Bob Bradley: The Riverboat Gambler?? Thoughts on the Gold Cup Roster

Freddy Adu highlights a roster with several notable gambles by USMNT manager Bob Bradley. What gives?

By Neil W. Blackmon

First thought on the US Gold Cup team? Bob Bradley…riverboat gambler? What happened to the guy who started Ricardo Clark in the biggest match he ever managed?

Yesterday’s media conference call was easily the most fascinating of the long-tenured USMNT manager’s career, as he fielded all manner of questions in the wake of the release of the 2011 Gold Cup Roster. A list that nearly every media outlet covering the team anticipated would be a meat and potatoes event with little to no surprises turned out to be the opposite: a 23 man list with notable exclusions, interesting additions, and at least one shocker—the inclusion of Turkish 2nd division player Freddy Adu, yes, the same guy who once did Sierra Mist commercials with Pele. The inclusion of the seemingly lost-in-the-wilderness “American Maradona” wasn’t the only surprise—but it was the largest among a group that in the end seems to be a very attack-oriented roster featuring offensive-minded players with a diverse range of skillsets, defensive liabilities included. Before we dive into deeper analysis, here are the twenty-three patriots selected by Bob Bradley who will attempt to claim a regional championship and qualify for the 2013 Confederations Cup this June.

Goalkeepers (Club, League, Caps): Tim Howard (Everton, EPL, 58), Marcus Hahnemann (Wolves, EPL, 8), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake, MLS, 4)

Defenders (Club, League, Caps, Goals): Carlos Bocanegra (Etienne, France, 87, 12), Oguchi Onyewu (Twente, Holland, 59, 6), Jonathan Spector (West Ham United, English Championship, 30, 0), Jonathan Bornstein (UANL Tigres, Mexico, 37, 2), Steve Cherundolo (Hannover 96, Bundesliga, 65, 2), Tim Ream (New York Red Bulls, MLS, 3, 0), Eric Lichaj (Leeds United, English Championship, 3,0), Clarence Goodson (Brondby, Denmark, 8,2)

Midfielders (Club, League, Caps, Goals): Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy, MLS, 130,45), Clint Dempsey (Fulham, EPL, 70,19), MB 90 (Aston Villa (loan), EPL, 52,8), Maurice Edu (Glasgow Rangers, Scottish Premier League, 21,1), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht, Belgium, 26,4), Robbie Rogers (Columbus Crew, MLS, 10,1), Benny Feilhaber (New England Revolution, MLS, 38,2), Jermaine Jones (Blackburn Rovers, EPL, 4,0), Freddy Adu (Rizespor, Turkish 2nd Division, 15,2)

Forwards (Club, League, Caps, Goals): Jozy Altidore (Bursaspor (loan), Turkish 1st Division, 34,10), Juan Agudelo (New York Red Bulls, MLS, 4,2), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes, MLS, 1,0)

Before a bullet point discussion of the surprises, we should provide a disclaimer against the “noise in the system” that is quite critical of some of Bob Bradley’s roster choices. It is difficult, of course, to not be critical when a coach takes chances. People yesterday in the Twitter universe and on various message boards where such things are discussed and rehashed until they are blue in the face were irritated with a few of the exclusions. To those folks, a simple tapping of the brakes might be necessary. Remember that fringe players and the guys Bradley “took a chance” with are just that—fringe players. With the exception of the injured Stu Holden and USMNT regular Jay DeMerit, who we correctly identified would be left off the roster this go round—Bradley’s core remains intact. We’ve written that this tournament will be won or lost by that core—a group of seven or eight players that includes Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, MB 90, Carlos Bocanegra and to a lesser extent Jermaine Jones, Maurice Edu and Oguchi Onyewu. Those are the guys who will eat up most of the minutes, and Bradley has those guys on the roster with that understanding. Stating this important point a bit differently: it isn’t as if Bradley has altered his personnel formula for winning. Those readers pining for a Jurgen Klinsmann, for example, should keep in mind that any roster the German might have picked would probably bear a striking similarity to the one Bradley released yesterday.

