Wednesday, January 10, 2007
Esteemed colleague Peter Kratzel was recently kind enough to put forth an inital to-do list for Bob Bradley to follow. With camp now open and the first game under new management fast approaching, I felt it was time to be a bit more foreboding.
The new man in charge of the US National Team has many great responsibilities, surely none more taxing than wading through the list of "do nots" I will now submit without being asked.
I won't be hovering imposingly over coach Bradley's shoulder at the HDC and there won't be any mobile phone scolding sessions - I'll just have to trust him on this stuff.
Believe in the prophet of doom, coach, or know he will take a superior "I told you so" attitude.
There's no need to shudder, as most of these should cause little surprise. However, seeing as common sense often failed to rule in 2006, I didn't want to get into a situation where these things went unsaid.
We've got an exciting summer ahead, and you need to show the federation Bob Bradley is the man to steer the ship towards World Cup 2010.
So grab a comfy chair and a beverage, so we can go over the (unofficial) official list of no-no's...
1)Don't play Bobby Convey (or DaMarcus Beasley or Eddie Lewis or ...) as a left back
It can be very tempting to spend hours shuffling the deck to get your best 11 players in the same line-up. Here's the problem: the best unit is so rarely made up of the best 11 players, especially in the international game, where it is not possible to sling cash to fill a hole.
With the left side crowd facilitating previous Convey and Lewis experiments, as well as discussion of Beasley sliding back, it's important we face facts.
Let's start with Lewis, the only one to have played left back with his club. He has performed admirably in short stints with both Leeds United and the 'Nats, but should really only be an emergency option.
Even setting aside the considerable fact that outside back positions requires more sprinting than any other, the 32-year old is never going to be the optimal left back choice against a top opponent - so why should he ever start there when you can give guys like Todd Dunivant, Heath Pearce and Jonathan Spector much needed international seasoning?
As for Beasley and Convey, moving them back was always a horrible idea. Not only would you be pulling them away from the areas of their games that make them special, but neither is even remotely capable of defending the position properly.
Many observers will insist Beasley is a great defender... and for an attacker, he certainly is splendid at tracking back. However, periodically sneaking up behind an unsuspecting midfielder and keeping track of a tricky winger for 90 minutes are not the same thing.
Play your left backs at left back and make the tough decisions elsewhere. Problems on the flank stretch entire defenses out of shape, as central players tend to wander from their proper position to plug the leak.
The players we have at that position need work at this level. If you don't feel those players are acceptable choices, then let's stop messing around with experiments and alter the strategy to exclude classic raiding wingbacks.
The world is not short of offense coming from the right, so it doesn't take a top team to punish any decision to field an attack welcome mat at left back.
2)Don't play Landon Donovan as a forward
This is the same deal as Lewis; if he wouldn't be the choice against Argentina, then let's not make him the choice against Guatemala.
The dilemma is created when Donovan starts the lesser game as a forward; before you know it, everyone else seems like a lark when the big game arrives.
What works in the league does not always work in international play, especially (ducks) when the league is MLS. No offense, but he isn't running up against any Cannavaro/Nesta pairings at Pizza Hut Park.
If we aspire to claimed heights, as fans and as a federation, the guy needs to be able to find seams and teammates for maximum effectiveness.
He can still move forward in the odd pinch - but if you absolutely must have the ultimate homeboy up front, it's time to go to three across the top with wingers. It's quite doable because he excels at things like beating isolated defenders, combination passing, cutbacks and attacking the weak side.
Donovan's best times with the US have usually come when he is key to the build, not when he is at the end of a scoring move pieced together by others. He's a good scorer for a midfielder, but does not possess the ice cold finishing of top level striker.
As with left back, we have several youngsters that might be capable of making a forward place their own. They will never be capable of facing the fire against Mexico if we can't trust them against Denmark's second team.
While we're on the subject of Donovan, let's make sure he doesn't wear the armband. We are in rally mode as a National Team, and the captaincy requires someone who will openly command everyone's respect.
Without delving into the question of whether he is or isn't being all he can be professionally, I think we can all agree that Lanny is no fire and brimstone spirit guide.
3)Don't be so secretive
Obviously, as a reporter, I would appreciate some guard drop during press conferences, but this is really meant for the players.
The US National Team is not a club, where you can practice together everyday and shift people around more smoothly. The squad will do better as a group if everyone knows what their role is ahead of time.
When World Cup players are telling reporters that they're not exactly sure what the game plan was or what part they might play in the next match, we have a problem.
