Posted by: mdegeorge | June 11, 2011

A concern that strikes to the heart of Team USA

The United States will go as far in the next World Cup as its starting forward line elects to take it.

Seems like a bold statement that may ring a bit premature two days short of three years to the day of the opening of the tournament in Rio de Janeiro. But it’s good to get it out there in the open so that in three years and three weeks’ time, when the tournament is all said and done for the Red, White and Blue, at least I’ll have that link to post and say with absolute certitude, “We said this a while ago.”

Consider this: Over the United States’ last four-plus tournaments – the World Cups in 2006 and 2010, the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup which it one by sending the A-team, the 2009 Confederations Cup and the first two games of the 2011 Gold Cup – the team has scored 31 goals (excluding Christian Zaccardo’s own goal in 2006; the guys needs a break from that) in 20 games (a respectable ratio). Of those 31 goals however, only six have been scored by forwards. SIX!

Juan Agudelo. Courtesy of Creative Commons.

(A little perspective on those numbers: Of the nations recognized as international powers, there is much more of a goal-scoring burden shouldered by strikers. Brazil, for example, over the last four major tournaments – substituting the 2007 Copa America for 2007 Gold Cup – has 24 goals from strikers, 13 from midfielders, and nine from defenders, much more in line with what you would expect. In Europe, the striker/midfielder/defender ratio of goals for Germany, Spain and Netherlands in major tournament dating to 2006 are 26/9/4; 29/9/2; and 9/11/0, respectively. The only remotely outside of the conventional “more strikers’ goals than midfielders’” mold is the Dutch, but that due in large part to the inclusion of Arjen Robben as a midfielder rather than a forward.)

Of those measly six tallies, only two have come from a player still remotely in the national team picture (Jozy Altidore). The others have come from a 30-something likely done with the national team (Brian Ching), a journeyman in the lower leagues of England who the national team is likely done with (Eddie Johnson), Charlie Davies, of whom no one is quite sure what to think, and the color commentator for the Philadelphia Union (Taylor Twellman).

Meanwhile, the midfield has accounted for 22 of the United States’ 31 goals in these major competitions. The defense corps, not to be out done, has accounted for only three fewer goals than the strikers. (Consider who Frankie Hejduk ranks ahead of on this list and then consider the term “recognized forward.”)

It’s not only quantity, but think quality. Pick an iconic goal, one emblematic of the international prestige this program thinks itself capable of, and see whose foot it came off of. The winner in the 2007 Gold Cup: a stunner by Benny Feilhaber. The equalizer against Slovenia in the World Cup: Michael Bradley. The winner to seal progress against Algeria: Landon Donovan. Midfielders all.

Part of the problem is an extremely talented crop of midfielders like Donovan and Clint Dempsey, who quite frankly would score in bunches regardless of who was towing the forward line. But it’s also had the United States profoundly trapped moving forward, literally and figuratively.

Around a year ago, head coach Bob Bradley came to the uncomfortable realization that the 4-5-1 system he had long preferred was no longer the way to get the best out of his team. Isolating Altidore as the lone striker rendered him largely a spectator, as the 21-year-old still lacks the ability to flag down passes played into him and hold possession for longer than it takes to get a pass off in the general direction of a teammate. More often than not, Altidore’s best contribution is to get fouled; all too often, however, that results in a flop and the ball moving in the opposite direction.

The failure of Altidore to develop into the top-flight striker as his promise foretold is now a lead anchor weighing down the national team. The book is certainly not closed on his development, but it’s hard for anyone to say that a player that in three seasons in three European leagues who has only three more league goals than I do hasn’t been a disappointment. It’s not only the numbers; he just doesn’t seem to fit as neatly as he should into the U.S. side after 37 appearances. It seems most of best offensive buildups (aside from an excellent performance in the Canada game) occur when he is a spectator. The U.S. attack is built around who they believe Altidore can become, which at the moment is a far cry from who the player is.

And yet, the dearth of a secondary striking option renders Altidore a virtual lock, game-in and game-out. The role of partner, meanwhile, is occupied by a revolving door of flashes in the European pan (Kenny Cooper, Johnson, Davies when healthy) and MLS stars (Robbie Findley, Jeff Cunningham, Conor Casey, Edson Buddle, Ching, etc.). The latest two installments in the latter category are less-than-ably filling the role now, with Juan Agudelo as a poor man’s occupant of the role a healthy Davies filled in the halcyon days of the Confederations Cup when he was able to make runs off the few balls Altidore managed to corral and Chris Wondolowski, the pride of Chico State University. It’s starting to resemble the shuffle that’s occurred in net for England the better part of the last decade, only there’s no superstar like Joe Hart waiting in the wings.

