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Five key questions for U.S. in 2011
For all the unforgettable highs and painful lows that 2010 had for the U.S. men’s national team, and U.S. Soccer in general, the past year will likely be remembered as the one that could have been so much better.
There isn’t anything that can be done now about losing the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, and no matter how many times you watch Asamoah Gyan’s World Cup game-winner the shot won’t ever go over the crossbar.
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That’s the beautiful thing about a new year and a new World Cup cycle. Instead of dwelling on what might have been, we can now start to think about what could be.
With a generation of players coming into their own, and an ever-deepening pool of talent to choose from, Bob Bradley will be given every opportunity to help the U.S. team improve on the results of the past four-year World Cup cycle.
That cycle begins with 2011, and the biggest goal of the new year, winning this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup. The team has already loaded up its schedule with tough matches against Egypt, Argentina and Paraguay, which should give us a good idea of whether the United States is ready to build on the past four years, or take a step back before making progress.
As we move into the new year, and new cycle, here are five key questions facing the U.S. national team in 2011.
What formation will Bob Bradley settle on?
Bradley stayed married to the 4-4-2 in the previous cycle, a decision that proved costly as it became clear the national team didn’t have the forwards to run it effectively.
Bradley has shown a willingness to try new systems post-2010 World Cup, which seemed inevitable given the pool’s lack of forwards and wealth of central midfielders. The United States should focus on playing a variation of a 4-2-3-1, which would best suit the team's current personnel.
Whichever system Bradley turns to, upcoming friendlies against Egypt, Argentina and Paraguay will give him the chance to test it out against top competition ahead of the Gold Cup.
Who will start in central midfield?
Bradley will be faced with some tough decisions when it comes time to figure out his first-choice lineup. With Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley and Maurice Edu all very good options in the middle, and with Stuart Holden emerging as a force in the Premier League, Bradley has four top options for two to three spots.
Bradley’s dilemma was clear to see in an October friendly against Colombia, when he tried playing Jones, Bradley and Edu together in a variation of a 4-3-3 (that played more like a 4-5-1). The trio struggled, and while Bradley explained it away as having to do with playing a new system, the reality is the three players may just not fit well in midfield together.
What Bradley could do in order to get all four of his standout central midfielders on the field together is move Edu to central defense and play Holden in front of Jones and Michael Bradley in a 4-2-3-1. Edu isn’t a natural center back, but Bradley has tried him there and believes his passing out of the back can make the United States a better team.
If that experiment doesn’t work, or if Clarence Goodson or one of the young center backs in the pipeline steps up to take a starting role in central defense, Bradley may have no choice but to bench one of his four standouts. Then again, given the injury issues Jones, Edu and Holden have faced in the past, that depth may come in very handy.
Which young defenders will emerge?
As admirable as it is that both Steve Cherundolo and Carlos Bocanegra are still playing at high levels in Europe and both stand good chances of starting for the United States at this summer’s Gold Cup despite both being 31 years old, the reality is the United States needs to get younger in a hurry.
There are several good young prospects, particularly in central defense, and that is sure to be the area on the field Bradley focuses on rebuilding. Oguchi Onyewu should solidify his place as the leader of the central defense now that he has left AC Milan for more playing time at FC Twente. If Goodson can’t lock up the spot alongside Onyewu, then players such as Omar Gonzalez and Tim Ream will be called on to fill the role.
If none of the young center backs step up, you can bet that Bradley will take a longer look at Maurice Edu in central defense.
Will Jozy Altidore find his scoring touch?
As valuable as Landon Donovan, Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey are to the U.S. national team, there may be no player who’s future is more tied to the team’s success than Altidore.
The young striker struggled to find the net for most of 2010, whether at Hull City, with the United States, or at Villarreal. His hold-up play as a target forward showed improvement, along with his work rate, but the national team needs him to be able to finish chances created by the likes of Donovan, Dempsey and Stuart Holden.
The concern about Altidore's form will continue to grow if he keeps struggling for minutes with Spanish side Villarreal. There are rumors of a potential loan move to Sporting Gijon. Playing time is key for the 21-year old, especially if he's going to be called in to lead the U.S. attack as the lone striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Will new attacking threats emerge?
We enter a new cycle but are still talking about the same offensive threats in Donovan, Dempsey and Altidore. If the United States is going to win back the Gold Cup, it will need some added depth offensively.
Juan Agudelo and Teal Bunbury are both very promising strikers, while Norwegian-born midfielder Mikkel Diskerud could develop into a difference-making attacking midfielder. Alejandro Bedoya was on the fringes of the World Cup squad in 2010 and is coming off a strong season in Sweden. They each bring dynamic qualities that can only help a U.S. team that managed just one goal in its past four matches.
While the aforementioned youngsters may find it tough to crack the starting lineup, they could all be very helpful in giving the United States some sorely needed offensive depth.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the U.S. national team and Major League Soccer.