Bruce Arena had us all expecting some diabolical plan with all his World Cup 2006 secrecy, but it never appeared. Despite using the same exact tactics against three wildly different group foes, he somehow managed to confuse his own players.
Clubs also get a long season to correct mistakes made in a single contest, but national teams are geared for tournament play. The pressure is intense: produce on the spot or bags get packed.
There's something to be said for holding cards away from the opponent, of course, but it's not that hard to be mysterious when the other team hasn't seen you for six years. Meanwhile, I doubt CONCACAF teams are struggling for insight on our play.
But what difference does it really make? Bradley could outline our super secret tactics on Telemundo and Hugo Sanchez would probably assume he was running a scam.
A coach doesn't shock anyone with a crazy formation or line-up, he does that with small wrinkles applied to a familiar set. If our opponents are always clueless as to what they should expect from us, how can we ever pull a fast one?
In any event, I'd rather have a well-oiled machine of renown than a sputtering vehicle with tinted windows. I doubt anyone was bewildered with what the US were doing at World Cup 2002. Those guys simply knew their jobs and did them admirably, nothing more.
4)Don't be so conservative
Seriously... what happened to our gung ho style? There were flashes of it in Germany, but flashes are for qualifying. At the World Cup, an underdog team must impose itself.
The act carries with it a fair share of inherent defiance, but walking on the field with extra chip on the shoulder is optimum. Since when did American underdogs play it safe? When did we start waiting for our breaks?
I thought we made them, carved from stone like Rushmore. I thought the way to make an American do something was to tell him that nobody believes he can do it.
I didn't see a whole lot of respect paid to Italy, and no wonder, it was our best offering last summer. The other two games showed a lack of fire, and worse, a shocking lack of tempo. So what if our strengths line up with stratagems that are difficult to master?
Should we now be reluctant to do our thing just because the word is out that we can play a little? Isn't that playing scared?
The pool of players at Bradley's disposal demands a buzzing system that goes for goal after getting in your shirt on defense. The opponent receives precious little time on the ball, turnovers become one-touch breakouts, leads are to be built upon and not protected.
One can't reach a new level by regressing tactically. As I said, the US didn't do anything earth shattering in 2002, they just did the normal stuff top teams do better than anyone imagined.
By definition, underdogs must perform above general expectation to succeed. Greece may not have resembled the Los Angeles Lakers at Euro 2004, but they didn't lie in wait for the siege either.
Nobody is asking for Brazilian futebol, but our success has always come as a result of Yank brashness (or is it brash Yankness?).
I don't recall the 1980 US Olympic hockey team relying on the opposition to foul up for them, they went out and forced mistakes as if it was the most natural thing for them to be doing. They went out and made their own luck, like Americans.
It's time to get back to making game plans based on what we want to do to them. We are no longer laughable outsiders trying to hang in there and snatch a winner.
Seriously... if I ever see another hesitant 4-4-1-1 in a must-win game, my head will explode.
5)Don't schedule friendlies away from FIFA dates
I know we Americans have this thing nowadays where we like to do things differently than the rest of the world, if only just because. That can be all well and good, but we really need to stick to this particular program best we can.
To begin with, friendlies on non-FIFA dates often segregate what should be a unit into two specific groups. Now, I can be temporarily down with the upcoming Denmark friendly, which will exclude nearly a full team's worth of pool players working in England and Germany.
I understand we need to get busy to make up for six months of inertia and Bradley wants to eyeball a pack of newbies - but let's not make a habit of working away from open dates that allow our best to gather.
Dating back to the start of 2005, five of our last nine friendlies have been held outside the FIFA agenda, and constant division of the group has proven to be problematic. Last June, the US had trouble staying on the same page against Ghana and practically looked like confused strangers in the Czech Republic loss.
If that's not bad enough, scheduling these games also ensures that we will face a lesser version of the opponent in question. If we can't get Carlos Bocanegra, you know Norway won't be calling in Ole Gunnar Solskjśr to duel him. They will call in Raymond Kvisik instead, and bless his heart, Raymond Kvisik does not prepare anyone for the tournament of his life.
A team trying to put a new act together needs to be tested. They need to face adversity and repair kinks. Hell, they probably need to fail a few times before they get it right.
I'm not going to quibble with the intermittent scheduling of mid-level nations; there's only so many top tier opponents to go around, and they often play each other. I'd rather face the best Costa Rica has to offer on a FIFA date than smack around an name brand C squad off the world's agreed schedule.
What can I say? Sometimes, you gotta join 'em to beat 'em when it really matters.