NEW YORK – The U.S. national team will continue its preparation for the 2014 World Cup on Sunday afternoon against Turkey at Red Bull Arena. There, the numbers on the scoreboard following the friendly may not be as revealing as the numbers on the lineup card released by U.S. Soccer.
Coach Jurgen Klinsmann surprised many in early April when he sent his team out to face Mexico in a four-midfielder, two-forward formation anchored by Michael Bradley in an attacking role. The “diamond” midfield, which leaves a defensive central midfielder more tethered to the back four, marked a departure from the 4-2-3-1 that the U.S. used through most of its 2013 World Cup qualifying campaign (which, in turn, was an evolution from the 4-3-3 Klinsmann preferred early on.)<!--more-->
The 4-4-2 against Mexico could be explained. Klinsmann had a mostly MLS-based roster with which to work and absent Jermaine Jones, who typically starts alongside Bradley in central midfield, it made sense to deploy Kyle Beckerman in the holding role to which he's accustomed. In addition, the recent dismissal of assistant coach and tactician Martin Vasquez suggested that a new wrinkle or two might be in the offing.
But then Klinsmann went with the 4-4-2 again when the U.S. met Azerbaijan last Tuesday. He admitted here in New York City that the Milli were scheduled as the first sendoff series opponent in part because, “We wanted to start off a little bit on an easy foot,” against a side unlikely to give the U.S. too much trouble.
And Azerbaijan complied, at least offensively. As a result, Klinsmann was able to see whether Jones was comfortable (and willing) playing in a more defensive role – his chemistry with Bradley in the 4-2-3-1 often was the subject of scrutiny – and how Jozy Altidore moved in conjunction with a supporting second forward.
Turkey surely will pose a stiffer challenge to the American defense. If Klinsmann opts for the 4-4-2 again, it will be a sign that he’ll likely use it in Brazil. The manager and his players downplayed the significance of the new formation when meeting the media on Friday, but its potential isn’t something that should be overlooked. Not only is it a change from how the squad played for the majority of the time Klinsmann has been in charge, it alters the roles and responsibilities of several key players.
“There is no such thing as a best system because it doesn’t matter if you play really a 4-4-2 diamond or a flat four in the middle or a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3. It doesn’t really matter because it’s the whole team, how it shapes up and how it works as an entire unit, how it attacks collectively and how it defends collectively,” Klinsmann said, pointing out with a laugh that Spain won the 2012 European title playing a 4-6-0 that featured no natural strikers.
“We want to be prepared in different ways, how we want to approach certain teams. We have at least two or three systems,” he said. “I think the system right now, it suits a lot of players because it’s also based on their strengths. If you look at Michael Bradley coming out of that position in the [advanced playmaker] role, Clint [Dempsey] up front with Jozy, every system requires different characteristics. The diamond version requires fullbacks to go down the line. Whether it’s a Fabian Johnson or DaMarcus Beasley, you need to have the players for it.”
Klinsmann appears to have the players, and that starts with Bradley, the 26-year-old Toronto FC midfielder entering this World Cup in his prime.
“Something that I think that’s really helped is Michael Bradley, just his transformation into a complete soccer player. He is absolutely the epitome of being a complete soccer player and can really play that point in the diamond,” Chris Wondolowski told SI.com. “If you have great guys like a Jermaine Jones or Kyle Beckerman that can really do some great work, the amount of ground they cover can really help that.”
Brad Davis said formations are more about defining defensive shape and that Klinsmann and his staff “give us kind of free rein” in the attack. However, Davis added, “We want Jermaine to sit more. We want Kyle to sit more. We want Michael to be more ahead, but that doesn’t mean that’s how the game is going to flow the entire time.”
It doesn’t mean that, and Davis noted that if he winds up switching with the midfielder on the opposing flank or if Jones pushes forward and Bradley retreats, it’s all well and good as long as team shape is maintained. But asking Jones to prioritize a defensive, holding role while giving Bradley a bit more freedom to play underneath the forwards does represent a philosophical shift.
It also pushes Dempsey further up the field. Rather than staying in the hole between two deep-lying midfielders and a striker, the captain can focus more on finding the net.
“I think with Clint, especially, we like to see him as high up the field as possible,” midfielder Graham Zusi said. “When Clint gets the ball we want him as near the goal as possible. I think at times, he tends to come back and search for the ball when he’s playing the underneath role, but now with his nose for the goal and the form that he’s in, I think we want him as high up the field as possible.”
Regarding the extra space in midfield the 4-4-2 might leave, Zusi said the U.S. has been working on staying compact and closing that down.
“It starts with those guys up top, Jozy and Clint, they put in the work and it trickles down," Zusi said.
Wondolowski said having a second forward “definitely helps.”
Highly regarded for his impressive tactical acumen, Bradley said that formation talk “gets a little bit blown out of proportion” and that his starting spot in midfield “doesn’t change who I am as a player.”
The 4-4-2 suggests Klinsmann has no desire to change that. In fact, if implemented in Brazil, the formation might make the most of who Bradley is as a player. He’ll have more freedom to make his own decisions about whether to attack, support or defend. He’ll know there’s likely a midfielder behind him in a holding role and he’ll know he has two forwards to work with. The 4-4-2 gives Bradley more leeway to dictate U.S. rhythm.
Klinsmann said he hopes Bradley will be “more involved and more connected to Jozy and Clint up front, to build hopefully a very effective and dangerous triangle where Michael is a two-way player.”
The manager added, “Michael is just improving every year and it’s just wonderful. It’s a joy to watch that and this is now a huge opportunity as well to put his face on this tournament.”
Ultimately, it’s possible that the U.S. is focusing on 4-4-2 now because it already has a deeper understanding of the 4-2-3-1 it used in 2013. Klinsmann wants his team to be comfortable in different systems and to be flexible depending on the opponent and situation.
“We can change on the fly,” Beckerman said, calling the 4-4-2 “another weapon.”
Perhaps it is just another option. But it could also represent significant tactical shift just before a World Cup that might give Klinsmann’s top players – Bradley, Dempsey and perhaps Altidore if he flourishes with the support – a chance to shine. Sunday’s game against Turkey will provide another clue.