Part II: Who Strikes? What’s the Formation?

Just an unbelievable dialogue on our “Charlie Davies in Repair, Who Strikes?” piece. Honestly, it is/was one of the best community dialogues I’ve seen on the USMNT online; astute, creative, and non-emotional comments. If you haven’t read the fan commentary section, it’s worth a read before this piece.

Keys position players, no matter the formation

Keys position players, no matter the formation

Thank you to our readers, whose additions forced many considerations that TSG had not thought of.

So in the spirit of debate, let’s call this “Who Strikes? Part II — What’s the Formation?” and focus on and maintain the lively debate around the USMNT alternating their formation instead of their personnel in the absence of the CD9 dynamic on the pitch.

The prevailing sentiment from many in that piece?

That Coach USA should experiment with formations in advance of World Cup 2010 given CD9’s injuries, our dearth of World Cup quality strikers, and the current talent pool at the coach’s disposal.

TSG, or rather I, was in the minority in being categorically against a formation change. I wrote about this in August actually here and my arguments I believe still carry quite a bit of merit (though admittedly reader comments here have softened my stance).

The points in the summer were:

• With so few games left (and as of November 1, 2009) only, maybe…what…12 friendlies on the docket until Cup time, it would be ludicrous to suggest the US players could master a new system in a short time and for it prove effective.

• Concurrently, as I pointed out in that article, none of the US starters against Brazil in the Confederation’s Cup final currently play in anything other than a 4-4-2 formation. In other words, cane we legitimately expect them to gain real-time experience, even in a different environment in advance of South Africa.

I’m going to add a few more pieces of commentary presenting for the most part the “cons” of entering into a new alignment. I’ll let the commentary after the piece refute these and present the “pros” and then TSG will sum up everything in a third and final piece.

Okay, go!

The 3-5-2: Antiquated

Referencing a suggested 3-5-2 formation, let’s just throw this one out. The US possesses neither the possession maintenance or speed at outside fullback to even consider this one.While the Ticos employed this at RFK, this formation is currently somewhat difficult to master in short order for a team that relies on the counter attack and long ball rather than precision passing.

The 4-5-1: Too conservative to sustain victory on the world stage and not the right personnel

• The US record in the Confederation’s Cup when deploying a 4-5-1 alignment? 0-2, 5 goals against, 1 goal for (penalty) kick. In both the Italy and Brazil games during group play, Coach B game out with a 4-5-1 with Jozy up top and 5 middies behind him. The result: virtually no offense and tons of pressure on the States’ defense.

Fast forward to the knockout rounds with a 4-4-2 (and Charlie Davies over Landon Donovan) and we all know the result. Positive.

McB: Left to shoulder the entire burden under Arena

McB: Left to shoulder the entire burden under Arena

• Maybe not as strong an argument, but what about 2006. Sure everything was different. The coach, team selection, strategy. But the formation then 4-5-1, the result 1 goal scored offensively (the Italy goal was an own goal) in 3 games. 10 total shots on goal, with 5 of them coming in the wide open final game to Ghana. Yuck!

I believe this points, if weakly, for the ability of good teams to take advantage of the USMNT’s 4-5-1.

• In a 4-5-1 in 2010, who is your lone striker? The only player capable of playing this is a precocious 19-year-old who is currently subbing for about 10 minutes a game on a relegation-bound EPL team. That’s right, the USMNT would be betting their formation and Cup experience on Jozy Altidore. Not a terrible bet, but also not a necessary bet when you have seasoned vets like Landon and Clint. Maybe in 2014.

In moving Jozy up top by his lonesome (where he started in the Confed cup mind you), not only do you force him to receive and maintain possession (not his strength), but you shackle him to that responsibility and put him further from the goal. Beyond Donovan and maybe Dempsey, who else do we really want attacking and shooting?

• Beyond TSG’s two favorites (Stu and Benny!) and one Jose Francisco Torres, only one of whom has been starting lately, the players in the middle of the pitch that Bob Bradley typically starts, do not possess the ability to link passes up the field and move the offense up. Can you really see the likes of Mike Bradley and Rico moving the ball out of the back. In watching those two against Trinidad and Tobago most recently, I do not have that confidence.

