U.S. still seeking a dominant midfield presence
Wednesday's friendly between England and the United States was a case of blue bloods meeting blue-collars, the talented aristocracy going up against a side heavily reliant on organizational discipline. Though ability usually triumphs in these cases, underdogs certainly have had their day a number of times, and the Americans were hoping that this match would fall into that category.
Suffice it say that on this occasion, quality prevailed in a walk, with England strolling to a comfortable 2-0 win. Though there is no disgrace in losing by such a score line against a high-level side, the U.S. didn't help itself in plenty of areas. The American defense was flummoxed by the hosts' off-the-ball movement, while the front line did little to distinguish itself throughout the course of 90 fruitless minutes.
But among the more troubling aspects of the performance was the nonexistent play of the American midfield. U.S. head coach Bob Bradley has long preached the benefits of being "hard to play against" and showing defensive grit. While this approach has allowed the Americans to grind out some results, on Wednesday it morphed into risk aversion.
One sequence in the 17th minute was especially telling. There was U.S. forward Eddie Johnson, actually winning a clean header against the English defense and knocking it down into space. But instead of running on to the ball, the U.S. midfielders remained rooted to where they stood, allowing an England defender to break up the play.
Aided by this reluctance to join the attack, England owned the middle of the park. The central pairing of Owen Hargreaves and Frank Lampard (and later Gareth Barry) had their way with the American duo of Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark, with Clark in particular enduring a horrid match plagued by numerous turnovers. Bradley played somewhat better, but his passing wasn't sharp either. And his failure to track Barry in the 59th minute allowed the Aston Villa man to find a wide open Steven Gerrard, who tucked away England's second goal.
The more attack-minded elements of the U.S. midfield didn't fare much better. The biggest danger DaMarcus Beasley provided on the night was to those England players unfortunate enough to be stuck in the wall during his free kicks. Clint Dempsey, for all of his tricks and clever touches, rarely threatened, and neither player provided much width to the American attack. Even more revealing was the fact that the team's most dangerous midfielder on the night was substitute Eddie Lewis, who just turned 34.
Given the relative quality of England's team, expecting the U.S. midfield to achieve a stalemate would have been asking a great deal, yet the American performance fell well short of that. The absence of Landon Donovan because of a groin strain didn't make things any easier, and it's worth noting that Beasley recently returned to the field after a lengthy injury layoff.
But given the way that the U.S. team struggled to keep possession, it seems unlikely that Donovan's presence would have made much of a difference. The forwards' inability to hold up the ball was problematic, but so were the subpar performances in the center of midfield.
Of course, this is an act that we've seen before. Even when the U.S. was gutting out results against Switzerland and South Africa, keeping the ball was an aspect of the game with which the Americans struggled. The question is, will it get any better against quality opponents?
That depends on how quickly certain members of the U.S. player pool improve. Bradley appears committed to the twin holding midfielder approach. As a result, he has bet a fair chunk of his coaching capital that out of Clark, Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu, and Benny Feilhaber, two of those four will develop sufficiently to make people forget about Claudio Reyna and John O'Brien. If they don't, the U.S. can forget about getting past the group stage at the next World Cup, because without that kind of calm on the ball and ability to dictate tempo, getting results in South Africa will be next to impossible.
Bradley seems the farthest along of the four, but even if his long-rumored move to an English Premier League team comes to pass, and his improvement accelerates at light speed, he can't do it alone. One of the remaining three will need to match his progression. Feilhaber's career, after he endured a season of discontent and a recent knee injury, appears to be adrift. Neither Clark nor Edu have Feilhaber's passing ability, yet both remain the primary candidates to partner Bradley.
Alternatives exist, but none of them is palatable. The team could move Donovan or Dempsey into the center of midfield. This would give the team more offensive punch and better possession, but it risks compromising the defensive strength up the middle prized by Bradley. There is also the chance that an old warhorse like Pablo Mastroeni could be called upon, but his passing hasn't been that impressive in the Bradley era either, and at age 31, his ability to cover the ground necessary is an open question.
That leaves the U.S. manager stuck with what he has: a team comprised mostly of blue-collar players trying to crack the aristocracy. The race to get there before 2010 looks set to go down to the wire.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.