For the first time in a very long time, the United States National team is exciting, or even better, everything surrounding the team is, and that makes for the drama sports fans crave.
The U.S./Jamaica Gold Cup Quarterfinal created as many new questions as it did answers and that's the main reason for all the excitement.
What complicates matters even more is how disappointing of a challenger Jamaica was in the contest. What can truly be taken when the opposition barely put up a fight?
In an attempt to wade through the different, and oftentimes non-linear issues that erupted from the game, here's a list of some key developments that may effect the team going forward:
Landon Donovan's Benching Means more than Anyone's Letting On
Even if the coach and players won't admit it —even if they don't even realize the significance of the decision—leaving Donovan on the bench for a Gold Cup Quarterfinal match with a Confederations Cup Berth on the line for any reason whatsoever, tells everyone that the coach believes the team can win without him, that he's not influencing the game, and that he isn't an essential component.
What's worse (for Donovan) is that they did win, and when he came into the game, he didn't put his imprint on the match. He ran around raising his arms when a call didn't go his way.
In response to those that claim he set up the second goal by passing the ball down the line to Juan Agudelo: if a player doesn't recognize that he should make that pass, then he shouldn't be on the field (and remember, Jamaica was already down to ten men).
Add to Donovan's performance the fact that his replacement Alejandro Bedoya played better than him, and now there's are a couple of problems: 1. Should he start in the semifinal considering his current form? And 2. Bedoya has done enough to play from the starting whistle.
Remember, we're talking about Landon Donovan, one of the greatest players to play for the United States, and to some, arguably the best U.S. player ever.
We're talking about benching one of the best U.S. players right after a World Cup where he was influential in a U.S. advance out of the group stage. Also, it wasn't too long ago that he was good enough to be a starting player for Everton in the English Premier League.
Now, his play is at the level of a substitute, a national team pool player.
The situation is compounded by Bob Bradley's choice to start Dempsey even though Donovan and Dempsey had the same circumstances surrounding their late arrivals in Washington, D.C.: a sister's wedding.
Now, Dempsey arrived at 2 a.m. the night before, Donovan at 7 a.m. the next morning. The excuse for Donovan was the amount of sleep, time of kick off, and weather.
But which player actually has more time to sleep? The man whose sleep pattern is broken up at two in the morning, or the one that can sleep through the night and wake when the plane lands at seven in D.C.?
Of course, most people know it all depends on departing flights, what their nights are like before getting on the plane (remember both were at weddings), what the plane flight was like (Dempsey took a chartered plane), and how well individuals handle plane rides.
Who knows who handled the travel time better?
And that's the point. Is there a difference? They're professionals, they're both key players for the U.S.
All that matters is that Dempsey played, Donovan didn't, and it paid off.
Fans are witnessing a distinct change in Landon Donovan's play, his role on the national time and relationship to it, and the team's overall dynamic. Will this be a permanent change?
No one knows. But with the play of Bedoya and Kljestan, it could, and probably should be.
What's even more telling is the team's reaction. They didn't look down or worried that Donovan wasn't on the field. His benching didn't crush the team's morale. Instead, it inspired them.
Even more worrisome was Donovan's reaction once he did enter the game. He was ineffectual. He doesn't deal well when he's faced with adversity. He needs everyone supporting him which has been the case before this tournament.
Donovan's admitted as much in interviews which is his explanation for why he plays so well for the Galaxy (although he's claiming the opposite here).
He's commented on how the Galaxy and his support system in California help him perform at his highest.
Also, he argues that the difference between Bayern Munich (Donovan's first European stint) and Everton (his second European foray) was the difference between fighting for a place, his manager, Jurgen Klinsman and the Bayern board being at odds on whether or not Donovan should have even been accepted on loan and whether or not to purchase him permanently, and his acceptance at Everton, where he had an immediate value, created depth for the squad, and was most importantly, embraced by fans.
Whether or not Donovan rises to these new challenges remains to be seen.