The 4-3-2-1: I’m starting to come around, but…

• A lot of good comments in the Davies piece specifically from “Tuesday” and Antonio (hopefully I’ve captured them accurately). Both of these readers have been promoting the formation for awhile.

Rationale: The formation frees up Dempsey and Donovan to be attackers and not have to double back as far on defense. Secondly, by employing a floating 3 halfback concoction, the US encourages the switch field cross and, in effect, can only, in theory, be beaten in defense on a more difficult offensive play.

More on the the 4-3-2-1 by Tuesday on his blog.

These comments have merit and I’m sure the comments section below will add to this pro. For my part…..

• The negative. In the 4-3-2-1, you really leave the center open to quick linking strike (akin to what you would see from an Italy or a Brazil). Unless the USMNT has a disciplined and effective destroyer back likes Jermaine Jones, the team is susceptible to an attack up the middle with one less defender. Sure the outsides in the formation can collapse, but that’s relying on them to do that quickly and effectively. With the current USMNT personnel, I’m not sure the US can employ this. Ricardo Clark and Michael Bradley are just too undisciplined and stray too far from the midfield to hack this formation. (See Mike Bradley, 2nd goal against, Costa Rica, RFK)

In my opinion it’s Jermaine Jones or at worst a fit Maurice Edu or bust in the 4-3-2-1 — can the US get the formation ready in time given neither of these players are healthy? If Bob Bradley actually willing to sit his son (who played the 3rd most minutes for the US during qualifying) or play his son out on a wing?

• Next, crosses and corners. Both have been a big part of the US attack. Whether it’s been Altidore from a standstill (El Salvador), Boca risking his skull (Honduras, home) or Donovan deftly coralling and controlling an errant long ball…you know a quick note here, on Bradley’s goal against the Ticos not nearly enough has been made of Donovan’s composure and patience on the ball in putting a worthy shot back on frame. That comes from experience and confidence; a world class play.

Apologies, back to our commentary. The cross in is a large part of the US game. With a 4-3-2-1, can the US get wide enough to maintain this? If Stu, for example, is on the wing in the mid 3, will he be able to make that run up the pitch?

• Finally, I think there is a consideration here that only arose over the past 48 hours. That is that Carlos Bocanegra, hardly as agile in defense

Will any Boca pairing be ready with two covering?

Will any Boca pairing be ready with two covering?

as he once was, is our lone experienced central defender at this moment. For November 18th in the least, he’s going to be coupled with either Danny Califf, Chad Marshall, or Clarence Goodson. While TSG is a huge fan of both Marshall and Goodson, we also remember the damage done on the counter against their interior defense in the Gold Cup, a 5-0 result. TSG is categorically not a fan of Califf as we believe we have better younger options and he’s not disciplined enough in the role.

Why am I telling you this? Because it impacts the 4-3-2-1. Should the US play a narrow 4-3-2-1 the middle help defenders (the center mid and one or more of the wings) can help out on the inexperienced central defense. However, this leaves our outside fullbacks vulnerable to 1-on-1 attacks (think: Vela, Robinho, Torres & Ashley Young to name a few). If the US goes wide in support, we leave our inexperienced central pairing at risk. A surmountable task, yes, but if we had say Gooch and DeMerit in the middle, having a one less defender specifically assigned to the middle would not matter as much.


So in closing, temporarily, TSG’s initial comments on the formation, I’d like to thank our readers for forcing us to reconsider and draft this piece. I have no doubt that we’ll continue the stirring debate that marked the first piece.

Mind you, I’m not against a new formation. My sentiment is such that the US cannot master new positioning in time to prove effective at the World Cup 2010.

25 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Dylan on 2009/10/23 at 6:55 AM

    What are the thoughts about maybe giving Beasley another look, either up top or in the midfield. He does bring speed. Which seems to be one of our main concerns.


    • He’s not really a true striker (lacks some finishing class for sure), nor does he possess the girth that Davies did, which is what helped him in and around the box; DaBease would get tossed like a rag-doll. Throwing Beasley up top in a 4-3-3 would bring back memories of his PSV days, and though I think his interplay with Donovan would be decent since they grew up together, this formation would force Donovan and Iceman to track back on defense more than they already do in the standard 4-4-2 or 4-2-2-2 to help out the lone central midfielder.

