STANFORD, Calif. — In the fight to make the 23-man U.S. World Cup squad, any discussion about the midfielders has to begin with Michael Bradley. The rock of the central midfield is at the height of his powers at age 26, and he knows exactly how the U.S. should look on the field in Brazil when the Americans are playing at their best.
How can you tell when that’s the case? When, as Bradley puts it, “tactically we’re organized, and defensively every guy is committed to closing down and being aggressive and pressing and making the game hard on the other team. It means that when we win balls we’re mobile and dynamic and showing how athletic we are and how quickly we can go forward.”
It’s a two-way game, of course, especially in the midfield. How do you play when you have the ball? How do you play when you don't? And, particularly important in the modern game, how do you handle transitions, the first (and sometimes frantic) moments right after a team has won the ball and defenders may be out of position?
But note what Bradley mentioned first in his answer: Defense. In a group stage where the U.S. will face heavyweights Germany, Portugal and Ghana, keeping things organized defensively has to be the first priority for the midfield, not least because the back line has such little World Cup experience.
Bradley’s tag-team partner in the central midfield will almost certainly be Jermaine Jones, 32, the German-American enforcer who adds bite and Champions League experience (as long as he can avoid too many yellow cards and end up staying on the field).
“We don’t have the same playing style, so I think this is a good part of why we can play together,” says Jones. “When we started to play together, from the first day we have this feeling [on the field]. Me and Michael are good friends. He’s more the chilling guy. I am more like the crazy part.”
It’s an intriguing partnership, one that’s most successful when Jones stays at home and lets Bradley do his thing if the U.S. has the ball. The U.S. has more trouble when Jones ventures forward or tries to take over the passing duties and forces Bradley to play off him.
The good thing, Jones says, is that the two are tight enough personally to be honest with each other. Jones and his family are based in Dusseldorf, Germany, close to where Bradley played with Borussia Mönchengladbach from 2008 to ‘10. “I got close to him then,” says Jones. “And Bob, his dad, brought me in [to the national team in 2010]. When I had an operation in L.A. [where the elder Bradley and his family lived], they always invited me to dinner with the whole family.”
The rest of the U.S. midfield will depend on the formation chosen by coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Recently he has shown a greater interest in playing a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield and Bradley at the tip of the spear. That may be a possibility against Ghana, where the U.S. needs to win, but against Portugal and Germany it seems more likely that Klinsmann will opt for a five-man midfield and the 4-2-3-1 formation that he used most often during World Cup qualifying.
In a 4-2-3-1, the attacking central midfielder would be Clint Dempsey (who would be a second forward in a 4-4-2). Playing in his third World Cup, Dempsey knows how to deal with the pressure and is probably the U.S.’s best scoring threat, with a team-leading eight goals during the qualifying campaign.
In the wide midfield positions, the competition for the two starting spots would appear to be between three players: Graham Zusi, Alejandro Bedoya and Landon Donovan (especially if Fabian Johnson is right when he says he expects to play on the back line). Zusi, the dynamic Sporting Kansas City attacker, has had some big moments both scoring (to save Mexico’s World Cup berth) and crossing from the right (most often providing assists to Jozy Altidore).
Donovan, 32, the U.S.’s all-time leading scorer, is aiming for his fourth World Cup, and he’s no longer the guaranteed starter he used to be. But he still possesses great vision, the occasional burst of speed and the kind of big-game experience that the U.S. will need in Brazil. Though Donovan is listed as a forward and Klinsmann has said he sees him only as a forward, don’t accept that at face value. His best chance to start would be in the left midfield.
Aside from the possibility of Johnson, Donovan’s main competition there is Bedoya, 27, whom Klinsmann has rightfully lauded after Bedoya’s promising first season with Nantes in the French league (five goals in 23 games). Bedoya’s engine could be a huge help in the heat and humidity of Natal, Manaus and Recife.
And what to make of 18-year-old Julian Green? Well, the Bayern Munich youngster chose the U.S. over Germany in March to great fanfare, and while both Green and Klinsmann deny he was guaranteed a spot on the 23 to sweeten the deal, most people expect Green will be in Brazil. Whether he’ll play is another matter. Green should be viewed as a potential star in 2018, not 2014.
(For the record, I have no problem if Klinsmann did guarantee Green a spot in Brazil. With all the dual nationals in today’s soccer world, you use every chip you can to land a guy if you think he could be a world-beater someday. See: Belgium and Adnan Januzaj. Nor do I have an issue with Klinsmann using a roster spot on Green and then not playing him in Brazil. It’s very rare for any team to use all 20 field players during a World Cup.)
One wild card for making the 23 is Brad Davis, the only classic left winger in the bunch. It’s possible that Klinsmann could surprise some observers by picking Davis for Brazil if he thinks it’s important to have a player with that profile who can spread the field (and also, by the way, take terrific free kicks).
When you talk about the fight for the 23, the bubble guys in the defensive midfield are Kyle Beckerman and Maurice Edu. One, but not both, figures to go to Brazil, and while Beckerman is the favorite, Edu is firmly in the discussion.
At 32, Beckerman thought the chance to play in his first World Cup had passed him by when he was omitted four years ago, but Klinsmann loves Beckerman’s work rate and ability to play the No. 6 role (sitting just in front of the back line) without trying to do too much. If Klinsmann really does decide to use the diamond midfield, you could argue Beckerman is a better choice for the back of the diamond than even Jones.
Edu, meanwhile, has returned to the mix after getting regular playing time again after joining Philadelphia at club level. He does have an advantage over Beckerman in terms of speed (no small thing considering the World Cup foes) and versatility: Edu could also play as a center back if necessary.
Another battle to make the 23 as an attacking midfielder figures to be between Mix Diskerud and Joe Corona. The favorite here is Diskerud, who brings some real verve off the bench (witness his assist against Mexico last September and goal against Russia in November 2012). Corona was a surprise to make the 30-man preliminary World Cup roster, and he could be an important U.S. player during the next qualifying cycle.
Keep in mind, too, that players not listed as midfielders could well fit in there. Dempsey, Donovan and Johnson are in this group, as is Aron Jóhannsson, a forward who Klinsmann could theoretically use out wide in a pinch. Then there’s the Swiss Army Knife himself, Geoff Cameron, who can play right back, center back or in the defensive midfield. With Jones a danger for a card suspension in Brazil, Cameron could be a capable replacement.