Agudelo’s seductive performance against Argentina in March has made him the apple of Bob Bradley’s eye. The obvious parallels between he and Altidore – ascent to the national team at age 18, foreign heritage, development with the Red Bulls program, long name that starts with an “A” that spellcheck doesn’t agree with – is hopefully not indicative of a similar slowness of development. Another parallel is Bob Bradley’s inability to look past him in team selection. And it’s hard for him not to, as Wondolowski, whose national team career (and it will prove to be a short cameo) will be defined by a howler of a miss on the potential equalizer in the defeat to Panama Saturday, is the only other option on this team and quite possibly in the entire American pipeline.

Therein lies the handcuffs placed on Bob Bradley. The best formation for the United States, says conventional wisdom, is a 4-4-2. But Bob Bradley has to regularly select a starting XI a.) with only one viable striking option (on a good day) and b.) more depth in the midfield than he knows what to do with. Depth would be a luxury, you might think. But seeing as how three of the spots in the midfield are iron-clad locks – Dempsey, Donovan, and Michael Bradley – the job of Papa Bradley each match is basically to decide what flavor of central midfielder he wants to trot out there and then place the blame of a lackluster performance on that person’s shoulders the next time out by switching things up.

It renders the presence of Maurice Edu and Jermaine Jones and Ricardo Clark among the top league of Europe meaningless, since ideally only one is needed at a time. It makes Feilhaber an option as a substitute only and turns Jose Torres into persona non grata.

And where in this layout do opportunities arise for Stuart Holden, arguably the person in the program improving at the fastest rate (hype surrounding Agudelo excluded)? Or for an attacking player like Alejandro Bedoya? Or a hybrid central/wing player like Sasha Klejstan? Surely the latter two have to have a place in the side for times other than desperation days when the U.S. is down at halftime.

Even then though, a coherent substitution plan doesn’t come to fruition. For example, when attack-minded changes were called for after a 2-0 halftime deficit Saturday to Panama, Bob Bradley did call on Bedoya and Klejstan, two players who have been improving rapidly in Europe. They came at the expense of Agudelo and Jones, respectively (more on that in a minute) in the 59th minute. In a formation somewhat somewhere between a 4-4-2 and a 4-5-1, the U.S. was able to get on the board via a Clarence Goodson header. But when more attacking changes were deemed necessary in the 77th minute, it was Goodson who gave way for the bumbling Wondolowski. Wouldn’t it seem more prudent to keep the most offensively adept defender you have in Goodson on the pitch as long as possible, maximizing the offensive potential of that position, and instead withdraw Tim Ream, who had a dreadful night? Or maybe substitute in one striker whose not going to give you anything for another striker who hasn’t given you anything (that’s you, Jozy.)

Or more completely, wouldn’t it seem that the boost given by Bedoya instead of two languishing strikers was part of the improved movement and creativity of the side?

This Gold Cup is understood to be merely a prelude to bigger competitions to come. Though an embarrassing defeat, the loss to Panama won’t turn the U.S. out of the tournament – unless they lay a Virginia-vs.-Chaminade-sized egg against Guadeloupe (which would see the locks to Bob Bradley’s door in Bradenton changed before he even boarded the flight from Kansas City).

But as a preview of things to come, it’s a reminder to Coach Bradley that formational changes have to be made. The midfield depth may not lend itself to a straight 4-5-1 in which the U.S. was stymied by midfield congestion and striker isolation. But perhaps another approach is feasible. Dempsey has proven that ability to play – and score, what a novelty! – as a support striker. Perhaps playing him on the shoulder of Altidore lessens the load of possession on the latter and allows someone like Holden or Bedoya or even Klejstan into the side. The team could even tinker with a 4-3-3, with Donovan and Dempsey given the outright mandate to stay up high and support the central striker. Though the U.S. lacks the quintessential central striker that makes this Dutch model work (think Ruud van Nistelrooy in his prime), it would give more freedom for central movement by the wing forwards, as well as allow time and space for Michael Bradley, Edu and company in the midfield once the back four is pushed back.

Holden has to come into the side at some point, and it’s going to be at the expense of a striker. That is of course unless a striker happens to materialize from the ether and prove that he can actually score with regularity. History suggests they don’t wait up for the latter to arrive.

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Responses

  1. Great points. Just wondering…Who was the last great U.S. forward? We import our goal scorers just as we do our top shelf cars, wine and soccer coaches. I still don’t believe there’s enough incentive for athletes to choose professional soccer over other sports.

    (Did I misspell my name again?)

    • Brian McBride maybe? Just anyone who looks more consistent against teams that aren’t Guadeloupe and Trinidad and Tobago.

  2. […] lead. But it also torpedoed efforts later to infuse some life into the comeback attempt. Since I last checked in on the U.S. after the Panama loss, they have scored six goals as a team. That brings the total of […]

  3. […] Bradley closed his reign, his team selection became too predictable as I’ve lamented before. Too many players in his squad were untouchable – Donovan, Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, son Michael […]


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