      His current dearth of playing time is also worrisome. In the few chances that he has gotten against lesser competition he hasn’t exactly set the world alight. Plus Rogers appears to be a more bullish version of Beasley, so if Bobbo wanted to go 4-3-3 he already has players who’ve been delivering for him in camps and on the pitch.

      Therefore I think the USMNT career of Beasley has essentially drawn to a close.


    • Posted by Kevin on 2009/10/25 at 6:33 PM

      It’d be nice to have a good beasley like we used to, but I agree with Nick he’s done on the USMNT. I’d love to have the prime Beasley, but he’s not going to randomly step up and get playing time since this has now been going on for a few years now.


  2. Don’t get me wrong, any formation has weaknesses, but given the players at our disposal I’d like to see the 4-3-2-1 given a go. We should have one more option in the bag outside the 4-4-2 and 4-2-2-2 systems we’ve been playing. I’m definitely worried about a lack of width given our absence of dynamism from the fullbacks. We could also try a more expansive 4-3-3. We need to remember that symmetry isn’t an absolute requirement of an effective tactical formation. Systems tend to be far more symmetrical in the defensive phase than the attacking phase.

    I would like to see Clint coming inside behind Jozy to support him and Landon taking up positions out wide on either side. My first choice for the 3-man midfield would be Jones and Bradley on the outside with Feilhaber or Torres in the center. It could easily revert to a more traditional 4-4-2 or counterattacking 4-2-2-2 with Dempsey or Donovan pushing up top with the other taking a wide midfield position with Feilhaber/Torres taking the other. It has a built in safety valve. This system should actually relieve our ball-winners of some tactical discipline by giving them more support. I am excited to see younger players like Castillo or Lichaj given a run out but I’m not sure what they will have to offer in 2010.

    Bottom line, is that unless he pulls off a miracle recovery, we’re going to miss Charlie Davies a lot because his work-rate, running and ability to stretch a defense was key to our successful 4-2-2-2. While Onyewu is looking doubtful as well, it’s easier to replace a central defender who has been in indifferent form than a striker who was really beginning to look like he was about to become something special. Just look at the respect he’d already earned from his new club.


    • Posted by Berg on 2009/10/23 at 9:12 AM

      You Mr,Tuesday, should compose a letter to Bob Bradley. I was a fairly staunch advocate of keeping the same formation (4-4-2) but the points you bring are certainly valid and relevant to the situation the USMNT is currently in.

      Good thoughts on the middie and backs as well as the responsibilities around the pitch, TSG. Edu and Jones certainly look like they slot in the best skillwise and it is worrying that neither are fit as of now. I would hope we’ll see Edu making his comeback in the fairly near future, perhaps sometime in late November/Dec, (his declaration of readiness by Sept was a tad optimistic in retrospect). I’m not so hopeful about Gooch and the reported 6 months he’s going to be out (ESPN), makes me think come WC it will be Captain Carlos and hopefully DeMerit manning that center.

      I think the articles and commentary on this site are absolutely great. Always informative, always civil. Such a rarity it seems.


    • Posted by Kevin on 2009/10/25 at 6:44 PM

      I’m not worried that they will revert to a 4-4-2, but I’m worried it would revert to a very amateurish 4-3-3. If BB can effectively teach that to his players I would like to see it because it sounds great now, but it’s too easy for Donovan and Dempsey as the two to play as additional forwards (especially because they have successfully played up top before). IF BB can get it working to where we are not out of position it’s good, but we WILL be caught out of position with that so we WILL suffer. IF pulled off I would like to see…
      Spector-Boca-Marshall-Bornstein (for now)

      Now this puzzles me a little I want to see Donovan and Stu on the same side, but I want speed matched with speed with Torres with Donovan. Also I’m not crazy about Dempsey over Stu I don’t think they would compliment each other well.


  3. Posted by matthewsf on 2009/10/23 at 9:09 AM

    @Nick, Dylan
    On Beasley, I concur — I think his ship has sailed. All he talks about on Twitter is his jewelry business.
    Doesn’t sound like the committed man he once was, especially since falling out of favor with Coach B.


