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BRENT LATHAM - Friday, October 16, 2009
Yuri Cortez/Getty
Torres could be a revelation
When I wrote a month or so ago – before the El Salvador qualifier – lamenting the tight spot the US had gotten itself into in the Hex, I mentioned the possibility that the US could simply prove its regional superiority by winning its next three or four matches and erasing all doubts about the trip to South Africa, without a pressure packed final showdown in Washington, DC.

The tense moments Wednesday against Costa Rica, even with nothing on the line but pride, demonstrate why Bob Bradley and his team deserve a lot of credit for having done just that, if not exactly in the triumphant fashion that we might have hoped. If that Carlos Pavon penalty kick goes in instead of over the bar, the Nats might have been looking at 2-0 deficit and a road trip to Uruguay 25 minutes into the Costa Rica match.

But winning three hexagonal games in a row, two of them on the road, is no small feat, so first let's give credit where credit is due. Victories over El Salvador, and Trinidad & Tobago on the road, have been hard for teams to come by this year, and beating Honduras in Central America had been impossible until the Americans managed it.

The Hexagonal was a rocky road this go-round, not only for the Americans but for a pretty good Mexico team as well. While plenty of ink had been spilled on the struggles of the "giants of CONCACAF," few have taken the time to note what should have become obvious months ago.

This Hexagonal was a qualifying "perfect storm," of sorts, one that would have left a lesser American team on the outside looking in.

The vagaries of qualifying in this region mean classification from the Hex is as much an exercise in chaos theory as it is in quality soccer. With only three spots up for grabs (the playoff lifeline is a shaky one at best as we all know), given the off possibility that there are four teams that outclass the other two by a long way, the dynamic becomes an unforgiving one in which any slip up can amount to doom.

Bruce Arena has been adverting for years that the day will come when the US will fail to qualify for a World Cup, and this Hexagonal provided all the necessary factors to make that day the present. The stars are not likely to line up this way again for years, maybe decades.

The US dodged a bullet with aplomb, so give the Americans a little bit of their just due for escaping. But that doesn't make everything all right in the US soccer camp.

In addition to the confidence and sense of accomplishment inspired by the recent unbeaten streak, the manner in which the Americans suffered in each of their final four matches should provide a clear warning that improvement is needed if the US is to succeed at next year's World Cup.

Resting on the laurels of qualification and thinking that this team is good enough to do well in South Africa in its current form is a recipe for disaster. The team and style of play that got the US through a ten game qualifying tournament in CONCACAF will not necessarily get the Americans anywhere in the World Cup, and Bradley will need to realize that if the Americans are to succeed on their second visit to the Continent in the span of a year.

What US fans should fear most at this point is any false sense of security that arises from this qualifying triumph, and prevents the Americans from raising their game to the next level by next summer.

Without listing all the individual players involved again, there are a number of personnel issues that need to be answered still. To compete at the World Cup, the US still needs improvement across the back line, a consistent second and third option in the center of defense, a more solid destroyer in midfield, and a frequently dangerous secondary option at forward.

That's quite a laundry list, but the good news is that potential solutions are available almost across the board, and they all should be tried between now and next summer. The danger – and this is a real one given Bradley's reticence to try new options - is that the coach puts on blinders and tries to mold the core group he is working with into the solutions to all his problems, adding only experienced but limited veterans to fill holes rather than looking to improve with a wider pool of options. That's one reason it was disappointing to see so little experimentation in the Costa Rica match –which should have been a pretty good chance to test out options and build a little depth.

Another issue just as urgent as the personnel conundrums is that of style of play. The Americans seem to have developed a pair of frustrating tendencies which could thwart any chance of emerging from their group at the World Cup.

The first is the preference for longball when falling behind. If the US insists on whacking the ball hopefully up the field when it falls behind in the group stage – which it almost certainly will sooner or later – then the chances of advancing will be greatly reduced.

A long service into the box actually paid off in the clincher against Honduras when Conor Casey scored what amounted to a fortunate goal to tie the score, but that sort of strategy, equivalent to playing a soccer lottery, is not likely to get the US very far against the quality they will face in South Africa.

There does look to already be some improvement on this front, and it was inspiring to see the US control the ball for most of the match while down against Costa Rica. We need to see more of that in matches that actually count for something.

The second issue to be addressed is the flip side of the coin. The Americans simply must play with more confidence when they get the lead in important matches, looking for the killer goal rather than bunkering down in back and hoping for the best. El Salvador, Trinidad and Tobago, and especially Honduras all managed to create ample dangerous chances in the closing minutes with the Americans holding on desperately to leads they needed to keep.

