We all raised a curious brow at that dalliance with the 4-2-3-1 formation late last year, a walk on the wild side for a man previously tied to a 4-4-2. Fans wondered if it was just a brief fling. Now they may be nodding with approval at something that looks more like a steady thing.
This 4-2-3-1 pursuit could be nothing more than a bid for tactical flexibility. The core group won't soon forget how to move and defend from a 4-4-2; the players can always slip comfortably back into it.
So given the personnel on hand, and given the global predominance of formations with two holding midfielders, this seems a prudent way forward with the Gold Cup approaching, and with World Cup qualifying only months away. The 4-2-3-1, seen again in Saturday's 1-1 draw against Chile, is the best way to maximize the talent in the U.S. pool.
The U.S. squad is brimming with holding midfielders. Two of the top players are ideal holding types in Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones, so it's a formation that gets both standouts on the field without compromising offensive thrust.
Michael Bradley, a lineup fixture since 2006, has proved himself. Jones is newly ensconced at Blackburn, having left Schalke, where his relationship with management went sour. It's a wildly different scene at Ewood Park, where manager Steve Kean sounded like he was ready to rename the grounds after Jones following Saturday's debut. His confidence should be soaring.
Maurice Edu recently got back on the field for Rangers, and he's already rampaging. Remember, Edu is just 24, so his future looks bright. (Plus, Tim Ream's emergence at center back and the benefits of Oguchi Onyewu's loan to FC Twente probably mean we've seen the last of Edu on the back line for now.)
These guys can certainly be two-way midfielders in a 4-4-2. But the international level is about squeezing out every ounce of production, and precisely matching skill with responsibility is one way to do it.
Michael Bradley, for instance, is no one-dimensional player; his skill set is simply best suited in a holding role. His tackling has always been top-notch, so long as he keeps a calm head. On the attack, his signature late-arriving runs can be even harder to track from more recessed spots.
Behind the top three in the order, Ricardo Clark (now playing center back in Germany) and even Kyle Beckerman can provide reliable depth, which might come in handy during the long slog of qualifiers. Jonathan Spector, whose career is being reborn before our eyes as a midfielder, is one worth watching, too.
And now along comes Dax McCarty, 23, one of the few Americans on Saturday who looked ready for the next level. Stuart Holden, rocketing up the U.S. depth chart with his breakout campaign at Bolton, is a two-way workhorse who could probably be more of a destroyer-distributor if asked.
Sticking with this formation also creates some useful addition by subtraction. It's no secret that international-quality forwards aren't exactly falling out of the U.S. team bus these days. The 4-2-3-1 means Bradley need only deploy one of his middling forwards rather than two. (Assuming, that is, that we're still talking about Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan patrolling the flanks. And if we are, this new setup moves them a little further forward up the field.)
This is a big point, because the two young forwards who excited against Chile are just that: young and untested. Teal Bunbury and Juan Agudelo aren't even proven at MLS level, much less internationally, so everyone should tap the brakes before penciling them in against Egypt in two weeks.
Even if Jozy Altidore fell into a fountain of form and confidence, he would still need a strike partner in a 4-4-2, and so much of the U.S. depth chart at forward remains a frustrating confluence of wannabes and coulda-beens.
If Bradley does identify a second, worthy front-runner, he would need to subtract a midfielder who probably deserved a starting role.
None of this is to suggest, by the way, that this is an orchestrated defensive retreat. A 4-2-3-1 can be an attacking formation. The holding midfielders may think "defense first," but they can still influence the attack. Xabi Alonso played behind Xavi and Andrés Iniesta for Spain last summer but still probed smartly forward on occasion. Same for Bastian Schweinsteiger, who made perfect offensive use of his holding role for Germany.
Bradley permitted his holding midfielders latitude to roam Saturday.
"Bob gave me a little bit more freedom to kind of express myself going forward," McCarty said. "Certainly in the first half, Chile had a little bit more possession than us, so I was trying to stay a little bit more disciplined defensively. In the second half, we really wanted to try to push the game, push the tempo a little bit, and I was trying to get more involved in the attack and connect a little bit more with the forwards."
Now for the buzz kill about all this: What the U.S. coach misses in an ideal 4-2-3-1 arrangement is an obvious choice at the top of the triangle, a playmaker to create from positions close to the holding pair, a man to spring Donovan and Dempsey.
Mikkel Diskerud manned that role Saturday, but that was more or less a forgettable experiment. This could possibly (and that's a big "possibly") be a way to get Jose Torres trending upward once again. With two diggers protecting him from behind, Torres' propensity for defensive inattention isn't quite as troubling.
Holden could possibly provide some answers, while Dempsey can play beneath a lone forward, although he's more of a slasher and rabble rouser than a creator. Donovan, a better passer than Dempsey, can certainly operate behind a striker, but his pace seems best utilized from the flanks.
Bottom line: Bradley must keep thinking his way around this one.
About half the teams in South Africa last summer used a 4-2-3-1 or some arrangement of two holding midfielders. It's good to see the United States moving beyond its comfort zone -- even if it ultimately proves to be a temporary experiment.