Thursday, November 16, 2006
There was a time not too long ago when US fans always knew they were holding a strong hand, no matter who was on the other side of the felt playing table.

Naturally, much of it had to do with confidence in goalkeeping and a forward that worked like a hockey player. Still, the greatest boost of confidence happened whenever John O'Brien and Claudio Reyna were fit to patrol the middle together.

Anytime they weren't available as a tandem, sweat began noticeably beading up on our collective brow. Of course, we didn't really even need to wait until Captain America retired or Johnny O re-disappeared to worry what we were gonna do from now on - that has been going on since early 2003.

I can only assume that, like me, you favor seven-card stud for your poker. Let's say the US chips are looking a bit measly at the moment.

Do yourself a favor: take heart, take a breath, take two fingers and call that cute waitress over to order a complimentary Crown and ginger ale (which, I can only assume, everyone drinks).

The next deal won't be about what we're showing - not yet anyway. If a smooth, versatile midfield tandem in Red, White & Blue is enough to settle your nerves, you should feel twice the ice in your veins knowing that most nations won't see Michael Bradley and Benny Feilhaber coming.

They are mature young men with mature games - poker face coolness in the high traffic area of the field has been their calling card for two years. They are similar enough to be interchangeable in the middle, yet different enough to make the perfect pair.

Heerenveen prodigy Bradley is a calming influence, the guy coach Gertjan Verbeek is carefully grooming to replace highly respected veteran Paul Bosvelt, who captained Feyenoord to the 2002 UEFA Cup title.

The 19-year old seems 25, on and off the field. He is no dribble wizard, but recognizes when the time is right to burst forward. He is capable of sending incisive lead passes down either wing, but doesn't force them into quick turnovers.

Bradley has increasingly shown two exciting abilities for an international central midfielder: resistance to physical play and a worrisome shot from 20-25 yards. Three times this season, he has waltzed into a space at the top of the box and come close to blasting a late goal from off of the bench.

Verbeek has given special attention to this grooming, with one-on-one discussions after matches and carefully controlled allotments of playing time.

Bradley was pressed into duty the final five games of last term, but now does not hold a place after his best 90 minutes in blue and white stripes, a recent sound derby defeat of nearby nemesis FC Groningen.

Meanwhile, Hamburg upstart Feilhaber is lightning in a bottle, but shrewd enough to play a largely mistake-free game. He is currently keeping a defensive midfield starting place, despite the fact that some of manager Thomas Doll's injured stars have regained fitness.

He has the tight control to dribble out of three people, and has learned quickly how to angle his body to absorb Bundesliga-grade bumps. The 21-year old owns an assortment of through balls, but picks his spots to attack well enough that he has formed a quick chemistry with HSV talisman Rafael van der Vaart.

Soft spoken away from the field, the former UCLA Bruin displays remarkable confidence and wherewithal during a match. Feilhaber also recently revealed that he has grasped German to the point where he can skip English altogether on the pitch.

Like Bradley, he has made a promising debut in Europe, going the distance in a loss to Champions League foe FC Porto. The club are mired in a grim slide, but it is through no fault of the American's.

It is no secret that I feel the US National Team should move to a 4-3-3, which is not just for Oranje anymore.

This is partially based, of course, on my love for the system, but look at who currently uses or recently used the set (in one skin or another): Barcelona, Chelsea and Lyon... France, Greece and Portugal. I spy a lot of winners on that list.

Regardless of any bias, the particulars of our remaining and forthcoming squad members make this formation one we should attempt to master in the coming years - if only to bust out on unsuspecting heavyweights like a hole card straight.

It's only a shame we waited until Brian McBride wasn't available to play the #9 spot. I'd say shame on you, Bruce - but we are past that now.

The chip stacks are crumbling and we need a new table strategy. The problem with sticking to the odds play is you can't raise your chances when the stakes are high.

Can anyone daydream into the future and imagine Convey and Dempsey running opposite flanks like headless chickens? How about Pearce and Cherundolo raiding along the line from line to line? Johnson rediscovering his inner goal monster? Donovan rediscovering his inner playmaker?

Now imagine a fully developed Benny & Mickey show in midfield because without a proper spine (which may well include, say, Gibbs and Gooch), the front and wide players won't get to do their business... just ask Real Madrid.

Where to position them? Doesn't matter!

Put Feilhaber behind Bradley, with Donovan ahead of them. Put Mastroeni behind them, with Feilhaber in the #10 slot. How about Adu-Feilhaber-Bradley (front to back) after at least two full seasons of European seasoning for each?

Just for fun, let's say you prefer a box... or a diamond... or a 3-5-2... or just a simple flat midfield line.

Where to position them? Doesn't matter!

In a way, Bradley and Feilhaber represent a bridge to the O'Brien/Reyna era of security. Their ability to take up different midfield positions, separated in task by nuance, with equal skill should lower Sam's Army blood pressures for the next decade.

The question certainly remains as to whether they can reach the level of consistent quality provided by the previous central duo of merit, but they do have the potential to surpass them.

The young Yanks hold cards that have been missing from the US deck, such as Bradley's distance shot and Feilhaber's ability to crack open a back line on the ball.

I suspect both will get some playing time during the busy summer of '07 and I suspect 'Nats supporters will like what they see.

I suspect Feilhaber will get called in for Copa América duty because of the obvious Latin aspects of his game, and I recommend that Bradley come with, hopefully as a World Youth Championships medal winner.

I believe it is best to pair these two up as soon as possible. They can't stay "in the hole" forever, but they could fill two for a time to come.

Granted, they aren't yet ready to claim the big pot - but, trust me, these boys are no jokers. Both have surprised observers to get where they are, and both should almost seem like cards up the sleeve.

And maybe, just maybe, someday we will all get stressed out over what we will do when Bradley and Feilhaber are gone.