With that disclaimer stated, let’s discuss the surprises, starting with the goalkeepers:

Nick Rimando was a safe choice, and Real Salt Lake fans concerned about him missing time to sit on the bench should get over it. Bradley is most likely not pleased with Brad Guzan, who is unavailable due to a wedding. Either Guzan can’t read a calendar, or he is the most whipped player in the history of the US Men’s National Team. Either way, his limited availability put Bradley in a bind. Unwilling to risk having the extremely untested David Yelldell as his third option, Bradley went with someone he trusts, Nick Rimando, on the remote-as-Mars chance that both his 1 and 2 succumb to injury during the competition.

Tim Chandler's exclusion is disappointing-- but Lichaj's inclusion is a sign Bradley can, in fact, think outside the box.

Defense:

Eric Lichaj’s selection is striking because it is a bit of out-of-the-box thinking for Bob Bradley. Lichaj is a young Steve Cherundolo “lite” type player, one who is technically gifted as a passer and offensive-minded. Lichaj, mostly through lack of experience, lacks Cherundolo’s understanding of risk, and as such is sometimes caught too far forward. He sometimes seems lackadaisical in his defense-first obligations—which is a Bradley mantra, and part of the reason his selection is an example of Bradley thinking “outside the box.” Bradley mentioned Lichaj as a potential candidate at left back, which proves Bornstein isn’t a lock to start, and also indicates that Bradley is as aware as we all are that the position continues to be the most troublesome in the US player pool. His youth, coupled with the selection of NYRB stud Tim Ream indicates the United States is serious about revamping a backline that will look drastically different very soon, perhaps even in World Cup qualifying.

Timothy Chandler’s omission was odd, even with Bradley’s stated reason—“fatigue”, and Jeff Carlisle is right to write that it is the most disappointing choice. Yes, Chandler just completed his first season abroad with Nuremburg. But he only played about half the slate—so fatigue probably shouldn’t be a great issue. What is more likely, and has been pointed out on other sites, is that Nuremburg didn’t want to part with Chandler because they value him as a young talent and thought he should have an extended summer. Bradley didn’t win the war with them for a regional championship, and perhaps to store some goodwill in the bank, didn’t call the dynamic, speedy side back in. It is a blow, no question—this is not a team with a great deal of pace and Chandler proved in his brief cameos that he is capable of changing the dynamics of a game on the flanks. Jen Chang wrote that had Chandler been on this roster, he, along with Juan Agudelo, would have been the most coveted young talent the roster possessed—and that’s true. But he isn’t and given that Cherundolo was guaranteed to start anyway—we should move on. The good news is there seems to be little reason, if you believe Bradley’s comments, to think Chandler is rethinking his USMNT allegiances, and even if he were, he’s not yet eligible to play for Germany at this point in his career. If Chandler were to wait out Germany, even with his prodigious talents it is probably a “wrong place, wrong time” situation—as the German fullbacks Phillip Lahm and Jerome Boateng aren’t exactly aging relics, and Stuttgart defender Sedar Tasci is even younger and has the advantage of having played in the German youth system, which is something that is highly valued in that country’s soccer federation.

Midfield:

Alejandro Bedoya’s exclusion is more of a statement about Bradley’s perception of Major League Soccer than anything else. Bedoya’s exclusion most certainly came at the expense of Columbus Crew winger Robbie Rogers, and while you could argue that Rogers isn’t the best left wing option from Major League Soccer (probably Brad Davis), his inclusion does certainly speak to Bradley’s opinion of the league. Bedoya is playing well in Sweden, but a compelling argument can be made that MLS at this point is markedly better competition, and as such Rogers, whose form isn’t as good, gets the benefit of the doubt. Rogers, like Bedoya, is only a fringe player, so I’m not certain people should be overreacting, but as that is the nature of the business it is worth noting that like Alejandro, Rogers is capable of providing the US speed and width, two things it certainly lacks. Bradley is desperate for speed, and Rogers is a track star compared to his other options, including the aforementioned Brad Davis. The Yanks Are Coming’s guess? Rogers’ selection becomes an afterthought as he doesn’t feature for more than ten minutes in the competition. In the end, it has been suggested that Bradley has simply had a long-time love affair with the immense “on paper talent” of Robbie Rogers, and that’s why he’s included. We at TYAC don’t think so. First, Bedoya hasn’t been any more productive than RR in an American shirt. That’s a harsh reality. Second, as stated, Bradley seems to value Rogers’ competition more than Bedoya’s—and that was probably a tiebreaker. Bradley’s statement on the matter bears this out: “In some cases you have to make tough decisions on guys who fit in the same category, and in this particular case decisions went in favor of some other players.” What does that mean? Well, when you think about all factors (form, league, etc)—it means certain things are valued—in this case, Rogers playing against better players here in the States than Bedoya does in Sweden.

Freddy Adu. Wow. Here’s where Bob gets his “riverboat gambler” merit badge. The move is shocking. Yes, TYAC did officially put Adu back on the USMNT radar a month or so ago given a run of good form in Turkey. But we certainly didn’t put him on the “Gold Cup consideration” list. It was more of a “We wouldn’t be shocked if he were called into a friendly this autumn” type gesture. After all, the Turkish 2nd division is a far cry from soccer in Sweden or in MLS. Yet, here Adu is, back on the senior national team for a critical tournament. Why? Two reasons, we think.

First, Bradley seems to finally respect more than Adu’s talent (which, by the way, is still immense). His comments reflect a new-found respect for Adu’s willingness to put in the work to become a more complete player and more mature person. Freddy didn’t give up—and Bradley was waiting to see what happened when a young player with so much promise found his back against the wall. “Freddy is a player that certainly we all know, at different times, has shown some soccer abilities that are special,” Bradley said. “He hasn’t always been able to make them count in different situations at different levels. But we respect the fact that he made this move to go to a smaller club because he had to show people he was willing to do whatever to keep going.” That’s a ringing endorsement of Freddy’s character that he’s never received before—and probably one that is earned.

Second, there is a tactical justification, especially given the other midfielder reserves chosen: Robbie Rogers, Sacha Kljestan, Benny Feilhaber. Adu provides a fourth attacking option with a diverse and creative skillset on the goal-scoring side of the ball. All of these attacking options indicate Bradley’s experimentation with the 4-3-2-1 or some variation may not be over (rightly so, we might add), and Adu can be utilized to exploit space on the flanks if the US decides to go in that direction. This could be particularly effective late in matches when opposing teams are tired, as Adu has reasonably good pace and could do well taking advantage of space created by Clint Dempsey, whose propensity to make flank-to-center diagonal runs is especially high late in matches. This is certainly a possible use for Adu, and so is his ability to score from distance or on a spot kick, which could come in handy should the Yanks be chasing a goal late against Mexico or Costa Rica, the only two sides capable of pushing them to the brink in this tournament.

Before we move to forwards, a brief note on Sacha Kljestan. This was another pick lamented by large portions of the fan base. That’s a shame. Kljestan has a diverse offensive skillset, has proven he is willing to defend at the club level, and most of all, is versatile—Anderlecht utilized him in a variety of different ways this year depending on opponent and situation. That’s a hallmark of a solid substitute and a reason more than anything for his unpredictable playing time—and it is exactly what he brings to the USMNT. Kljestan played two or three poor matches for the States two years ago, but for whatever reason—the moustache, the hot girlfriend, the whining after the failed Celtic trial—has become a popular scapegoat whose skills are often belittled (ignorantly) by a large spread of the fan base. This is a player who has multiple goals in a US shirt and has been a team leader at all stages leading to his senior team inclusion—it is time to give him another chance.

Wondolowski called his inclusion "A dream come true." We don't think he's another top-level MLS scorer not cut out for international play.