    Agreed on the symmetry or lack of the need for…I think we would agree that the point forward role is probably Dempsey’s best role anyway.

    Also agreed–per our last commentary–that after LD and Timmy, Davies is the least replaceable. I am mortified that Donovan becoming the talk of soccer and reaching his potential happened precisely when CD was introduced in the line-up ahead of him.

    Granted the Ticos sat back at RFK, but LD’s performance was decidedly, well pre-Egypt game of the Confed Cup.

    I mean, who are the other options ahead of him, Eddie Johnson?! Rolfe, perhaps?!


  4. I know you’ve called the 3-5-2 out as being an antiquated formation, but pretend Gooch and DeMerit didn’t get hurt and call it more of a 3-2-2-2. We would’ve had three decent center backs in Gooch, Captain Carlos, and DeMerit, and we have plenty of central midfielders that like to play the d-mid/destroyer role. So put Mikey/Edu/Clark/Jones or even a Torres back there to protect the back line and pick up runners out wide and link the back line with the offense. We’d essentially have the same 4 in the back that we currently do when JB or Cherundolo strays forward and the d-mid has to cover.

    With the 3-2-3-2 we’d have more punch going forward and make use of the considerable speed that we possess on the wings with Donovan, Rogers, Holden, et al, plus we get Dempsey up top in a free role to supplement Altidore. Obviously there are issues with the formation and the personnel that are normally available, let alone our current injury issues, but I don’t think this formation has gone the way of the Beasley, yet. I used it to great affect with a U-12 team that I coached, even though possession and tracking back on D were foreign concepts to them. I realize U-12 club ball is not the same as internationals against the most talented men on the planet, but if 12 year olds could grasp (with limited instruction on my part) their roles in the system, a bunch of supremely talented and soccer intelligent individuals could as well.

    Given the injury issues and proximity, games-wise, to the WC I would prefer to see Tuesday’s Christmas tree formation (though I have issues with it when we’re being constantly barraged by a Brazil or Spain as Jozy will be left alone with no service) or a modified 4-3-3 where Landon drops back out wide (ala Thierry Henry’s favorite sports on the pitch) a little to give us more of a 4-3-1-2 look and have Dempsey and Altidore working more together.


    • I’m willing to gamble on trying a 4-3-3 or 4-3-2-1 but to me there’s no way we’re playing with a back 3 when Donovan, Dempsey or Holden are going to be our outside midfielders. Maybe Castillo is the type of player that could function as wing-back in a 3-5-2, but suddenly you’re talking about a radical overhaul, not fairly subtle tinkering that plays to the strength of your players. Successful systems are developed around the players available, rather than shoe-horning players into a system.

      The decision of which areas of the pitch are most important to defend is complicated by the fact that we’re counterattacking team, so our defensive pressure is what creates scoring opportunities. Beyond the basic formation, I think Bob Bradley’s #1 tactical concern needs to be figuring out how we defend in the moments after we lose possession. With this team, I am not so concerned about scoring goals – with speed, power and directness, they will come. I think the team is working on not losing the ball in area of most danger – the triangle between FB, DM and CB – and has started to improve in this area. If you lose the ball there, it’s impossible to be well-organized in the moments after losing possession and panic defending ensues.

      BTW, this incredibly knowledgeable blogger from Brazil writes extensively on the use of 3-5-2 in his country here: It is highly recommended if you enjoy this side of the game. On the continued popularity of 3-5-2 system in Brazil while it fell into disuse in Europe he quotes Luxemburgo on the system’s intention of liberating your wing-backs by adding an extra central defender.

      We don’t have wingbacks of any description to liberate, so I’d much rather stick to the traditional back 4. I don’t feel like 3-5-2 is suited to counterattacking style as much as teams that keep possession well enough that the fullbacks frequently want to join the attack. If a team playing the system concedes too much possession they end up like the ticos – playing a 5-3-2 without the outlets needed to spring a truly dangerous counterattack up the wing.


