Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Middle of the Road?

photo by Scott Meis Photographyvia PhotoRee

If it's Tuesday it must be Coach Mark,  back today with additional analysis of the US Mens National team, which is in action tomorrow in the Gold Cup Semi-final vs. Panama. 

The U.S.' 2-0 victory over Jamaica on Sunday provides a nice segway to talk about the U.S. midfield prospects for the next World Cup.

The first three games of the Gold Cup showed Bob Bradley's challenge in the U.S. midfield, and Sunday's game offered some potential solutions. The problem that the US has is that it has too many players who play the same position and offer similar skills: Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley are clones; defensive, physical midfielders who will run until their legs fall off ,and bring some skill into the attack, but not enough to create chances at the highest levels of play. Bob Bradley likes them both on the field at the same time. It's a tough pairing from a goal creation standpoint, and over the last ten games the two defensive mid lineup has produced a dearth of goals. They are both hard players to take off the field and Bradley has been unwilling of late to go to a more conventional midfield arrangement.

But they are not the only problem in the US attack. Equally as challenging is that Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey are both best when they are playing the second forward position. Bradley has been trying them on the flanks with very little success (or success from the flanks, anyway). Whether by design or sheer stubbornness, Clint Dempsey seems to play where he wants to on the field regardless of where you put him. He likes to tuck in just behind the forward and get that ball at the top of the penalty box. Occasionally, he likes to drop deeper and play some center midfield, a position he has shown an increasing ability to handle. Bradley has tried him on the left flank, the right flank, and when the US gets behind in a game, at the 2nd forward where he belongs. Despite being designated in these three different positions, he always seem to crowd the middle and take that second forward or attacking midfield spot, designed assignment be damned.

In the entire Gold Cup I can't think of a cross that has come off his foot from a flank. On the positive side, despite numerous missed chances, I think he's been as dangerous as any player on the attack in the history of US soccer. He has three goals, but could easily have seven. In almost every game he's been the most confident player on the field, and has shown a willingness and ability to buy time with the ball at his feet with some increasingly fancy footwork while his teammates make their runs. It's an art that has rarely existed in US soccer history -- only Claudia Reyna and occasionally Tab Ramos come to mind.

Dempsey has also been on frame on almost all of his set pieces. It's only a matter of time before he touches net. The last time the US had a dangerous free kick artist was the last Clint, Clint Mathis. While Landon Donovan is the best player in US soccer history, I think the best player in any particular season was Mathis before his second knee injury. His lethal free kicks and ability to strike from distance gave him something the US almost never has; the player who can score from distance. Dempsey and his assortment of creative strikes from near and far, has put him into the discussion of single season greats. Now all he needs is a coach that will play him at either that second forward or the attacking mid spot. At this point, he could probably handle either as he showed today against Jamaica. The one place he can't be is on the flanks, as his propensity to slide middle narrows the US attack. That will work against Guadeloupe but it won't work against Mexico. There have to be balls coming from the flanks, and they can't all come off the foot of Steve Cherundolo.

Now onto our other misplaced player: why Landon Donovan is not a great right wing is a bit of mystery. All of the parts are there: the speed, wicked cross, the solid dribbling ability. But for whatever reason, Donovan just isn't the same player out wide as he is in the middle of the field. He just doesn't like to take the ball wide and challenge for corners. He passed on a couple opportunities after he came on as a substitute Sunday, and historically, when he takes somebody on he almost always takes it at goal. He's a better flank player than Dempsey, in that at least he stays out on the wing. But his forte is the counter attack and running onto crosses, not making them.

Like Dempsey he's best at the second forward, and his second best position is the attacking mid spot. While not a great ball control player from that position, Donovan has an ability to run at defenses with speed that can be lethal. On an international level he's a grade "C" wing player, but at the second forward in a system that is designed to counter attack with speed, Donovan is world class. It's a special niche, and maybe he should be playing for the Italian national team where counter attacking with speed is an art, but that's where he's at his best. When he came into the game today, for a brief period he switched spots with Juan Agudelo up top and was magic. Within a few minutes he made two very dangerous counterattacking runs that both could have led to goals. He had more breakaway threats in two minutes than the three US forwards have had all tournament.

