I just watched the USA vs. Mexico monstrosity, and I’m FURIOUS with that game, the general direction of US soccer, and most importantly Bob Bradley’s (who from this point onward will be known as Bobbo) baffling lineup choices. Before I explain any further, let me introduce myself. I am member #3 of the USA power rankings. I’ve been a contributing thought provider for TYAC since its inception, and I’ve been alluded to several times since the creation of the blog. As my associate, Mr. Neil W. Blackmon so eloquently put it during the latest USMNT power ranking segment, I’m the persons who knows a lot about soccer but hates to “write shit.” I am angry enough about the latest disaster at the Azteca, that even I felt the need to broadcast my thoughts on US Soccer.
I’ve been on the “Bobbo’s a bad coach” train for quite some time (a little over a year now). I began developing this argument after watching Sacha Kljestan dominate the Olympics last summer while Michael Bradley (MB90, Junior, Nepotism, etc.) was rather pedestrian. I recognized the need for a defensive midfielding presence like Junior’s but I really didn’t think he was very good. In my opinion, he was adequate much like Stu Holden, Robbie Rogers, and Benny Feilhaber were adequate, but I didn’t really see anything special out of him the entire tournament. In fact, Nowak’s decision to place Mo Edu at left back during the tournament confused me a little, but I understood where he was coming from. Although Mo Edu is and was our most promising young player, and he’s our best defensive midfielder (by a lot), the problem with that Olympic team was that it was severely lacking in terms of defenders that could shut down a man one-on-one. The decision to place Edu in the back at the time seemed to be a recognition on Nowak’s part that the biggest weakness of that Olympic team was the back 4. Likewise, he had a player (MB90) who could adequately play in the central midfield. He was maximizing the talent with which he was given – I get it.
After the tragedy that was the Olympics, I was SOLD on Mo Edu and Kljestan. I thought that the future is now for these kids, we need to get them up to the senior team and get them on the field. Junior – yeah, he could play OK, but really we needed to focus on developing a pairing where Kljestan would play a creative midfielding role in which he could dominate and allow Edu to play a shut-down defensive midfielding role much like Javier Mascherano does so well at Liverpool and for Argentina. My thinking was that although the back 4 of the Olympic Team was inarguably weak, the back 4 of the Senior Team is its strongest asset. There would be no more need for Edu in the back (even though he excelled at the Olympics), so Bobbo could focus on the central midfielding pairing that made the most sense in terms of the talent pool. After the Olympics, Bobbo talked a lot about “getting these young kids on the field” and I was hopeful that maybe US Soccer finally had the kind of progressive thinking coach that we desperately needed throughout the Bruce Arena tenure. Perhaps Bobbo and I were seeing eye-to-eye on this one.
Then, three things happened. First, Edu got hurt, and that severely hurt any chance of my Master Plan ever coming to fruition. Second, Kljestan cut his hair and started playing horribly. Then, something much more troubling then all of this happened, and this is what got me questioning everything – Bobbo made it abundantly clear that he thought his boy, Michael, was one of the best players in US Soccer. Throughout the past year, MB90 has been paired in the midfield with Kljestan, J.F. Torres, Ricardo Clark, Pablo Mastroeni, and probably some others I’ve been forgetting. The common theme here is that MICHAEL BRADLEY NEVER COMES OUT OF THE FUCKIN GAME! He plays 90 minutes of every game every time the A-Senior Team takes the field, unless of course he gets himself red carded for mouthing off to an official or making an ill-advised tackle somewhere on the pitch. In fact, if you look at the statistics from US Soccer, you will notice that in terms of minutes during 2009, the only people with more minutes than MB90 are Brian Ching (keep in mind he played the Gold Cup after being hurt in the Confed Cup, so his stats are slightly skewed), Clint Dempsey (footballer of the year at Fulham), Landon Donovan (all-time leading soccer in US Soccer history), Timmy Howard (our best player and arguably a top-5 goaltender in the world; certainly in the conversation with Iker, Pepe, and Buffon.), and Gooch (best defender in US Soccer, just signed a big-time contract for AC Milan….enough said). Then, it’s MB90.
