Injury blows will force Bradley to reshape U.S.
Bob Bradley has spent nearly three years trying to build the U.S. men's national team into a force that could go far at next summer's World Cup. Yet earlier this week, two events occurred within a 48-hour span that threw a considerable wrench into those plans.
The first, of course, was the horrific car accident involving forward Charlie Davies that claimed the life of 22-year-old Ashley Roberta. Davies underwent surgery to repair leg fractures in both the tibia and femur of his right leg and a lacerated bladder, as well as fractures to his face and left elbow. It's expected that more surgery will be necessary.
Clearly, the loss of life and Davies' long-term health dwarf any soccer-related concerns. Yet the long and arduous recovery that lies ahead for Davies seems almost certain to have scuttled his dream of playing in South Africa next summer, leaving the rest of team trying to compensate for the loss of the young striker.
"It's still hard to swallow," said defender Jonathan Bornstein about Davies accident. "Just thinking about it is a tough situation, but I think everyone is dealing with it pretty well."
The other blow was the injury suffered by defender Oguchi Onyewu, who suffered a torn patellar tendon in his left knee late in Wednesday's match. Onyewu has been ever-present since first suiting up for the national team back in 2004, and had been relied on heavily during qualifying.
"Just his presence on the field, his experience makes it a tough loss for the team," said defender Jimmy Conrad about Onyewu. "But we're a team that has a good team spirit, and has shown that we have a lot of character and resolve."
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Given an expected recovery period of three to four months, time would appear to be an ally for Onyewu. But his lack of playing time with AC Milan had already resulted in a slight drop in form, and duplicating his Confederations Cup displays seems unlikely if he isn't getting regular minutes, be it with Milan or some other club. Is an Onyewu at say, 80 or 90 percent going to be good enough? Will it be better than someone else at 100 percent? Those aren't sure bets by any means.
There certainly are plenty of candidates to replace Onyewu, but that list has grown shorter in recent weeks. Jay DeMerit's impending eye surgery is expected to sideline him for as long as two months, while Chad Marshall is currently sidelined by a left knee sprain.
Granted, these are short-term obstacles, and a player with the World Cup experience of Conrad is a nice insurance policy to have. But the friendly matches set to take place between now and the start of the World Cup were supposed to be a time to apply the finishing touches, not embark on a major remodel. The injuries make for a more complicated set of circumstances.
As for Davies, it looks as if the physical and technical gifts he brought to the side will prove much tougher to replace, not only in terms of his individual game, but the impact he had on others.
"Davies really did like to stretch the defense, and that allowed Landon [Donovan] to have more space underneath, which made Landon have more of an impact on the game consistently," Conrad said. "Then other guys like Conor Casey, Jozy Altidore or Brian Ching could be the hold-up guy. You had the perfect combination of speed and power up top, and that allowed Landon to stay in the midfield and pull the strings from there."
"[Davies' speed] reminded me a lot of Earnie Stewart," said former U.S. international Eric Wynalda. "Earnie was a little bit more versatile, but Davies did the one thing that none of us were able to do, and that's score in Mexico City … [The U.S.] needed him more than pretty much anybody else in the team."
Now that Davies' speed threat is gone, it will be interesting to see how much teams will squeeze Donovan's space in midfield.
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The options for Bradley are many, but none of them are ideal. Donovan could return to the support role he had in the earlier parts of qualifying where he complemented a lone striker. But with the likes of Clint Dempsey cutting inside, Donovan's ability to find gaps was compromised, and prevented him from running free at defenses.
Bradley could continue with the twin towers approach, selecting from a group including Casey, Altidore and Ching. It's a tactic with more brawn, and with Altidore finding his inner Ching on Wednesday in terms of passing and hold-up play, it may prove the most effective approach by allowing the least amount of upset to the rest of the lineup.
There is also the possibility that Dempsey could turn his recent successful cameo appearances up top into a permanent move, especially given some of his lackluster displays in midfield. While he lacks Davies' speed, he adds an unpredictable element with his trickery on the ball. And as Wynalda put it, "Every time Dempsey plays up top, he scores. Every time he plays in midfield, we get mad at him."
There's a chance Bradley may call on a pacy player like FC Dallas striker Jeff Cunningham during the January camp, but the odds of him sticking with the full team seem long given that he's been out of the national team frame for four years. Then again, a long absence didn't prevent Casey's return to the national team fold, so anything is possible.
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Wynalda added that given the combination of injured defenders, a glut of midfielders, and the loss of Davies, now is the time to think out of the box and go with a 3-5-2. While it has the advantage of freeing Donovan and getting him closer to goal, the U.S. doesn't have enough flank players and mobile defenders with the passing range needed to make the system work. The fact that Bradley has rarely, if ever, employed such a formation during his tenure would also hint strongly that it won't be tried.
Chances are the rest of these approaches will be attempted in the upcoming friendlies. But these are by no means the only questions on Bradley's plate. One priority is ridding the team of the momentary lapses in defensive concentration, like the ones that plagued the team against Costa Rica. The team's possession, while better against the Ticos, still needs more consistency from game to game.
Fortunately, while the U.S. doesn't have an infinite amount of time to sort out these issues, it does have some.
"Now that we've qualified, and the pressure is off, we're going to have five, six, seven quality games to determine what formation is going to work the best," Conrad said. "I think the biggest thing is: How can we get Landon the time and space he needs to be the best player in the team for us?"
Let the remodeling work begin.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at email@example.com.