The car crash that killed one and left U.S. forward Charlie Davies with a fractured tibia, femur, and elbow, lacerated bladder, and facial fractures has much larger implications than soccer.
But for a federation coming to grips with expectations of success, the loss of Davies is as large a setback the U.S. has had to deal with. With no player seemingly able to fill in for Davies in a like-for-like manner, coach Bob Bradley will have to get creative in his lineups culminating in South Africa next June.
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Bradley’s 4-4-2 formation has always been employed with a combination of speed and strength at the forward positions. Rotating through players like Brian Ching, Conor Casey, Kenny Cooper, and many times inserting midfielders Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey often times left much to be desired from the forwards. The bulk of the scoring came from Donovan, Dempsey, and set pieces.
Davies and his strike partner and roommate, Jozy Altidore, changed that for the U.S. Although neither have the pedigree of young strikers from established soccer nations, both Davies and Altidore have the ability to score and complemented each other well for the national team.
In the final World Cup qualifying match against Costa Rica, just one day after Davies’ accident, Bradley teamed Altidore with Conor Casey. Casey looked out of his depth for most of the match before being substituted.
The answer for the U.S. is not trying to find a like-for-like swap at forward with Casey, Ching, Cooper, or shoehorning in Donovan or Dempsey. What the U.S. needs to do is reshape its starting XI to accommodate its lack of quality and depth at forward and use its youth and depth of midfielders to their advantage.
Bradley has relied on a midfield consisting of Donovan and Dempsey on the wings with Ricardo Clark and Michael Bradley in the center of the park. When these four are playing as they can, this recipe has proven successful, if not entertaining. With these players, there is no direct link between the midfield and the forwards. Michael Bradley’s distribution has improved since his inclusion in the squad, but he still lacks vision to make plays happen as his position requires.
What the U.S. needs is a link between midfield and forward. Altidore has proven he has the size and ability to play in a lone striker role — he just needs someone to get him the ball in dangerous areas and someone to play off him in relative proximity.
Freddy Adu has been an enigma for Bob Bradley. His small size makes him unreliable as a forward, his lack of defensive capabilities make him a liability as a central midfielder and his vision and passing would be wasted on the wing.
If Bob Bradley were to experiment with a 4-4-1-1 with Adu slotted in behind Altidore and in front of Michael Bradley, this could give the U.S. the creativity it’s been lacking and help relieve some of the offensive pressure on Altidore, Donovan, and Dempsey. This would allow Adu the freedom to roam in advanced positions and utilize his vision and precise passing in the most effective manner.
Bob Bradley has been hesitant to use Adu, but the thought of a 4-4-1-1 may still be the best bet at effectively replacing the offense the U.S. will miss through the injury to Davies. Benny Feilhaber has the playmaking abilities to relish in this role as well.
Donovan spent years in an attacking midfield role under former coach Bruce Arena. There’s no reason why he couldn’t succeed there again and with the emergence of Stuart Holden and Dempsey’s ability to play effectively on either wing, the midfield would be just as strong.
With the emergence of Holden, it brings up the depth of wingers and success of Donovan and Dempsey as strikers. Meaning that the likely answer is that Bob Bradley won’t risk tweaking the way his midfield plays by inserting a Steven Gerrard-esque player.
The likely answer will be moving Dempsey’s trickery and nose for goal up front to partner Altidore. It’s the safe bet and the safe bet is always Bob Bradley’s favored option.
Austin Lindberg is a contributor forBleacher Report, the open source sports network.