The CONCACAF rivals, especially Carlos Pavon and Honduras, blew their golden chances, but the opponents of the class the US will need to beat to reach the knockout stages at the World Cup likely will not. We have all criticized Bradley's overly defensive tendencies in the past, but there are times in a match – up 3-1 with 15 minutes to play on the road in a game in which a win means World Cup qualification, for example – when an extra defender or holding midfielder would be a good thing.

As important as playing from behind with a cool head, Bradley and his team will need to learn to control tempo and possession when ahead in the next few months. In that mold, Jose Francisco Torres is the best number 10 we've got, and he should be on the field much, much more, as the American game changes when it works through him at the crux of the attack. A potential central midfield tandem of Torres and Jermaine Jones would be something to behold from both an offensive and defensive standpoint.

The danger, again, is that the qualifying success convinces Bradley that the status quo is the best possible scenario, and these tantalizing options are tossed forever into the dustbin, that Jonathan Bornstein's last minute heroics Wednesday preclude experimentation with Edgar Castillo, that Jimmy Conrad and Chad Marshall are anointed the de facto backup central backs without experimenting with other options, and so forth.

Still, leaving the need for future tinkering aside, each match of this Hexagonal was a dangerous trap that, style points or no, the Nats managed to navigate adequately to achieve their primary objective. Along the way, the team has been steeled by high-pressure moments at every turn, experiences that can only help when the pressure is really ratcheted up at next year's World Cup.

That's the best reason to now expect more, not less, out of a battle-tested team at next year's World Cup. But that improvement will only come with diligent and aggressive work in the meantime towards building depth and opening up new tactical options.
JOHNS
Tuesday October 20, 2009 1:38 pm
Brent- like many fans, your thoughts about the US team seem to revolve around individual players as opposed to the unit. I doubt that anyone will contest that the US player pool (except for goalkeepers) is inferior in every way to the major contenders at the World Cup. The way we can beat them is through the kind of tough disciplined performance we saw against Spain. These performances come from good teamwork which comes from discipline,hard work and team unity. The injuries mean the US will need to cast a wider net than they might have otherwise and maybe shift people into other positions (Spector into the middle?) but it is hard to imagine a complete unknown emerging at this late date. If Jones comes through and is everything they say he is the resultant stiffening of the midfield should provide a better shield for the defense. I'm not a Marshall fan but he has been groomed to sub for Gooch so, unless he proves to be a complete bust in the upcoming exhibitions, some combination of Boca, Marshall , Conrad and Spector seems to be the best stopgap. I'd liek to see Simek come in if Spector moves inside. Replacing Davies is more problematical as his main contribution was not so much his speed and skill (though that helped) as it was his fiery, aggressive attitude which has been missing from the attack since Clint Mathis flamed out. I see no evidence of it in most of Charlie's reputed replacements.
dikranovich
Tuesday October 20, 2009 11:06 am
marcello lippi is a pretty good national team coach and it is his contention that a coach should have his favorite players. a coach has a couple of players that he is familiar with and he knows can fit into his system. these guys are very importaint and a good coach does not play the best eleven he has, but he finds the right players who fit well together.

it makes sense also because we have seen dmb play lone striker in a 4-5-1 against barbados and we have also seen dmb play left back in a 4-3-3 against costa rica. this only happened because the coach was so familiar with his boy. the fact that it worked or not is really not the point.

everyone watching the usa team can see that we are good. and when we play really good we are almost unbeatable. im stretching a little, but the point is that usa has shown that they are a real danger team. and the fans can probably see that maybe some little adjustments will maybe take this team to a higher level. jermaine jones being a prime example. usa is in a sense thriving in the face of injuries across the board and that is what makes this team different from any previous usa teams. its called depth, maybe not world class depth, but depth none the less.

and now that the chaos theory is part of usa soccer lexicon, well, then anything is possible. is coach bob bradley winning over his critics or what?
Bob
Tuesday October 20, 2009 10:49 am
Hmmm... lets see, we need to continue to experiment with players, be more confident as well as learn to control tempo and hold possession. Good luck to us with that :)

Bradley has already looked at more players than any coach previously. More confidence, controlling tempo and holding posession is only going to come from the the majority of the core group playing together. We need to play like a team to have any chance of getting out of the group stage. Argentina is stacked with world class players but as a team they're not doing so hot right now....