  5. Posted by Shane on 2009/10/23 at 9:46 AM

    I like the 4-3-3 Idea.. I think that LD should play LF, Dempsey RF, Jozy ST… Then maybe move Robbie Rogers and Stu Holden on the Right and left mid Respectfully, With a Bradley or Torres in the middle…


    • Posted by Kevin on 2009/10/25 at 6:54 PM

      I hear everyone wanting Torres in the middle, but can I ask you why? Sorry to pick on you a little bit, but before the Ticos game everyone complained he had a lack of defending skills, and now everyone wants to see him on the pitch where he is required to have good defensive skills. I may have placed him a little more centrally in my version of the christmas tree, but I was doing so because of his ability to attack and stay on the left side not because he can sniff out attacks, and start his own because that’s why I have Jone on the lineup.

      Why is anybody considering him there?


  6. Posted by Matthew N on 2009/10/23 at 11:26 AM

    I like the 4-4-1-1 with JZA up top, Deuce behind him (a la Torres and Stevie G), Donovan/Torres(attacking)/Bradley(holding)/Holden, whatever back line we can put together, with timmy in goal.


  7. Posted by Swa on 2009/10/23 at 11:54 AM

    Reading this entry and commentary on the throne and putting some philosophical thought into it I’m really starting to dig the 3-5-2/3-2-3-2 idea. Backline is presumed Gooch, ElCap, and One-Eyed Jay (who NEEDS to wear an eye patch for the WC), which I understand could put a great deal of pressure on Timmy if it backfires and may not work out if there are injury setbacks but this is why the next two are hugely important.

    I’m staying away from JJ unless he gets at least 8 caps by June. This is going to be nearly impossible if there are at most 12 matches but I think this strenuous standard is necessary so we’re not gambling on a still unknown quantity (not necessarily unknown but unknown on the pitch to these particular teammates). In front of the backline I have visions of Edu coming back strong and leading ‘Gers back from the depths to the CL knockout stages and then having a strong second half to earn a starting spot, with JFT next to him. But what about Bornstein as one of these two? His offensive promise has been documented and it’s true that he has only been a left back since he made it to MLS. But in this position there is less pressure on him defensively since he has some serious muscle behind him and I think that helps him get out of his own head and shut down any enemy attacks that come his way. He can essentially be a fourth back at times and if the formation looks to be floundering early he can drop back there for good, but further up the pitch he’ll have more passing/clearing options which also greatly reduces the risk of mistakes like at Rio Tinto. He can get up the pitch a little more, link up with Lando and provide some new looks. Something to ponder.

    Ahead of the defensive phalanx we’re obviously going to have Lando on the left side, and I like Junior/Benny in the middle and Holden/Rogers on the right. We all know who’s playing up top.

    I don’t think this formation changes anyone’s role a great deal other than potentially Bornstein but I think that’s for the best. The key, as always, is keeping possession but with a stopper like Edu back in the fold we should do a lot more of that.


    • Posted by Kevin on 2009/10/25 at 7:05 PM

      I can see the success in the midfield scheme, but sadly it falls short in the back. the backline you mention would have to be quick enough to get out to the wings and defend if need, and they’re not. We would need to call up some speedy center backs like Cameron or convert some midfielders because we can have one big slow guy and thats it. Two outside guys should have a good frame, but be quick which is hard to find. As for your midfield I think it can work, but not the way you have it. Edu and Jr. (if not using Jones) as your Defensive mids. on the left Torres, right Stu and in the middle Lando. It gives him more freedom, and if we can’t find someone to replace Davies we have to move Lando a little. He can play it and we all know it. up top you said “We all know who’s playing up top.” but we really don’t. I want to see JZA and (due to fellow reader opinion) Deuce. Cooper probably compliments JZA the best, but for now Deuce.


  8. Posted by matthewsf on 2009/10/23 at 3:11 PM

    I’ll have to add more in the follow-up. I just don’t think the USMNT has the right backs for 3 in the back. That leaves so much space to attack the US already has challenges in defensive communication: see 2nd goal by the Ticos at RFK.

    To play long with Swa’s thoughts on the 3-5-2 just for a Friday. Given our personnel, I think if you were really trying to craft a backline (regardless of injury), your best bet would be Edu, DeMerit and Bornstein.

    You need speed and strength, Edu and DeMerit have this to an extent. I’m always impressed when I see DeMerit who can handle a match-up with Dos Santos (August 12th) and Fabiano (Confed Cup). I know Fabiano turned on him hard for the 1st goal, but that was just textbook from an excellent striker.

