U.S. youngsters give coach Bob Bradley something to think about
More than 10 years have passed since the last time a gaggle of fresh faces has caused such a fuss around the United States national team. Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and other members of the first residency class in Bradenton, Fla., began spicing up the national team scene late in 2000.
Three relative newcomers around Bob Bradley's team have fans similarly stoked today. Young defender Timmy Chandler and even-younger striker Juan Agudelo notched their first U.S. starts against Paraguay. Agudelo held up fairly well; Chandler was nothing less than a revelation. Tim Ream, not exactly a newcomer but hardly a national team icon just yet, improved his standing with an impressive collection of peppy passes.
A 1-1 draw with Argentina and a 1-0 loss to Paraguay were all about prep for this summer's Gold Cup; the team won't gather again until training camp in late May for the regional championship. So while everyone buzzes about the new kids, here are other lessons from the pair of contests:
The right-back spot is suddenly a golden little stockpile of promise. No sooner had Eric Lichaj, 20, arrived than an even fresher face appeared in the effervescent Chandler. Steve Cherundolo remains the trusty incumbent, and his performance at Hannover 96 remains strong. Still, he's 32 and now into his 15th professional season, so his time on the international circuit could soon be closing.
No worries. Or so it seems. Lichaj is playing regularly for Leeds (on loan), so he's on the rise. Only the real nit-pickers could find something negative to say about his limited U.S. time so far, including 30 minutes Tuesday against Paraguay.
But few are talking about Lichaj today; blame Chandler for that. In a match and a half, the German-born defender impressed with his speed, audacity and determination to attack.
"I think he's done very well," U.S. captain Landon Donovan said after the Paraguay match. "It's still going to take him a little time to adapt to the way we play. There are certain times where we want him to something and he's not quite there yet but his pure willingness to attack is good."
Reviews of Agudelo's starting debut were more mixed, although still generally encouraging. He may already be close to lapping Jozy Altidore, who seems to have hit a plateau. Agudelo's game lacks maturity, and his choices about when to summon those tantalizing dribbling bursts need polish. But he's eager to learn, and that counts for a lot.
"This was Agudelo's first start and it's a harder game, so I think we see the learning side there," Bob Bradley said. "This is where experience counts and where you show what you're all about. We'll talk to him because this is where good forwards earn their money."
In 90 minutes against Paraguay, Ream may have connected on more quality passes into forwards than all other U.S. center backs have over the last two or three matches combined. If that's an exaggeration, it's not a ginormous one. He needs to be stronger physically and find a meaner side on set-piece defense if he wants to topple Oguchi Onyewu as Bradley's top go-to guy at center back. Still, there's a lot to like.
Finally, we also saw that inactivity at Aston Villa hasn't dulled the edges of Michael Bradley's game. He was OK against Argentina and even sharper three nights later, arguably the best American midfielder in Nashville.
Left back continues to languish, a blister that just refuses to heal. Carlos Bocanegra manned the position against Argentina and defended adequately against world-class attackers. But he's not the answer in matches requiring more U.S. attacking, and everyone knows it. So Jonathan Bornstein got another spin of the left back wheel against Paraguay and, well, Bradley will just have to keep spinning.
Bornstein's inability to enrich the attack (a stark contrast to Chandler's big night across the field) is a bigger issue, especially because the United States still struggles to break down these defend-and-counter teams. Most CONCACAF teams aren't quite as handy as Paraguay at that style, but some aren't far.
Poor distribution from the rear and inadequate contributions from the left back are two reasons U.S. scoring is historically low. With just three goals, this is the program's worst five-game stretch since 1998.
One goal over 180 minutes on home soil against Argentina and Paraguay is humdrum, but not completely inept. It's the bigger trend that's more alarming. Going back further, Bradley's men have 10 goals in their last 11 games.
Two other gaping holes in the current player pool are contributing to the offensive malaise: the lack of a creator who can unlock some of these stacked-and-packed defenses, and the U.S. strikers' general inability to ruffle defensive feathers.
Landon Donovan wasn't poor but he certainly wasn't at his best. Chalk that up to timing; he just got going with the Galaxy after a much-needed winter break. Donovan will have better evenings. But his off-night on set-piece delivery was a disconcerting reminder on how dependent Bradley's men can be on free kicks and corner kicks for goals.
Bradley was devoted to his 4-4-2 through his first World Cup cycle. His experimentation with a 4-2-3-1 may have freshened up matters, but it's been pretty unconvincing. That lack of a stronger linking presence at the top of the central midfield triangle, someone more comfortable filling the gaps behind a striker, is a sticking point. Bradley asked Maurice Edu to fill the role against Argentina, but it's not a position he ever plays at Rangers, and that showed.
If Bradley does resurrect the 4-4-2, as he did against Paraguay, Michael Bradley is certain to be one of the selections. He's earned it and keeps earning it. As for his partner, Jermaine Jones seems to be a little ahead of Edu -- with the Stuart Holden wild card still to be played at some point.
With seven matches over 19 days (potentially) in the Gold Cup, they'll need three quality center mids, anyway, so pecking order may not matter much in the end.
Bradley's choice of the 4-4-2 against Paraguay doesn't mean the 4-2-3-1 experiment is kaput. Teams comfortable in two shapes are more flexible and less predictable. Against Argentina a trio of primarily defensive minded center midfielders more or less accomplished the task over a half: clog the middle against a side that wants to play in there.
One final word about the left back conundrum: In the team's 2011 opener in January against Chile, Bradley used a so-called inverted left back. Zach Loyd, primarily right-footed, looked capable that night. So clearly, Bradley isn't totally opposed to the inverted concept. If that's the case, the options open up substantially on that side. With a little seasoning, maybe there's even a day when Lichaj and Chandler are on the field together -- but let's not get ahead of ourselves there.