You’re telling me that Michael freakin’ Bradley is the 6th best soccer player in the United States? I find that hard to believe, but that seems to be what Bobbo is indicating that he thinks. As a general rule in soccer (I know this, I used to play), you have 6 or 7 guys that never come out of the game. On the US squad it would be appropriate to put Chinger, Deuce, Lando, Gooch, and Timmy in that category. With everyone else, you need to maximize your talent and find combinations that work. Bobbo it seems has added his boy to the “lock” category and tried to develop combinations around him. Junior doesn’t nearly have the resume that his compatriots have, nor does he really bring anything to the table in terms of creativity with the ball.
What Junior is as a player is a homeless-man’s version of Xabi Alonso much like Frankie Hejduk is a homeless man’s version of Sergio Ramos. Referring to Hejduk, he makes runs up the flank like Ramos, he defends (kind of) like Ramos, but he does everything….well not quite as well as Ramos. Referring to Junior, he does everything that Alonso does….but not quite as well. Both Junior and Xabi are adequate central midfielders, they both defend adequately, they both possess a howlitzer of a shot, they both look to back-pass a little too much, and they both rely on someone else to provide creativity in the midfield. Alonso got a lot better with the creativity aspect during his 2008-2009 season at Anfield, and the Galacticos rewarded him with a hefty contract a couple weeks ago. Before last season though, he was mostly the beneficiary of being in a midfield with Stevie G. Xabi also benefited last season from “finding his role in Rafa’s System” much like Dirk Kuyt finally did with the Reds. During Dirk’s first year and a half he was LOST on the pitch, but eventually he figured how to play winger in Rafa’s 4-1-3-1-1 system, and he excelled. Likewise, last season Xabi found his role as the “center” of the “central midfielders” in between Mascherano and Stevie G, and he too had a great year.
The problem with all of this is that Xabi doesn’t really play much for Spain on the international level. This is because Spain doesn’t use Rafa’s 4-1-3-1-1 system; rather they employ a more traditional 4-4-2. In the “Rafa System,” there is a strong need for a central midfielder who does everything solidly and adequately but nothing overly creative or spectacular. If you have the striker that can play up-top by himself (and Rafa inarguably does in Torres), then you can afford to drop another player
into midfield to control things through the center of the pitch like Alonso and feed the ball to the striker. If you don’t have the striker to play up-top by himself, or if you have two talented strikers like the Spanish National Team does in Villa and Torres, it makes sense to drop to a 4-4-2. Within the 4-4-2 then, you need two solid wingers like you do with the 4-1-3-1-1, AND you need your central midfielders to both be SPECTACULAR at what they do. One central midfielder MUST be a defensive powerhouse and the other MUST be a creative genius. Xabi is neither of these things, and hence he doesn’t really play much internationally. Michael Bradley is neither of these things either, yet Bobbo has made it very clear that he’s going to play a 4-4-2, and yet somehow his boy still plays every minute of every game. Bobbo is correct to employ a 4-4-2 because the USMNT does not have the striker to play up-top by himself anymore. Altidore may be that strike someday, and McBride certainly was 7 or 8 years ago, but right now there is a void where we do not have a top-notched striker. As Fernando Torres said after Spain was defeated at the Confederations Cup, the US is a completely different team with Davies paired with Altidore. Therefore, a 4-4-2 is the correct lineup, but within the context of this lineup, it is a necessity to have a creative force in the midfield to feed the ball into the strikers.
After watching the recent debacles that were USMNT performances, it is clear to me that our squad consistently gets dominated in the midfield because there is no creativity through the center of our formation. Ricardo Clark is a serviceable defensive midfielder, although when Edu is healthy again, I can’t see Clark retaining his starting role. That leaves MB90 to serve as the sole source of creativity, and he has failed miserably in this role. I will use recent game results to illustrate my point.
