Has Bob Bradley finally learned to play to the strengths of his team? After floundering through eleven months since the 2010 World Cup using the infamous “empty bucket” system, the USA took the field on Sunday in an aggressive 4-2-3-1 formation that loaded up midfield.
With the injury absences of Stuart Holden and Benny Feilhaber limiting his options, Bradley selected Sacha Kljestan and Alejandro Bedoya for the CONCACAF Gold Cup. So far, they have come up trumps for the US team. They have brought energy and skill to a team that was sleepwalking for long periods during the group phase and in the buildup to the tournament.
Considering the lack of production from American forwards over the years, changing to this formation has been long overdue. The US midfielders have high fitness levels and are capable of supporting a single striker with three advanced attacking midfielders. Once Holden and Feilhaber are fit again, there will be terrific competition for places in the team. Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley, and Jermaine Jones are near automatic choices, but reinforcements will always be needed as injuries and cautions can stretch the resources of a thin roster.
If only the strikers could be more threatening. Jozy Altidore’s unfortunate hamstring injury has reduced the US forward options to Juan Agudelo and Chris Wondolowski. That won’t cause Mexico any sleepless nights. However, Donovan’s return to midfield will move either Bedoya or Kljestan to the bench, increasing Bradley’s flexibility late in the semifinal against Panama.
Bradley Gets Blame and Credit
While Bradley should rightly be praised for finally seeing the light, his team selections will have to come under increased scrutiny. Given Bedoya’s excellent form at the club level and solid performances in the Gold Cup, why wasn’t he in the squad to start? Bradley only brought him in when Feilhaber injured his ankle. Why was Robbie Rogers selected? His club form has been poor and he took up a roster spot that could have been used by another striker like Herculez Gomez or Edson Buddle, who have at least scored at the club level recently if not all too frequently.
The US team has developed a personality of fighting back when things look bad, but why do they let things get bad before fighting back? Having the team spirit and mental strength to battle back from losing positions is a great trait in a team. When it happens too often though, the manager’s ability to prepare the team for games has to be questioned.
The American team, in order to become a consistently competitive international side, has to be the aggressor, seizing games from the start instead of floundering. Even in a game with as convincing a win as the result over Jamaica, Tim Howard had to make a stunning save in the first few minutes to prevent yet another disastrous start.
In Wednesday’s semifinal, the USA will be favored against Panama, who will be without key forward Blas Perez due to a red card suspension. It’s a chance for instant redemption after the humiliating defeat in Tampa. Starting strong will be vital for the Americans. The US must continue to improve on Sunday’s win over Jamaica, because there is little doubt that winning on Wednesday will mean a battle with Mexico on Saturday for the championship.