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WTF Bob Bradley????

May 22, 2010

In beginning to talk about the US National team and our realistic (or at least not wildly optimistic) expectations of them, we must begin with our limitations. In a book called Soccernomics authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanksi use regression analysis (don’t worry, I don’t know what that is either) to look at results from international competitions over the last 30 or so years. The factors that they found to be most important to a team’s success turned out to be experience, population, and income per capita. They being published and us being humble bloggeurs, we’ll be going with their word on this. Sadly for the US, experience far outweighed population and income per capita.

Let me define experience before we go any further. I know it is a simple word, I just don’t want us to be talking at cross purposes. I don’t mean the experience of individual players, I mean the experience of the American soccer program as a whole. When I (and Kuper/Szymanksi) say that we lack experience, I am referring to the infrastructure of soccer in America as well as the inexperience of coaches and the lack of tactical nous in American soccer. These factors prevent us from fully utilizing what talent we have, and also prevent us from taking advantage of a similar lack of tactical nous in other countries. The easiest thing to start the revolution is to throw away our tactics and start anew.

Why am I attacking our tactics, you may ask yourself. I feel that our adherence to the 4-4-2 is wasting (or at the very least not making the full use of) our talent. When we adopt the 4-4-2 (as we invariably do), we put Donovan and Dempsey in the wide midfield, farther away from the goal. We leave the back relatively unprotected with only Michael Bradley playing in a holding position in central midfield, and we fail to shoehorn DeMarcus Beasley in (unless Bob Bradley decides to make the terribly ill-advised DeMarcus-Beasley-as-left-back decision again).

Obviously I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t have the best solution available (I mean c’mon, I’m a bloggeur, this is what we are here for). I say we begin to play in a 4-2-3-1. I know it is a terribly trendy formation these days, but in my extensive research and advanced computer models show it to be terribly effective.

Firstly, we would play with Bradley and a second defensive midfielder shielding the back four (my vote would be for Maurice Edu on the evidence of the last USA game I saw). This adds a lot of stability to a sometimes error prone defense (two words -Steve Cherundolo). It also gives us a strong platform to move forward from, especially with a player like Bradley. In front of our defensive midfielders we have 3 attack oriented midfielders/forwards. This hybridized role suits Dempsey and Donovan and lets us slot Beasley in, giving us an extremely dynamic attack. We have already seen in the Confederations Cup that putting Dempsey closer to goal produces results. I would like to see Donovan played in the hole behind Altidore, giving him the opportunity both to run at defenders and to pull the strings from the middle of the park, or to drop deeper in the midfield chasing the ball. I like putting Beasley in the side because of his speed, but also because he has had a more focused attack in his last few games, producing better balls in the final third. Altidore is a natural choice to lead the line by himself. He has already given defenders in England a torrid time (in 2 back to back games for Hull defenders were dismissed for fouls on Altidore), and he is only getting older and better.

But the best thing about the formation is that it suits whatever mentality you choose on any given day. You want to play defensively? It can play like a 4-5-1 and clog the middle of the field. You want to go balls to the wall for goals? It plays like a 4-2-4 (AKA the classic Manchester City “Dear sweet God we are all fired if we don’t at least get a draw in this game”). Play the counter attack? 4-5-1 when you don’t have the ball, 4-2-4 when you do. It simply fits the talents of our players very well, and puts them in positions where they can make a difference. I’m not saying that it will make us a contender to win the World Cup, I’m just saying I want us to utilize our talent, and I think in this case that means changing out of the 4-4-2.

In Soccernomics they also discuss the way information is disseminated in soccer. In other words, how do formations and tactics move from one country to another? In the early days of professional soccer, this was a more relevant question. With modern communications technology as it is, it seems redundant. And yet it seems that we as a nation have learned very little from the European soccer community, despite sending our best players (and many of our mediocre ones too) overseas to play and learn proper football. In my eyes, this kind of insularism is hampering us from becoming a much better team. While I appreciate the instinct that a national team should be coached by someone of that nationality, I also understand that America lags far behind the rest of the football world in terms of experience and technical savvy.

So why don’t we turn to a coach with experience on the Continent? Australia hired Guus Hiddink, as South Korea had before them, only to experience their best World Cup showing in years. England has been revitalized under Fabio Capello (not that the English are necessarily happy about having a foreign coach, but after years of metatarsals and disappointments they are willing to do whatever it takes to get to a final), though in some ways that is a far different case. The point is, we can in some ways make up for the lack of experience we suffer by hiring a coach like Jurgen Klinsman, Dick Advocaat, or Guus Hiddink, not to mention any other of a number of well qualified coaches.

If we need a foreign coach to teach our players about tactics and formations, then that is what we need to do. But if an American coach can do it, I’ll be just as happy. Either way, I think our tactical inflexibility is one of our greatest weaknesses.

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