SOME HOLES STILL TO FILL
Can Dempsey find game for US?
Throughout this 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign Coach Bob Bradley has made many changes to the USA National Team. However, now that the USA has secured passage into 2010 World Cup, there are many crucial issues that have yet to be addressed for the USA to move forward into 2010 as a stronger team.
The topic of Bob Bradley's tenure has been controversial among USA fans, but the truth of the matter is that there have been some positive changes to the team this year. The biggest change has been the establishment of a reliable and sometimes explosive striker combination of Charlie Davies and Jozy Altidore.
The first two years of Bob Bradley's tenure were marred by the unproductive use of forwards. Most of USA's offensive production at the start of 2009 came as result of set pieces. Now with a set striker combination, the ability to score from the run of play has been greatly improved.
Another positive change Bob Bradley has made has been moving Landon Donovan to left midfield. Donovan has always been the most productive USA player under Bradley, but his position on the field has shifted a number of times between forward, right midfield, and center midfield.
Moving Donovan to left mid has both filled the enormous hole the USA has had at that position and allowed Donovan to increase his already high productivity.
Finally, we have seen Bob Bradley hold accountable a number of prominent players for poor play. Players like DaMarcus Beasley, Danny Califf, Heath Pearce, Pablo Mastroeni, and Brian Ching had all been considered either starters or automatic roster picks at the start of 2009. Now in October they are all backups or are off the roster altogether.
Despite all these positive changes, many hurdles remain for the USA if they want to reach their potential for the World Cup itself.
First and foremost, the position of left back remains a huge weakness. To be fair to Bradley, he clearly is aware of this problem and is not happy with his options. In the World Cup qualifiers in 2009, Bradley has used Heath Pearce, Demarcus Beasley, Carlos Bocanegra, and Jonathan Bornstein. While Bornstein has played there as of late with very inconsistent results, there are some more options on the table.
First, Bradley could move Jon Spector from right back to play left back. Spector has played left back a few times this year for his club, West Ham United, and has done so to relatively average reviews. The question then becomes whether or not it is worth losing Spector's superior offensive abilities at right back and replacing him with Steve Cherundolo.
The other option at left back, and one that is increasingly popular among USA fans, is Edgar Castillo who plays for Tigres in Mexico. After recently switching national team affiliations to the USA from Mexico under a brand new FIFA rule, the New Mexico born Castillo is anxious to suit up for the nation of his birth. However there are concerns with Castillo in that he has earned an unflattering reputation in Mexico for frequently getting caught out of position and concentrating too much on offense while neglecting his defensive duties.
While this may be true (Castillo even admits to not being a strong defensive player), his superior natural talent makes him an option that Bob Bradley must at least explore. While a recent hamstring injury has ruled Castillo out of the October qualifiers he should and probably will be given a chance in the near future.
The next and most obvious weakness that Bob Bradley must address is that of increasing possession. In many of the games so far in 2009, the USA has found itself with less possession than it potentially could have. There are many reasons for this, but the biggest factor is the in ability of the backline to control the ball and initiate the ball into the attack.
Right now the American defenders are in the habit of clearing the ball aimlessly upfield or out of bounds, and this almost always seems to result in a turnover. Also,with the defenders never contributing to possession or attack, opponents against the USA have been able to put more defensive pressure on the midfielders and force them to make hurried or unnecessary passes, which frequently result in more turnovers.
Going forward to the end of 2009 and into 2010, if the USA is to increase its possession, it must employ a system that gets more ball control out of its defenders. While using different and more possession-oriented midfielders like Jose Francisco Torres and Stuart Holden can also help, improved passing and control among the defenders will yield the biggest improvement in possession.
Finally, another challenge facing Bob Bradley is that of getting more production out of Clint Dempsey. The discrepancy between his play for Fulham and his play with the USA national team is far too wide. There is clearly something wrong when a player is above average in the English Premier League week-in-week-out but is rather ordinary against teams from CONCACAF.
Clint Dempsey has too much talent and experience to waste, and Bradley needs put his best players in systems that get the most out of their ability. One option that could be explored is to move Dempsey to forward and allow Stuart Holden to claim the right-midfield position.
So while the USA has improved significantly in some areas, there are serious challenges that must be overcome in the next nine months if the USA wants to compete well at the World Cup in South Africa. It is true that all 32 teams in the tournament will be addressing problems over this time, but the USA's challenges are clearer than the challenges facing most nations. Whether or not Bob Bradley has the ability to help the USA take the next step remains to be seen. USA fans will all be hoping for the best.