-Bob
Dennis Mueller
Monday October 19, 2009 3:44 pm
The basic premise of this article that BB does not bring in new players and look at them is flawed. Bradley has brought more players into national team camps than any other coach and his experimentation with players has brought lots of moaning and groaning. For instance, Charley Davies was one of the players who started in the 2007 CopaAmerica (another look at
B-team players similar to the 2009 Gold Cup); Rogers, Holden and Goodson were players who played important roles in the 2009 Gold Cup. It is not BB's lack of looking and trying new players that is the problem, the problem is that many of those looked at are found wanting. So far Bradley has called in every US player who starts for Manchester United, AC Milan, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Liverpool, Roma, Chelsea, Arsenal, Real Madrid, etc. ;>).
Last summer Torres was struggling for time at Pachuca yet people thought he should be starting for the US, now Bradley is being faulted for not trying Jones who only became US eligible has a broken leg, Castillo who similarly just became US eligible just recovered from injury, Orozco has a checkered past with red cards (Olympics and recently in Mexico). Get REAL
Where is there any evidence that Bradley thinks this team is good enough? He tinkers with the lineup all the time (however, wholesale changes are pointless at this time since whatever players come in must fit in with the likely starters). Perhaps some naive fans might things are good enough, there is no evidence Bradley does.
Ilya
Monday October 19, 2009 12:26 am
Bornstein is a midfielder. Not the best one, but... Do not you see it?

And Spector is a central defender.

And Hejduk is a left defender.

And yes, Dempsey should play as a striker.
Charlie G.
Sunday October 18, 2009 11:32 am
Good article. Now BB will be forced by recent very unfortunate circumstances to take another look at line ups...or not. These next couple of friendlies should really be telling as to what may be in store for WC2010.

I think I read that Wynalda suggested going with a 3-5-2. I'd like to see this as well - we need to be able to possess the ball with a lead, or to at least have the option of attacking from a build up. That being said, I don't see any problem with a good mix of counter attack, well-chosen long balls, as well as build up play.

An idea:

Altidore - Dempsey
Donovan
Rogers - Torres/Feilhaber - Holden
Bradley/Jones
Spector - Bocanegra - Castillo
Howard
Moscow
Saturday October 17, 2009 6:42 pm
Whether or not Gooch is healthy...Bradley must bring into the mic...Eddie Johnson (again, he is much more talented then Brian Ching, who is absoltuly useless),Zak Whitbread CB (millwall), Castillo, and J. Jones.

I hope Bradley dosent include another Jeff Agoos in the squad. This is not a time for your favorites, but the best TEAM the USMNT can bring the South America.

So, it's time Bradleys stops calling in his favorites and starts realling assesing who his best 23 are. And Im sorry to say, some of Bradleys regulars should'nt see the Atlantic ocean this summer. Possibly EVER. Well unless on holiday.
phil
Saturday October 17, 2009 3:33 pm
without davies, jones, or gooch, it's christmas tree time (or 1-5-4 with Torres as DM)

altidore
donovan dempsey
feilhaber torres rodgers
bocanegra castillo demerit spector
(subs: cooper, holden, bradley, edu, clark, cherundolo, califf, marshall, conrad, borns)

if jones is a fit and gooch gets healthy in time, here's a 4-4-2 that stands a good shot:

dempsey altidore
holden torres jones donovan
bocanegra gooch demerit spector
(subs: cooper, feilhaber, rodgers, bradley edu, castillo, cherundolo, conrad, borns)
JohnS
Saturday October 17, 2009 2:39 pm
Brent- I doubt you have to worry about Bradley "resting on his laurels" (what laurels? he is as popular with the US fans and the media as Jon Gosselin). The US has just lost it's best attacker and best defender. The team you saw at the Confed Cup and the team you saw during qualifying, they will not be in South Africa next year. Odds are there will be a major reorganzation of how the team plays. Tough to do with only a handfull of friendlies between now and the final roster submissions.
By the way, if you think Jones and Torres are a sight to behold, put them next to Senna and Xavi and they don't look that impressive. My point being the US will have to rely on teamwork and fighting spirit to get very far. So whatever they can do to preserve team cohesion is, on balance, more important than a new talent, other than Jones, Castillo and someone to replace Davies' ability to stretch the field and take pressure off of Donovan.
flatliner
Saturday October 17, 2009 12:20 pm
I was just joking....kinda. Torres is good because he passes and opens up the field. His job's never to run at people and try to beat them off the dribble. He also plays a lot smarter than Adu does, which takes physical size outta the equation.

The futsal part I was serious about. Other than Ronaldinho, very few footballers have a made a career out of playing that way. Mainly because the pitch is way to big to play fancy foot-touch. Adu was fast enough for MLS defenders, but his pace isn't fast enough to play anything other than a passing-brand of soccer.

Case in point, contrast how Torres would play going up against a Gattuso/Scholes/Jermaine Jones type of midfielder to the way Adu would. One of them passes the ball before he can be split in half, while the other tries a fancy move that only works about 20% of the time.

Adu might just prove the critics wrong, and he's got loads of years left to do it. But presently, he's not in the top 30 of effective players in the US side. All of you should quit watching those Sierra Mist commercials; there's a reason why he doesn't see the field at any of his clubs.
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