Forwards:

Really, the CD 9 injury is a nice cover for what most of us thought: he isn’t ready and Bob knew it. Chris Wondolowski called his inclusion a “dream come true”, and it makes a decent amount of sense. Sure, there are fans clamoring for Teal Bunbury to be fully integrated into the US squad. To them, we suggest waiting for World Cup qualifying. Bunbury will be an important piece. But purely based on form, Wondolowski deserves this opportunity, perhaps especially because he has been one of the most-marked men in MLS this year, and although San Jose has struggled, most its opportunities to score have come through him. Yes, Wondo isn’t a particularly great player if he plays alone up to—but Agudelo or Altidore will likely be present to help him, so that deficiency shouldn’t matter that much.

In addition, Wondo is terrific moving off the ball—better, for example, than the excluded (somewhat harshly, given his form, Herculez Gomez), which actually plays well with the strength of USMNT sideback Steve Cherundolo. Remember that part of the reason for Wondo’s monstrous year last year was the reemergence of Bobby Convey as a legitimate, marauding threat on the flank—one capable of providing a good off-the-ball mover with the service they need to flourish after earning good position. That’s exactly what players like Steve Cherundolo and to an extent Jon Spector provide, and it is a reason to get excited about Wondo’s inclusion, instead of lamenting the use of another MLS forward not suited for the international level (read: Conor Casey). Our friends at The Shin Guardian have more on Wondo’s strengths here, and while they are right to point out that Convey is deployed on the left, there is no real reason to think he can’t be effective on crosses from the right, as we’ve mentioned above.

Lastly, Bob Bradley’s defense of Jozy Altidore will be rewarded, and that’s TYAC’s first bold Gold Cup prediction. Call it a hunch—but we think Altidore is about to have a break out tournament. Bradley certainly has all the faith in the world in the 21 year old, noting that he is an important part of the United States’ future and has played a big role in various USMNT campaigns—the Confed Cup, World Cup qualifying, the World Cup. Altidore has been through the wars. He has faced adversity and he’s been honest about it. Yes, his play with his back to the goal has been suspect, particularly of late—but he’ll have help, likely from Clint Dempsey or even Juan Agudelo, and he’s strong enough against the smaller CONCACAF defenders to exploit his speed and strength on the ball. We think that spells a big tournament.

Thoughts? Comments?

Neil W. Blackmon is Editor-In-Chief and Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at nwblackmon@gmail.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.

 

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jimmy-Jennings/8203436 Jimmy Jennings

    Really good article as always. I agree with you on Altidore – he seems like he’s been around USMNT forever, but at 21 years old, he’s still learning the game and how to use his body.

    • http://www.yanksarecoming.com/ The Yanks Are Coming

      Agree Jimmy- pretty much everything I wrote above to Kirun applies. Thanks for the praise and for commenting.

  • http://www.majorleaguesoccertalk.com Robert Hay

    I wholeheartedly agree on Altidore, with one caveat.  If Bradley uses him as a #9 or a lone striker, he will continue to fail.  If he pairs him with Agudelo or a moved-forward Dempsey, then it can allow Altidore to move around the pitch and find his spots to score.  Then we will see the Altidore we’ve all wanted to see.

  • http://twitter.com/kvillegas kvillegas

    Bob Bradley’s fate is inextricably linked to Freddy Adu, Jozy Altidore and Kljestan. If they fail, he fails. He’s going to set them up to succeed. 

    They got their first call ups from Bob. (Freddy got his from Bruce Arena when he was already on his way out.)

    All of this happened near or around the first part of 2007, the beginning of BB tenure as USMNT coach. What has Bob done since then? 

    A 2009 confed cup run that, people forget, saw them go 2-0-3 (two losses to brazil and one to Italy.) 

    A disappointing loss to Ghana in the 2010 world cup and habitual underachievement in CONCACAF qualifying and big friendlies. 

    BB’s teams can’t even beat up on lesser opponents when they should be destroying them. BB’s US teams open doors for teams they should be winning 5-0 on and consistently fail to show up when playing a good team (throw that victory against a highly fatigued Spain out the window).