I know national-team patriotism is high because we knocked off #1 Spain, but suppose that didn’t happen or suppose we weren’t given the opportunity to do so? What everyone forgets, and what bang-wagon USMNT fans who jumped on-board after the Spain game probably don’t even know, is that the opportunity to play Spain was the confluence of a series of events that looked almost impossible. First, the US lost to the Italians, and then they were defeated soundly by the Brazilians in group play. During the Egypt game, we played well, but no one could have foreseen the Brazilians ringing up 3 goals on Gigi and his boys. That’s what even gave us the opportunity to play against Spain – after a red card and being dominated by Italy, and a humiliation by Brazil, we played 1 good game, and we backed our way into the Spain match. Then we played Spain, got 1 counter-attacking goal, 1 scrappy Chuck D goal, and then we defended the Alamo for the rest of the game. Spain deserved to win that game; during the second half, I can count on one hand the number of times we got the ball past midfield. Our back 4 during that game played courageously and remarkably; DeMerit and Gooch’s display during that match was one of the best center-back defending exhibitions I have ever seen in my life. However, they shouldn’t have been put into that position to begin with if we had a creative presence in the midfield.
The second half of the Brazil game was similar – we tried to defend the Alamo again after gaining an early scrappy lead, but to ask Gooch and DeMerit for an encore performance like the first one was not realistic. If we had a midfield that could control the ball and play creatively through it instead of relying on the long-ball all the time, we could have held onto that two goal lead. MB90 supporters say “well if Michael had been in the game, we would have held the lead….blah blah blah…..” I’m not sure if MB90 is in the game if we even get that lead to begin with! We got that lead against Brazil by attacking through the midfield and by displaying creativity with the ball. I’m pretty sure MB90 would have made a lot of back-passes and never pushed the envelope, thus making it so that we never got a lead at all.
So, to summarize, in the midfield, we lost the battle to Italy (controversially), we lost the battle to Brazil, we beat Egypt, we lost to Spain, and we lost again to Brazil. Fast-forward to today’s Mexico debacle. We were again absolutely CLOWNED in the midfield by Mexico. Freakin Mexico! This isn’t Spain, this isn’t Brazil, this is an opponent that on paper we should be able to control the game against. In 5 of the last 6 games, we have relied solely on the long-ball, we have been clowned in the midfield, and without Gooch and Demerit’s heroic performances against Spain, combined with Brazil’s schlacking of the Italians, we could very easily be looking at things from a completely different perspective.
All of this adds up to the inarguable fact that Michael Bradley cannot provide the creative presence that we need in the midfield. If he could do so, he would have done it against Mexico today, but he did not. Is he a serviceable player? Yes. Is there a role for him on this team? Yes, much like there is a role for Xabi Alonso on the Spanish team. However, he is not the answer in the center of the pitch. We need an in-form Sacha Kljestan, and even though I am super-fan #16, even I cannot argue that he should be playing right now. Kljestan needs to regain his form FAST because we need him desperately right now. Benny Feilhaber is a good poor-man’s solution for now, but we really need someone who can creatively play with the ball at his feet. There are other options that Bobbo has ignored – J.F. Torres and Freddy Adu for example – but as I said before, Bobbo it seems has decided that his boy is a “lock” on this team.
What makes this even more troubling is that Edu will be fit really soon. Jermaine Jones is eligible to play right now. When will Bobbo get MB90 off the pitch? Will he ever take his son out of the lineup and allow these more talented players who are better suited to a 4-4-2 to take the pitch? So far he has demonstrated that he will not. If he continues to ignore the obvious truth that his kid, Michael, is an adequate player, but that he is not suited to play all the time with the talent pool that he has around him, embarrassments like that one that we saw today at the Azteca will persist.
Will we still qualify for the World Cup with MB90 in playing all the time? Probably, because we play in CONCACAF. However, I would like to think that US Soccer has developed to the point where just making a World Cup should be a given. I would like to think that we’re hoping to be a two-seed at this World Cup, that we’re hoping to get out of group play, and that we’re hoping to win a game or two during the elimination rounds. Against mediocre opponents like we see in CONCACAF, MB90 seems like an adequate player for us, but against top-tier competition like Spain and Brazil, he has shown he is not. In fact, even against second-tier competition like Mexico, he failed miserably. At some point, Bobbo needs to take his kid out of the lineup, and experiment with other options. Will he have the stones to do it? This isn’t to say that experimentation will not lead to the status-quo. On the contrary, it may prove that MB90’s presence is “our best option right now.” If that’s the case, fine, leave him in until someone better develops out of our youth system or Sacha figures his shit out. MB90 needs to be in the conversation, but it needs to be a conversation. This notion that Bobbo has that his boy is a lock is wrong, and if it continues I predict another World Cup embarrassment next summer much like the disaster in Germany.