    DeMerit narrowly beats out Gooch, Edu mans the right (Spector is far to slow and challenged in position to make that work). Cherundolo is an option, but to me it’s a toss up between ‘Dolo and Bornstein on the wings and I go with Bornstein, well, just because I’m a fan.

    So Edu, DeMerit, and Bornstein as your back 3–I don’t know what you put on top of it (maybe Castillo who I think at the end of the day is a trailing halfback), after that it’s a crap shoot.

    I know you want to use Edu as part of the 5, but I need him for the back right.


  9. Posted by Antonio H. on 2009/10/23 at 8:57 PM

    Respongdint to the problem of having enough width for crosses on the pitch. Sorry to say but i wouldnt want Stuey in the middle. Save him as a Supersub for dempsey on the flanks and let themid 3 shift down and over to fill the possible holes for the crosses. But if Dempsey was in(and we know he’s not much of a crosser) we shouldnt realy worry about converting and attacking on the crosses on his side of the pitch. Maybe the play would be more reminiscent of what we saw 10/10 with the build up action.

    Also about the 1v1 perspective while having the mid help the CB’s. If there’s anyone i want isolated 1v1 its Stevie C. He’s pretty damn quick/fast and has much better positioning than Bornstein. Otherwise I’d go with JB because his speed somewhat makes up for his positioning deficiencies

    @Shane i dont really know about putting El Pistolero y Iceman and Left and Right Mid respectively. I mean come on man, those guys are absolute monsters on the sideline. Especially Robbie. I’ve watched a few Crew games in the CCL and let me tell you, Robbie was born straddling that sideline


  10. hmm, i feel like you might be overlooking an option or two. someone else already mentioned the 4411 with clint behind jozy, and i think that should be looked at seriously for sure. I also think the 4-2-3-1 needs to be put out there. I guess you could consider this a 4-5-1 as well but it looks very different then what we saw this summer. Considering the fact that the strength of the USMNT currently is holding midfielders, and presumably when both jones and edu are healthy, they will warrant playtime, I really thinking taking a hard look at it during a friendly would be worthwhile. ignoring the backline, which presumably will work itself out to be something like castillo/bocanegra, demerit/bocanegra onyewu/demerit, spector/stevie c and be at least sturdy, if not spectacular like it was at times this summer, leaves the midfield to be the key. Between Jones/Edu/Bradley/Clark I feel like at least two will be quite in form, and as long as Bob is willing to let them play together in the pre cup friendlies, there will be a solid pairing of defensive mids. This leaves Donovan, Dempsey, Holden, Torres and Benny to man the 3 relatively attacking midfield positions, probably with Donovan Dempsey Holden your primary option. This really opens up a lot of options attacking wise, as Donovan and Dempsey are quite interchangable, and now have less defensive responsibility. Each of them seems to combine with Altidore well, and Holden has proved himself to be dangerous on the wing. Sure, this puts more pressure on Jozy, but with Landon buzzing around at high speeds and Demps being able to float a little more, I think this formation might have some promise. However I don’t think you can really rule Chuck Deezy out, count me in for seeing him in 2010 in a starting and starring role.


  11. […] followed this column with Part II that suggested that the answer to the USMNT striking problem may lay not with the players […]


  12. […] followed this column with Part II that suggested that the answer to the USMNT striking problem may lay not with the players […]


  13. […] as we get closer here. Check out the latter columns of the “Who Strikes?” series. Part II and Part III. Part III is one of my favorite pieces I’ve written….wait, did I say that […]


  14. […] you haven’t checked out the previous ones, it’s worth a gander before this one: Part I, Part II, and Part […]


  15. […] Bob Bradley is still searching for players, formations, and options among realizations in CD9’s […]


  16. […] for those new to TSG, here is Part I, Part II, Part III, & Part IV — they are worth meandering through if you’re just catching up […]


  17. […] First, I recommend looking at this piece from June 2010 (World Cup 2014: Scribbled On The Gym Wall) and this piece from nearly a year ago, October 2009 (“Who Strikes? What’s the Formation?) […]


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