On June 12 the United States will kick off their World Cup campaign against England. Hopes are high that the U.S. National Team can give the No. 3 team in the world a run for their money in the first game en route to the elimination rounds. The U.S. will also face Algeria and Slovenia in the group stages.
This feels different from 2006 when the U.S. faced high expectations coming off of a surprising 2002 quarterfinal run that ended with a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to eventual runners-up Germany. In fact in many ways this U.S. team is much more similar to the 2002 team than the 2006 rendition ever was.
Sure the 2006 team had many holdovers, but Claudio Reyna, John O'Brien, Brian McBride and Eddie Pope were past their primes and provided little value on the counterattacks the U.S. depends upon heavily for offense and lacked the athleticism to pressure the opposing team when in possession.
After crashing out in disappointing fashion in the first round, Bob Bradley was given the reins to the head coaching job after the Jurgen Klinsmann affair never came to fruition. During his time he had to search for successors to step in for the players that helped lead the U.S. to a respectable standing internationally after being regarded as upstarts previously.
More than that he had to find players that would help make soccer relevant and provide the lasting success that 2002 seemed teased us with. Not an easy task especially when you get one shot every four years to stoke interest in American sports fans who are already preoccupied with football, basketball, baseball and hockey.
So how close are we to finding the right combination to spark us to some success in South Africa? Close, but the key will be finding the right combination to get us there.Let's start from the top, since scoring goals is at a premium in soccer. This is why players like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are considered the best players in the world, because no matter how many chances you create if there's nobody there to finish them then it goes to waste.
While Bradley has favored a 4-4-2 formation, I would go with a 4-2-3-1.
We don't have players like Messi or CR9 (I liked CR7 better myself) on our squad that can create goals from nothing, but having a big target man like Jozy Altidore up top is a great start. His large frame, physicality and holdup play is the perfect complement to players like Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey and allows them to make runs from the wing for Jozy to utilize. His presence in the box attracts defenders and creates the space for other players to exploit. While not as proficient in the air as McBride, he is more skilled with the ball at his feet and at 20 years old has a bright future ahead of him.
Behind Altidore is where the selection gets tricky especially with the injury of Charlie Davies. His pace was an invaluable commodity in a forward for a team that lacks depth and quality in that department. With Davies not included in the team, I would like to see Dempsey pushed up leading the three attacking midfielders in the center slightly ahead of the wingers, playing as a supporting striker behind Altidore.
His most memorable performances internationally have been when he has been pushed up top as he was in the second half of the Confederations Cup semi-finals last summer against Spain in the second half. Dempsey can shoot from distance and his creativity would be invaluable in pairing with Altidore up top.
On the wings to complement Altidore and Dempsey, I'd start with DaMarcus Beasley on the left and Donovan on the right to reprise their roles from 2002. Both players have the pace and stamina to get up and support their strikers, hit quickly on counterattacks and most importantly can get back and defend. Beasley has looked reinvigorated in his most recent national team appearances and Donovan is easily the most decorated American player of all time.
If there is one player on the team that must play at their maximum ability for the U.S. to actually have a chance at upsetting some of the big boys it's Donovan. A captain must lead by example and Donovan must make this his tournament.
The holding midfielders would be key in this formation and Michael Bradley's inclusion in this role is beyond reproach. Bradley has been the most consistent performer for the national team over the past two years and has shown an ability to get counterattacks started with his ability to distribute the ball out to the wings and strikers. He's comfortable in possession and is very technical on the ball.
The biggest weakness in his game remains his tendency to commit rash fouls and pickup fouls. Remember he didn't play in the Confederations Cup Finals last summer because of this. Bradley is nearly irreplaceable in this team and if he does succumb again to his poor tackling instincts at any point we're likely to be heading back from South Africa.
I would partner Bradley with Maurice Edu who had a good season for Rangers in Scotland and like Bradley is effective playing in the holding role. While not as good at distribution as his partner, Edu's commitment defensively, support play in attacks and ability on the ball will be crucial to controlling the midfield, a task the U.S. has struggled with greatly against top quality opposition. These two have the potential to provide the impetus in both defense and attack just as Reyna and O'Brien did so successfully in 2002.
The quartet of Bradley, Edu, Donovan and Beasley must be able to control possession to alleviate pressure on the defense at times. Too often the ball has been kicked forward and Altidore is forced to chase it, hold up play against multiple defenders as he waits for attackers to join him. This is not a winning strategy that can work long-term against the likes of Spain, Brazil, England and the rest of the world's elite teams.
Possessing the ball is important and also putting pressure on the ball when the other team is in possession is vital to the U.S.'s World Cup hopes. As we saw in the friendly against the Czech Republic this week and against the Netherlands back in March, allowing top midfielders the time and space to operate is a death sentence. Eventually they will pick you apart with a precise pass or get off a clean shot from distance themselves.
The defense is really where the U.S. is shakiest. The forgotten hero of the 2002 World Cup was Tony Sanneh who's forays forward from the right back position gave the team an added boost on the attack. That team also had a young Frankie Hedjuk as the other fullback and was anchored by the steady Eddie Pope in the center.
The U.S. defense right is now can be described as shaky as best. Oguchi Onyewu is recovering from knee surgery and his lift and explosion have not reached his pre-injury levels. Quick athletic strikers like Wayne Rooney will give Onyewu headaches. His partner Jay DeMerit is steady and is good in the air, but he is best served as Onyewu's deputy, not as the sheriff of the backline himself.
If the center-halves are a problem, the fullback situation is an absolute nightmare. Jonathan Spector has been in awful form all year for West Ham in England and Jonathan Bornstein is a sieve. The U.S. will need one of these two to have career performances if they expect to advance. Carlos Bocanegra is a steady player, though how he recovers from injury will be something to monitor. Players with pace will give him trouble, but as it stands he may be the closes thing we have to a sure bet in the backline and that's a point of concern.
The backline as a whole must obviously defend effectively, but they must do more than just that. As guilty as the midfield has been in the past for failing to control possession the defense is just as, if more culpable for this. Possession generally starts when a team falters in the other team's defensive area. The best teams in the world have players in their backlines comfortable in possession that can push forward or work the ball around to a better position.
The U.S. struggles with this and more than not looks to simply clear the ball and prepare itself for the next attack rather than using the opportunity to start a spell of possession themselves. With a defense this shaky it is imperative this team shows the ability to control the ball rather than desperatel try and clear it up.
This is a U.S. team that in many ways has replaced the heroes of 2002 themselves. Altidore has become the target man McBride was. Bradley adds some steel and calm to the midfield like Claudio Reyna, while Donovan and Beasley will look to repeat their success from eight years ago. Can we overcome a shaky defense and an inability to keep possession? It seems unlikely, but the talent is definitely there as it was eight years ago and puts us in a better position than we were in 2006.