CHRISTOPHER MCCOLLUM - Monday, February 7, 2011
Clint Dempsey, Stuart Holden, Jonathan Spector, Jermaine Jones, and Michael Bradley. One of these is not like the others. Any guesses who?
If you guessed Stuart Holden's impeccable hair-styling over the no-nonsense frills of the others, you would be correct. If you guessed Jermaine Jones never playing in a meaningful game for the U.S. National Team, you would also be correct. If you guessed Clint Dempsey being the sole soul of the quintet who actively displays his freestyle rapping skills during interviews and for Nike commercials, that would be another correct choice. However, for the purpose of the game, we're going to go with Jonathan Spector being the odd-man out in a midfield lineup.
For almost the entirety of Spector's professional and international career, he has maintained his role in the defense, whether it be on the right or in the middle. However, during a recent two month spell at West Ham, he has gotten more than his fair share of looks in the central midfield, which admittedly came as quite the surprise to most pundits and fans.
His surprise start against Manchester United in the Carling Cup back in November went against the grain where he was an unused sub for five of the past seven games, and didn't play a single minute in the month of October. The selection provided ammunition for an angry reaction from a fan base that perhaps was equaled only by the angry reactions from other fan bases over questionable lineup moves, the US national team not excluded.
West Ham's fan website was rife with mocking "there goes the neighborhood" comments, until 22 minutes in when Spector hit the back of the net with the opening goal of the game. There was excitement, relief, and many comments questioning the validity of their original reactions.
Then, 15 minutes later, Spector struck again, and the excitement and relief quickly turned to calls for Spector to be named president, the greatest West Ham player of all time, and there may have even been a marriage proposal or two in the heat of the moment.
West Ham went on to win that game by a score of 4-0, and Spector quickly became a regular starter in several more games over the next two months. He scored four goals while assisting on two in all competitions during that span, and many questions have been raised over whether or not he should get a midfield look on the national team as well.
If Spector were to be given a shot in the central midfield, the most obvious concern will be his lack of speed, and if he would be able to contain some of the quicker midfielders he would be facing in CONCACAF, or if they will zip around him without much trouble. He has been exposed in the back before, but that liability would be less of a risk in the midfield, where he likely wouldn't be in the scenario where he's the last man back.
If he were paired alongside a quicker partner, such as Michael Bradley, there would be good coverage in the central midfield defensively, as well as having a battery of skilled lockdown players who can distribute the ball and score goals, rather than having one lockdown central midfielder and one who runs the attack.
Of course, this would lead to a slower rate of play, as well as the lack of a true playmaker in the center. This can be solved by shifting formations around, with the first coming to mind as a 3-5-2.
Imagine a triangle of center midfielders, with two holding, lockdown players keeping the middle third clean and organized, distributing long balls and supporting the backline, while a playmaker, such as Jose Torres or Benny Feilhaber for example‘s sake, sits at the pinnacle and runs the game.
Done correctly, the national team's penchant for holes in the midfield leading to early opposition chances and goals should be corrected.
The obvious problems with the Jonathan Spector Scenario is that Bob Bradley prefers to run a 4-4-2 formation, and the national team is enjoying a deep pool of midfield talent without having to move players up from the back line.
With the recent moves of Bradley and Jones to the Premier League, it puts one possible midfield lineup all playing in the toughest league in the world, which is perhaps a dream scenario for Coach Bradley and fans.
Everyone knows the success of Dempsey's Fulham career (currently sitting with ten league goals on the season, he has tied the American record for goals in a single Premier League season), just like everyone knows how invaluable Bolton has considered Stuart Holden to be since his arrival.
Throw in Jones who, despite committing a ridiculous foul that could have easily been called a penalty kick, was named man of the match in his first game with Blackburn. Jones' Bundesliga play and reputation is well known, as is Bradley's rising stature in Europe. Bradley is expected to make an immediate splash at Aston Villa, where he will be united for the first time with the original intimidating bald American, Brad Friedel.
Throw in Ricardo Clark, Maurice Edu, Landon Donovan, Mikkel Diskerud, Torres, Feilhaber, Robbie Rogers, the nearly forgotten Freddy Adu, so on and so forth, and the US is truly swimming in options.
Despite that availability of talent, there really hasn't been a consistently good central midfield tandem since the Claudio Reyna/Ernie Stewart days, which is why the elder Bradley must continue looking at options, until something clicks.
It almost seems like beating a dead horse at this point, but one only needs to look at Spain and Barcelona's tandem of Xavi andAndres Iniesta to be inspired to put together fantasy midfield pairings for the American team, to enhance productivity and quality of play.
While we can't expect to magically find the skill-set of a midfield pair that were on the short list of Balon d'Or voting for 2010, we should be able to find a quality pair of regular center midfielders who can consistently produce quality showings.
Bradley cemented himself into national team lore as a clutch player with his goal against Slovenia in last year's World Cup, but his role cannot be seen as cemented, nor should anyone else's.
Given Spector's surprising midfield play against top flight teams in the world's toughest league, as well as his recognized quality of distribution and touch on the ball, it stands to reason that he should at least be given a shot on the national team level.
Perhaps in an upcoming friendly, or perhaps during the early stages of this summer's Gold Cup; Regardless of when it is, it needs to happen, if only to scratch that option off the list if it proves unworkable.
If it does work, then we'll have the luxury that pretty much only the English national team has: An entire legitimate midfield selection playing in the Premiership. That can't be a bad thing.