    Is Bobo gambling? Yep, and he’s dancing with those that brought him, and that’s the way it should be. 

    If he can’t win this tournament, it won’t be the next gen’s fault. It will be his fault, and the players that he’s tied himself to over the last 5 years. That’s the way it should be.

    • http://www.yanksarecoming.com/ The Yanks Are Coming

      Pretty harsh stuff Kevin. I appreciate the post, but would make a couple of points:

      1. They won their World Cup group. They did so on the field, tough win/lucky draw/whatever– they did so on the field.

      2. Ghana was disappointing– but if both teams are at full strength– Ghana is probably a little better than the States. Another tough reality. So it was disappointing as a fan- not necessarily as a result.

      3. Stu Holden, Agudelo and really the “rebirth” of LD are also things Bob can take some or a great deal of credit for. He hasn’t tied his fate to just three guys– though you are correct that those 3 plus Bornstein are certainly his people.

      4. Finally, when are we “disappointing” against lesser opponents? This is a group that has lost to one non-Mexico CONCACAF foe in four years– and that was @twitter-155655826:disqus 
       the Saprissa- hardly a picnic.

      Great comment though.

  • http://twitter.com/rjandolina Russ Andolina

    Probably the best post announcement piece I’ve read in the past 36 hours.  Great insight – it makes the “questionable” roster moves all the more exciting and compelling to watch next month. 

    Thing that excites me is that the attacking nucleus of Altidore/Agudelo/Dempsey/Donovan will finally get an extended time/camp together….can’t wait to see the results.

  • http://www.yanksarecoming.com/ The Yanks Are Coming

    Good stuff Kirun– agree about Altidore playing alone– but think he’ll fare better in this tourney even by himself because he’s stronger and bigger– an advantage he doesn’t get to exploit often. Another key is he’s still at a stage where he’s better when the game comes to him– note in games like the one recently against Paraguay he struggles when he has to come back to the ball. 

    I think as he gets older he’ll learn how to involve himself more when the game isn’t coming to him– that’s a lesson it took forever for Dempsey to learn.

    As for Sacha– he’s a bit different than Feilhaber because Benny is often deployed on the wing but works better when he gets central– Sacha is usually deployed centrally and works better when on the ball the game cycles through him. He’s a better finisher than Feilhaber too, and although neither is a defensive maestro–Kljestan is at least willing to track back– something Benny isn’t and a major reason Feilhaber found himself in the 2nd division of Denmark last year.

    • http://twitter.com/bad80smusic Kirun Sankaran

      I take it that Feilhaber’s tendency to drift into the middle of the pitch is an indication that he’s *really* a central midfielder who’s stuck out wide because of the 4-4-2 formation and the fact that he can’t be bothered to play defense. Still, he’s impressive in his role as an offensive midfielder. Watching the highlights of the game is entirely too painful, so take this with a grain of salt, but I’m pretty sure that against Ghana he did a decent job playing balls into the final third-wasn’t it his through ball that led to Dempsey being fouled in the 18? So, clearly he’s an offensive weapon, and perhaps he’s the answer to Coach Sweats’ struggles to find a “hole” player in the 4-2-3-1.

      Your comments about Altidore are spot-on. He’s really awful at tracking back to link play between the CM’s and the attacking players, which is something he (or another one of the striker corps) needs to learn to do in the absence of particularly creative central midfielders (and here I give you my token “DAMN YOU JOHNNY EVANS!!!”). He’s fine making slashing runs onto through balls from the midfield, but he needs to learn to use his size and strength a little better in order to bully opposing defenders, and he has, as you pointed out, a marked tendency to disappear when the midfield can’t provide him with good service from around the perimeter of the opponent’s 18. His off-the-ball movement also needs some work, but I have no doubt he can learn that. Despite the recent disappointments in his club career, I have high hopes for the guy.

      EDIT: I take it that the reason Altidore and Davies worked so well together is that Davies’ pace opened up space for Altidore to run into behind opposing defenses. I wonder whether Agudelo can provide the same service.

