What Lies Ahead for USA Soccer?

Matt Matsumura

While the U.S. men’s soccer team’s primary weaknesses were displayed obviously in the 2-2 draw with Mexico last Wednesday night, a more critical, fundamental problem exists for the Americans. Despite the glaring weakness of the U.S. flanks and central-midfield, the main problem relates to our four classy attacking players: Landon Donovan (age 25), Clint Dempsey (24), Freddy Adu (18), and Jozy Altidore (18). Heading into 2010 World Cup Qualifying this summer, coaches must find a way to get these creative players on the field without sacrificing defensive integrity .

The fullback pairing of Ramiro Corrales and Drew Moor was absolutely horrendous last week, leaving Sam’s crew hoping for right back Steve Cherundolo’s health and a new left back. Except for Moor’s strong moment, a beautiful cross to Jozy Altidore for a tie-breaking header, Moor was often the worst-performing player on the field. The FC Dallas regular was at least partly responsible for both Mexico goals, failing to mark Mexican defender Jonny Magollon on both of his set-piece goals. Carlos Vela made a mockery of Moor whenever El Tri decided to advance through the left. Corrales was nearly as poor, offering barely more resistance than Moor and giving nothing in attack. American supporters may want much-maligned Jonathan Bornstein back, who despite his shortcomings appears better than the alternatives. Even Heath Pearce, who plays much slower than his recorded track time, deserves a shot in the lineup.

The pairing of Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark should never happen again, especially with Benny Feilhaber available, whether he is seeing time with Derby County or not. Neither defensive midfielder offered anything in support or ball control, nor were they efficient in slowing the Mexican attack. Bradley, who has performed successfully with his Eredivisie club sc Heerenveen, looked slow and out of position throughout the entire contest. Clark is clearly lacking in ability and even young prospect Maurice Edu would have supplanted the Houston regular with better results.

US Coach Bob Bradley has played the stock 4-4-2 alignment with little variance, putting into question the future of perhaps the most ballyhooed American prospect in history. Freddy Adu is, perhaps for the exception of international veteran Landon Donovan, the most technically gifted American alive (Giuseppe Rossi not considered). Adu, however, lacks the versatility to play in the current US alignment. The precision passer is a pure attacking midfielder and he doesn’t have the defensive prowess to play in the American center-midfield. Contrary to popular opinion, he also doesn’t have the size (Dempsey) or the speed (Donovan) to play on the wing. He may fit as a supporting striker to Altidore’s target presence, but he clearly does not have the physicality to hold the ball like Dempsey does currently. If Altidore proves he can both hold the ball and play target man, Adu should be an ideal fit, but this also assumes that Altidore would become one of the best strikers in the world, which is not presently evident. Unless Benny Feilhaber can finally emerge as an attacking presence in the center-midfield, Adu is not a viable option as a supporting striker in the American 4-4-2.

The emergence of Adu and Altidore also puts into question the future of speedy DaMarcus Beasley, who missed the Mexico friendly with an injury. While the Rangers wing hasn’t suffered in form at all, it is doubtful he would be favored over Dempsey once he is moved to the midfield to make space for Adu. Bobby Convey, Beasley’s replacement for the Mexico, is completely ineffective and shouldn’t see significant action in primetime matches. He obviously doesn’t clutter the already crowded American attack of the future. Central-midfielder Danny Szetela, of U-20 fame, had a successful substitute role in an earlier friendly against Switzerland, but has seen little action overall despite his potential. Recently loaned out to Serie B club Brescia from La Liga’s Racing Santander, Szetela will hopefully see action and develop into a regular contributor for the United States.

Outside of Altidore coming close to resembling Zlatan Ibrahimovic or an efficient Feilhaber-Szetela midfield pairing, the best possibility for the crowded American attack is a formation switch. However, the lack of world-class central midfielders too often puts the US on the negative end of possession against the World’s best, who emphasize defensive stoutness above offensive creativity. In simpler terms, unless an Esteban Cambiasso or a Rio Ferdinand falls from the sky to give the United States a premier midfielder or center back, the Americans will need to commit to defensive numbers.