There were two important, positive take-aways from Saturday's contest: First, everyone can feel just fine about Jermaine Jones' highly anticipated debut in the U.S. shirt, as the "import" midfielder demonstrated his ability to be a central midfield presence. Next, everyone can remember this as Stuart Holden's announcement that he's ready to take a bigger role in the program. Holden started along the right in a 4-2-3-1 and was easily the busiest man at Soldier Field.
Holden's night wasn't perfect, as his flubbed clearance was a big factor in the visitor's first goal. Later, the Americans were lucky not to be punished on Holden's careless giveaway 20 yards from goal. Still, he did so much to be happy about, and his general appetite to stir the pot and make things happen that can inspire more from players around him.
The Bolton man, who started with Houston in Major League Soccer, was also standing over most U.S. free kicks and corner kicks (like the one that supplied Oguchi Onweyu for the second U.S. goal). That will be Landon Donovan's job in bigger matches, but the mere fact that Holden was handed the responsibility for a night says a lot about expectations and potential.
On the less-positive side, young striker Jozy Altidore continues to be a work in progress. He had one goal on a night where he probably should have had two or three. Onyewu, a forgotten man at AC Milan, was preferred over center backs who are getting minutes in Europe. His second-half equalizer (not to mention Bradley's faith in granting him a start) may be important in restoring confidence, but he still had a couple of the wobbly moments like the ones that proved so costly in the World Cup. And, as always, the left side is a riddle that just can't be solved. Critics who fault Bradley's conservative lean should appreciate the coach's choice to set aside (for the time being, at least) his preferred 4-4-2 for the 4-2-3-1, a formation seen from so many teams last summer in South Africa.
The tactical tweak does represent a better way forward for the talent available. Short on effective forwards but relatively well-stocked in men who can play centrally in midfield, this looks like a better way to utilize the U.S. talent available.
So many eyes were on Jones, who really didn't disappoint. He may not have exactly wowed anyone, but that's not the kind of player who fell into the U.S. lap. What fans saw Saturday as he partnered with lineup linchpin Michael Bradley at the two holding midfield spots represents exactly the kind of player he is: The U.S. can expect these kind of tactically disciplined, technically proficient performances. He's not a difference maker who can win games by himself. But that doesn't mean he can't be a major contributor, someone who makes the United States a difficult side to beat in a number of ways. Jones does seem to give the United States one ability that is sometimes missing: the vision to play balls quickly out of the midfield into more dangerous areas, something that takes equal measures of vision, skill and audacity. Just such a ball into Altidore led directly to the first U.S. goal.
Maurice Edu's appearance at center back was surprising, even if he has played there internationally before. This is certainly the time Bradley should be experimenting. But the decision to relocate Edu (even if it's just temporary) still seems curious, as Edu is starting in the midfield for a Champions League club (Rangers). Plus, he was effective in the middle during his time on the field there in South Africa. Jones' addition certainly provides depth and yet another strong option in the spot best suited for Edu.
On the other hand, the United States looks stocked in young center back talent, with MLS standouts Tim Ream, Omar Gonzalez and Chad Marshall all awaiting chances in the national shirt that are sure to arrive. Edu looked composed at moments, but his midfielder's instincts will occasionally cause trouble. His casual clearance back into the middle of the field was partially responsible for Poland's second goal. And he tackles like a midfielder, which is to say that he gambles occasionally as if someone was behind him to provide cover.
While a 4-2-3-1 may suit players like Jones and perhaps even Michael Bradley, the lack of a creator in the advanced central midfield spot could be an issue. Clint Dempsey played the position for 60 minutes Saturday. But he is more of a cutter and a slasher, not someone who will work back reliably to look for the ball off two defensive midfielders. Short of that, one of the deep-lying pair has to push into that gap, which happened all too rarely against Poland. Then again, the visitor's early goal and the confidence gained from it made it tough for the United States to work through the midfield. "We wanted it to be a game where we were doing most of the possession and they were doing most of the running, but in the end it didn't turn out that way," Altidore told Fox Soccer Channel after the match.
No matter what formation Bradley chooses, there is still no hiding the limitations in certain areas. Benny Feilhaber was ineffective as the left-sided attacker, unable to find ways to influence the game the way Holden did across the field. Further, if Bradley is going to pick players who like to drift inside (like Feilhaber), then he'll have to pick fullbacks who have the pace and ability to move up and down the line. That's not Carlos Bocanegra, who got the call at left fullback. With no width in the attack on either side, the United States did very little to test the Polish back line (and even less to bother goalkeeper Artur Boruc) over a big stretch through the middle of the match.
GK, Tim Howard, 6 -- Much busier than he wanted to be, especially in the first half. He had a big one-on-one save in the 21st minute when Poland had all the momentum.
D, Steve Cherundolo, 6 -- The U.S. right back continues to be one of Bob Bradley's most dependable men. As Poland wanted to attack the U.S. left side (opposite Cherundolo) he had ample opportunity to get forward and did just that. A confident performance overall.
D, Oguchi Onyewu, 6 -- A mixed back for the big fellow, who wasn't a bit timid and did step right in to win balls. That wreck of a clearance cost the U.S. a goal. And he got stretched out of position a couple of times in the first half but did seem to settle down and keep a better relationship with Maurice Edu as the game went on.
D, Maurice Edu, 6 -- Asked to play center back he looked like an old hand at times, staying composed and then kicking into a more aggressive gear in the right spots. But other times he looked like a midfielder trying to play center back. All in all, not a terrible night for the Rangers man. His passing out of the back is a plus.
D, Carlos Bocanegra, 5 -- The U.S. veteran struggled with speedy Dortmund man Jakub Blaszczykowski, as the Polish attack was clearly bent on finding that side. Bocanegra will always be a better defender than attacker; that was the case again on Saturday.
M, Jermaine Jones, 6 -- His debut was always about being solid and earning the trust of teammates with sound tactical play and ability to cover ground. So, mission accomplished. He did show great vision and touch on the early ball into Altidore for the first goal.
M, Michael Bradley, 6 -- Kept himself linked with Jones, almost too at times. It was a typical Bradley safe-and-sound performance, perhaps just a little below his usual standards.
M, Stuart Holden, 8 -- The best, most active U.S. player. He won balls all over the field, starting on the right but drifting in centrally to find the game. Tons of industry on offense and defense.
M, Clint Dempsey, 5 -- The usual bit of scrappiness; he got involved regularly banging around and trying to win balls. On the other hand he rarely linked with wingers and probably needed to get closer to the pair behind him in possession.
M, Benny Feilhaber, 4 -- A quiet night from the man who perennially seems better suited as a sub. At some point, Bradley must decide if the guy is good enough to play centrally, where he's most comfortable. If not, then it may be time to find guys who can play comfortably out wide on the left, as Feilhaber is often asked to do.
F, Jozy Altidore, 6 -- The young striker got plenty of chances around his one goal and will have to deliver at a higher rate to keep his spot. He hit the crossbar in the 43rd and was set up beautifully eight yards from goal by Cherundolo before the break. His worst miss was off Edu's long ball from 60 yards which found him after the Polish defender misjudged his header back to Boruc.
M, Alejandro Bedoya, 6 -- A 63rd minute replacement for Feilhaber. He looked far less nervous and overwhelmed than in his previous US appearance.