      EDIT 2: One thing that doesn’t suck is Altidore’s air game. Kid’s got ups.

  • Matthew

    Excellent analysis, as always. 

    I have almost full confidence that the US will get through the group/knockout stages just fine, as they did it in 2009 with a watered down squad.

    It’s the practically inevitable final with Mexico that I’m worried about. Let’s be real. It’s the showdown with our southern neighbor that everybody’s eyeing, and it’s the main concern on both countries’ minds. 
    How do we match up with them? Will our strikers be able to penetrate their defense? Will the backline and Timmy be able to stop Chicharito (Howard couldn’t earlier this season when he played against ManU)? Mexico is bringing a strong squad. 

    Methinks that Hernandez is going to have a ball at this tournament. It will be his international “coming out” party, as Mr. Puck predicted earlier this year. 

    Ugh. I REALLY don’t want to hear it from Mexican fans that their team is once again the King of CONCACAF if they win in June.

    • http://twitter.com/bad80smusic Kirun Sankaran

      The good news re: Chicharito is that Mexico’s midfield has nowhere near the quality Manchester United’s does. The kid’s a poacher-he makes his living on being at the right place at the right time, and isn’t really one to create his own chances. He’s an absurdly speedy threat, to be sure, and not one to be taken lightly, but I think that threat is manageable in the absence of Rooney, Giggs, Carrick et al.

    • Jared

      I’m not convinced that the US can make it through to the final if they stick with the 4-2-2-2 formation.  It becomes very easy for a team like a Honduras to clog the middle and shut down the attack.  The US is then forced to rely on a set piece goal which can be difficult because Donovan can be very hit or miss with his free kicks.
       
      I think Chicharito will have a field day with the US defenders who don’t have the quickness to keep up with his movement and a guy like Gooch lacks the positional awareness to make up for his lack of quickness.  He makes so many good runs that it seems unlikely that the midfielders won’t be able to pick out one of them.  I also have a feeling that he gets a goal off of a poor pass by Bradley/Edu directly to one of the Mexican midfielders that allows them the time and space to make the defense splitting pass. 

      • http://www.yanksarecoming.com/ The Yanks Are Coming

        First, great comments.

        I wouldn’t worry about Honduras too much. I know they have been dicey in qualifiers but remember that our offense had to run centrally through both those matches due to Cherundolo being unavailable. While Stevie C doesn’t scare you too much– he does keep CONCACAF defenses honest. Eventually I think we can break them down, just as we were able to do in both qualifiers. This team is better, if you look it up– than both those units: they aren’t much better or worse.As for Mexico– I would worry about Chicharito as well– but he won’t have the service he has in Manchester, as has been pointed out. In the end, it is a concerning match but we win if there are penalty kicks and we win if they attack relentlessly and allow us to counter (which they do all too often on US Soil). I think this is a bigger tournament for Mexico in this respect: our best young player (Holden) is hurt; theirs isn’t; our new generation is still very young, with the exception of Hernandez, they have one that isn’t). So big chance for Mexico to re-establish regional primacy. SHould be interesting.

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  • Luke

    Great article. Thanks. My concern is that we leave Altidore alone up top and that he vanishes in a struggle to hold up the ball. With Juan or Wondo he will be much better. It seems that many want the team to go with a 4-3-2-1 but the 4-4-2 is what I think will get results. It does mean that some good midfield players won’t get on the pitch but this is what happens with every good national team, which is what I hope the USMNT will finally become on a regular basis. 

    by the way. Macho posting is like posing in front of the mirror. Although I haven’t looked too deep, from what I have seen on this site there is not too much of it. That is a nice change.

    • http://www.yanksarecoming.com/ The Yanks Are Coming

      Thanks for the compliment. Generally, I agree– especially with Holden out– I think the 4-4-2 is probably what gets results. Our main tactics writer will probably disagree– but we’ll see. Just don’t like our width in the 4-4-2, but some of that is personnel related not system problematic.

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