Sunday was also notable in that it saw Bob Bradley introduced two midfield players who both play wide better than either Dempsey or Donovan. The eye opener for US soccer is that with Donovan out of the lineup for pretty much the first time in a decade, the US soccer world did not stop rotating. In fact, at least in terms of wing play, it looked better. Sacha Kjlesten had his best game as an international and showed a deft touch on the ball that is matched in the U.S. Midfield by only Dempsey. He made several crosses from the right side that have been long missing from the U.S. Attack. From the left side Alejandro Bedoya put in another strong performance.

In addition to making great runs, Bedoya has shown a fearlessness taking on defenders that even Donovan
sometimes lacks. Activity has surrounded him when he has come into games. I would not over emphasize today's result as Jamaica looked just plain complacent, but there was more width and balls coming at the Jamaican goal at a lot more angles than in any recent US game. Moving Dempsey to the middle was a huge plus and it's where he needs to stay. Kjlesten and Bedoya both made arguments that they can change the US attack by providing better flank play.

Up until today, Bradley has basically put his best 11 on the field, and the problem is the US best 11 probably aren't what makes the US' best team. The US is desperate for help at forward and it's time to move Dempsey or Donovan into a second forward slot.

Juan Agudelo is exciting but a couple years away from being a difference maker. He also has an issue in that he's part of the US player cloning system and is  a near clone of Jozy Altiore, the other strong, skilled forward who is not big enough to be a dominant aerial player and not fast enough to create breakaway goals. Altidore, Agudelo and Wondolski have all had their chances and none of them are even close to having the success of Dempsey and Donovan upfront. I'd go as far to say that you could forfeit the aerial attack completely and put both Dempsey and Donovan up top and you'd still have a more dangerous lineup than any of the current forward matchings. Donovan could not win a head ball to save his life, but the threat of him getting behind defenders would scare most coaches more than Jozy Altidore in the air. Altidore  does a great job of playing human punching bag while fighting for goal kicks, but he scores with his head at a fraction of the rate that Brian McBride did.

Realistically that pairing won't happen, but what does need to happen is that Michael Bradley or Jermaine Jones should be taken off the field. Right now Jones is hot and it should be Bradley that sits -- and that's not going to happen. Clint Dempsey should be moved to the midfield, his second best position, in order to get Landon Donovan into the second forward spot where he's a word class counter attacking threat. Sasha Kjlesten warrants another shot at right midfield, at least until our eventual right mid, Stuart Holden, recovers from injury. Holden gives the US a lethal flank player and strong defensive presence, the combination of which it doesn't have elsewhere in the system. On the left Bedoya is not a natural lefty, but should get another look until the US can find a left side playmaker who can give us the kind of play from that side that we have not seen since Eddie Lewis left the team.

That doesn't put the US's best 11 on the field, but offensively it should lead to more production. Defensively it's a bit risky to take Bradley or Jones off the field, but Dempsey has to rise to that occasion, and once Holden returns, the US will have a true two way stud to help provide defensive support.

As for potential players that may come into the mix, look for Brek Shea to return shortly. He's young, big, fast and physical and -- crucially -- a natural lefty. He just scored his sixth goal for Dallas, and I'd be surprised if he didn't work his way into the fold. At 6'3 and 21 years of age, he's got attitude and a ton of potential. He'll be 24 by next world cup and may arrive just in time.

The other player to watch is obviously Stuart Holden. When healthy, he's the best natural midfielder in the US system. He's either going to take Jones spot and push Bradley back to defensive mid, or push Donovan up to the second forward by taking the wing (my guess is the latter). Other than those two, I don't think you'll see many new names in the midfield. Maurice Edu will continue to get his chances, but he's he's got a tough road to hoe with Bradley and Jones in the way.

The other player I wouldn't count out just yet is old Freddy Adu, who just turned 22. Maybe not this Cup, but the not-so-young anymore Freddy is not done at the international level yet. Freddy can't play a lick of defense and can't make a run off the ball to save his life, but I am guessing that somewhere in the next four or five years the lightbulb is going to go and Freddy's going to realize that when you are 5' 6 you have to hustle. Freddy's ball skills are still unmatched in the US system and I think he'll have some kind of role as an attacking midfielder before he's done.

This is farlieonfootie for June 22.

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