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Five-man midfield the answer for U.S.?
The best way to describe the U.S. national team’s performance in Tuesday’s scoreless draw against Colombia is like an episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, the show where old houses are torn down and rebuilt into beautiful homes.
Bob Bradley is the contractor trying to rebuild the U.S. team into a revamped and improved squad for the 2014 World Cup, only the process of rebuilding and reaching the goal of a beautiful finished product will have its ugly and difficult moments.
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One of those ugly and difficult moments came on Tuesday night. For the second straight match, the Americans tried new systems and new personnel, and for the second straight match the results left plenty to be desired. That won’t make Bradley happy, but these past two matches were more about what he could learn about new faces and new systems than about the scoreboard.
This applied to Tuesday’s match against Colombia, which was always going to be an exercise in experimentation, both with tactics and personnel. Playing a new system against a stingy defense was destined to make for an ugly match, but the value of that process is in the lessons learned from the experience.
So what did we learn?
We learned that Jermaine Jones is a talented player, but we also learned that shoe-horning Jones, Maurice Edu and Michael Bradley together in central midfield may not work, or at the very least will take some time. We also learned that the offense struggles to find a spark when both Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey are missing (okay, so maybe that last one shouldn‘t have been a revelation).
Bradley’s latest system experiment was supposed to be a 4-3-3, with Jones, Edu and Bradley operating in a revolving midfield triangle where Edu was tasked with spending more time supporting the attacking forays of Jones and Bradley. The trio struggled badly with their spacing and timing of their runs and supporting movements. It was pretty clear that, with the exception of Michael Bradley’s time in a similar system at Heerenveen, the trio wasn’t all that familiar or comfortable working in the system.
With the triangle struggling to function, and with wingers Brek Shea and Stuart Holden dropping too far back for the system to be a true 4-3-3, Bradley’s experiment devolved into a 4-5-1 where nobody was capable of generating an incisive attacking pass. That left Jozy Altidore to starve for service and left the U.S. attack toothless against a Colombian defense that was much tougher than Poland‘s.
Things changed dramatically in the second half when Bradley switched to a more familiar 4-4-2 and inserted Clint Dempsey into the lineup. The addition of Dempsey, and of Benny Feilhaber later in the second half, helped give the U.S. team more fluidity and offensive purpose, while the addition of Eddie Johnson alongside Altidore gave American midfielders more options to work with.
Does this mean that the experiments of five-man midfields should end for the United States?
That’s hardly the case. Truth be told, we won’t fully know the capacity of a five-man American midfield until Landon Donovan, Dempsey, Holden Jones and Bradley are able to play together. The 4-2-3-1 deployed against Poland showed enough spark to suggest that Bradley is doing the right thing by taking a long look at systems with five midfielders.
Eddie Johnson didn’t exactly give Bradley reason to think that playing two forwards is something to seriously consider any time soon. The Fulham striker struggled to capitalize on opportunities, and one sequence where he lost possession rather than lay a simple pass off to a streaking Jermaine Jones in the penalty area stood out as more evidence that Johnson isn’t quite ready to be a key national team contributor.
Altidore didn’t exactly have a good night either, but you still see the explosiveness and strength he possesses and how it can trouble opposing defenses. He is still learning and growing as a striker, but he’s far and away the best option in the pool. That’s something Bradley has clearly accepted and is now working to cultivate.
One new face who failed to impress was Brek Shea, who looked about as overwhelmed as you would expect a 20-year old to look in his national team debut. He is young and raw and miles from contributing to the national team, but he is talented and should be a part of the team’s January camp.
Tuesday’s match wasn’t all about toothless attacks and tactical experimentation. The American defense enjoyed a very promising night against a Colombian side that certainly had some threats on the counter. Oguchi Onyewu improved on his Poland performance, moving well and playing with confidence for 45 minutes. He wasn't the only defender to stand out.
Clarence Goodson was steady and confident in the back, boosting his stock in the race for playing time at center back. Heath Pearce was very good at left back, showing good speed and an ability to deal with quick wingers. Eric Lichaj came on as a second-half substitute and made his national team debut a successful one, providing pace on the right, as well as good service. He is still young and learning, but he has the look of a player who can take over when Steve Cherundolo is ready to hang up the boots.
Bradley will have some time now to assess the state of the U.S. team, with the Nov. 17th friendly against South Africa the next chance to see the team together. He already hinted that he won’t be fielding a full-strength squad for that match and we may not get a chance to see what can be considered a first team until March.
In the meantime, Bradley will continue to tinker and look at different lineups and new faces. The reconstruction of the national team will take time, and it is sure to have its ugly steps like Tuesday night’s performance, but it is clear that work is well underway on Extreme Makeover: U.S. national team edition.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the U.S. national team and Major League Soccer.