust? It’s possible. Goodson’s help defense is the reason, I’m sticking with the IK Start man instead of the AC Milan man. But if Gooch’s name is emblazoned on the line-up card tomorrow, it won’t be suprising.
• Bob Bradley deploys speed late….meaning Altidore pairs either Buddle or Dempsey and Steve Cherundolo relieves Jonathan Spector.
This was essentially the game plan two weeks ago against Turkey. Deploying Cherundolo and Findley later would mean that Bradley’s going to ride out the first half and attempt to jump the pace in the 2nd. I don’t think that happens here, but it’s possible.
• Bob Bradley eschews both Gooch and Goodson in the middle; Boca moves inside, Bornstein is called to start from the bench.
I don’t think this is a realistically possibility. However, the reason I point it out, is this would likely be the most disruptive adjustment for England to counter within the game…….if Jonathan Bornstein can play well above the form he’s exhibited since March.
• US Goes 4-5-1 with Altidore leading the line. Torres slots in as a holder behind the advanced Michael Bradley and Rico Clark.
This is not happening, but if it does, you know the Yanks are setting up shop and playing extreme defense.
I expect the Three Lions to attack with a modified 4-4-2 formation. To solve the critical absence of Gareth Barry, I think England–and I’m certainly no expert here–move Lampard deeper in the hole to more of a holding position. Lampard is excellet when he has a little bit of space to play on balls trailing a play.
England will run Gerrard to the right-front of Lampard, flanked by Lennon and Joe Cole. Up top above them sit Rooney and Heskey, both taking turns at being withdrawn.
I think it would be a mistake for England to play with two non-holders sitting back in the midfield. Essentially that be playing into the Yanks strategy of pressuring up the pitch. As good as Gerrard and Lampard are, they are not named Sneijder or Xavi.
In order for the Yanks’ to win the day, they are going to need to keep a reasonably high line and box in England and take away angled openings for Rooney. Easier said than done and the Yanks are prone to the type of mistakes that allow an unfettered one-on-one chance.
The game will likely hinge, as we mentioned above, on the States use of speed to create opportunities and contain the England attack so it can’t develop a rhythm.