THE RIGHT IDEA
US Under-20 National Team coach Thomas Rongen recently revealed to the media that this year's team has been structured in a 4-3-3 formation.
For some time prior to Rongen's official announcement, a number of us at YA had noticed that the team was well suited to playing the 4-3-3 - both in the classical formation and in a number of modern variations, such as the 4-3-1-2 and the 4-2-3-1.
Let's start with the classic, made famous by the Dutch: three forwards (a natural left winger, a "#9" center forward and natural right winger), three midfielders (an attacking midfielder, a link player and a holding midfielder) and four defenders.
Rongen outlined the framework for the players in his most recent US Soccer pod cast. He listed Amaeche Igwe, Robbie Rogers, Johann Smith and Sal Zizzo as his wingers, based upon their experiences, natural tendencies and athletic qualities.
Of this set, it appears that Smith will start at the left wing role, backed-up by Amaeche Igwe. Everyone has noted Smith's speed and athleticism when he has been used as a forward - will he be as effective at the left wing?
His talents are compelling and it will be interesting to watch. While Igwe is naturally left-footed, Smith can play comfortably on either the left or right side, a factor that no doubt played a role in Rongen's decision of formation.
Well acquainted with the responsibilities of a 4-3-3 right wing from his professional training, Rogers will start at the right wing role, backed up by Zizzo. Although Rogers played at times on the left for Maryland, he has been groomed at Heerenveen in the right wing, and appears to be equally comfortable with either foot.
Rongen outlined that either Andre Akpan, Josmer Altidore or Preston Zimmerman will be his high player, although it seems most likely at this point that Altidore will get the starting nod.
Altidore has been recovering from a thumb injury sustained during the MLS playoffs. Rongen reports that the player is not yet 100%, yet Jozy has recently been putting in 70-80 minutes in practice games.
Of the three, Altidore is the best finisher and also sports a long-range shot - an interesting feature which could generate unpredictability.
In the midfield, Rongen has outlined that Freddy Adu will be the starting attacking midfielder, backed up by Jonathan Villanueva. Either Bryan Arguez or Tony Wallace will be the link player and have the ability to play box-to-box. Danny Szetela will be the holding midfielder, backed up by Tony Beltran.
Rongen's decision on midfield players was greatly influenced by Heerenveen's refusal to release Michael Bradley for the qualifying tournament. Bradley could either have played as link player or holding midfielder, in the latter case pushing Szetela up field.
Rongen decided on Villanueva over Dax McCarty for the attack midfield back-up, probably by only a slight margin. He observed that McCarty did not play well enough defensively for the link player role.
The back four will most likely be (left to right) Tim Ward, Nathan Sturgis, Julian Valentin and Quavas Kirk. Ofori Sarkodie has the potential to compete with Valentin for a starting spot, but could be kept on the bench.
Left back Ward will be expected to link up convincingly with converted winger Smith, likewise right back Kirk with Rogers. Both Ward and Kirk have demonstrated that they can make runs up the wings in both professional and youth national team play.
Now here's where it gets interesting; this group of midfielders and forwards has substantial versatility to play in different roles than the ones outlined and remain a fluid force on the field.
These qualities will be important at the U-20 World Cup this summer, as the skills of their opponents will be substantial. I recently watched a number of CONMEBOL qualifier games and the individual technical skills of the players are superb.
Furthermore, the best teams are also superbly organized tactically. In fact, Argentina's U-20 team played so fluidly that it was difficult to see what formation they were using.
Smith and Altidore could conceivably change roles, with Altidore playing the left wing. Both Adu and Villanueva can also play the left wing, as they have previously done. Rogers can also transfer to the left side, allowing Smith, Zizzo or Kirk to play the right wing role, with Beltran or Sarkodie moving to right back.
Both Tim Ward and Nathan Sturgis also have experience playing as defensive midfielders. The permutations this team can comfortably assume are numerous.
The team can also play variations such as the 4-3-1-2, by fielding two forwards (Altidore and Smith, for example) backed up by Adu in the hole. The midfield would be composed of end-to-end players like Arguez, Beltran, Szetela, Villanueva and Wallace. The back four would more-or-less remain as outlined above.
This variation was commonly used by Juventus under both Marcello Lippi (who coached Italy to the World Cup championship this past summer) and Carlo Ancelotti. The variation can be quite dynamic in using width with the right group of players.
Alternatively, the team can play a 4-2-3-1, using the same high forwards and wingers as Rongen outlined for his 4-3-3. Pushing Adu up behind the high player and altering the midfield to include two defensive midfield destroyers: Szetela and either Arguez, Beltran or Wallace.
This variation has been used by both France and Portugal to great effect, and our current player pool could also wield it well. The set would allow four attackers to put considerable pressure in the final third, allowing Altidore to have great freedom to dance around and change his markers.
He'd be supported by the creative abilities of those directly behind him, most notably Adu. The formation is sufficiently dynamic to allow almost the entire team to either push up on the attack or get back on defense.
The 4-2-3-1 can also be altered to a 4-2-1-3 by having the left and right wingers run up field as forwards and Freddy Adu drop back to midfield. It's clear that our current squad has considerable versatility, both on an individual level and in a team tactical sense.
Even so, our players will need to be ready, willing and enthusiastic to take opponents on one-on-one in order to make these formations work. Our outside backs will need to be well organized defensively with the center backs first and foremost, shrewdly contributing overlapping runs up field.
If Rongen's idea goes as well as I believe it can, our team will be fluid enough to make it difficult for opponents to see precisely what formation we're using.