The odds are stacked against him though (he's at the tale end of his prime years, his game is one predicated on speed, and he isn't adapting well so far), but Donovan's always found a way to make the most of a situation; it's too early to believe that he won't this time.
Still, most of the media has dismissed the Donovan situation as exactly what U.S. Soccer claimed it was: travel issues. There's more to it than that.
Based on Bob Bradley's Man Management and Tactical Choices, His Job may have Depended on the Outcome of the Jamaica Game
No coach in any sport benches one of his star players, loses the game, and keeps his job.
Why would Bradley even risk it?
Because he had nothing to lose.
Why does he have nothing to lose?
Because his job was already on the line.
How do you know this?
For a conservative coach (which Bob Bradley clearly is based on his player selection, style of play, and formations), bold moves, key player substitutions, and new formations are options of last resort. The decisions ahead of the Jamaica game were counter to Bradley's modus operandi.
In-game changes are easier for Bradley to stomach than pre-match alterations.
Why doesn't Bradley make more changes?
Maybe it's because he has time to think, or the pressure has time to build. Whatever the reason, given too much time, Bradley will inevitably return to a 4-4-2 with the same players he has trusted since he began coaching the national team.
It's why he can never gain momentum or capitalize on his accomplishments. Whenever the team does well, he returns to his comfort zone. Perhaps it's in the belief that the familiar will reinforce his new found gains, or maybe he believes all he did was get lucky.
What further complicates Bradley's team alterations was the win against Guadeloupe. Even if it was 1-0, there was little direct incentive to change. You don't fix what isn't broken.
But Bradley did, so there had to be another impetus.
What about Donovan's absence in the lineup, that could have been the reason for the changes?
He could have played Donovan and avoided the changes.
Furthermore, under Bradley, the U.S. has never played well with any other formation than a 4-4-2, ever.
A quarterfinal game is not the time to try it again unless there's no other choice.
The only way Bob Bradley makes changes that go against his personality, his predilections, his belief in stability and consistency, is if he was cornered in some way. The only reason that Bradley would have had his back against the wall was if his job was in jeopardy.
I'm not saying there was an actual conversation, but Bradley understood that the current performance level was unacceptable even if he was winning and that something would need to change or there would be serious consequences.
Coaches like Bradley don't make drastic changes that could cost you your job when your team has just advanced to the knockout stage unless there are some other serious consequences.
The most likely consequence for a loss would be his job.
This Win Proves the U.S. can Play a Sophisticated, Modern Formation
Call it the evolution of the game, change in player development, a trend or fad, whatever the case may be, the conventional 4-4-2 has gone out of style, except, of course, for the United States.
While teams need to be versatile and able to change their tactics as necessary, the U.S. has remained hamstrung without an alternate formation to compliment their 4-4-2. Until the Jamaica game, no forward has been able to handle the attacking duties alone, and the lack of midfield options left one or two of America's most talented players on the bench.
And it's not as if Bradley hadn't tried to alter the formation.
He's tried a 4-3-3 and a 4-5-1, but no matter what the experiment, players failed to execute. The success against Jamaica, even a confused, lackluster Jamaica, proves that the right U.S. players can implement the proper game-plan (that is, as long as the proper game-plan is chosen of course).
This may be the biggest accomplishment from the Jamaica game. Now the U.S. no longer needs to "pack-in" against opponents, even though there probably will be times when that will be required, but at other times, the team can create match-ups that may favor certain players.
In the end, the U.S. has options, and that makes the team much more dangerous.
Why did it work this time when it has failed in the past?
In part, Jamaica's play allowed the U.S. time to figure out how to make the formation work, but beyond the opponent, the team figured out how to play to players' individual strengths.
First, the more technically skilled and in-form players took on the heaviest offensive burdens (Dempsey, Kljestan, and Bedoya).
Secondly, the outside fullbacks were involved in the attack.
This detail is key in a 4-5-1. If Lichaj and Cherundolo aren't involved and adding width and numbers, then this formation fails (the formation also requires a central midfielder that can distribute offensively, in this case, Kljestan). Brazil, Barcelona, it doesn't matter, without the fullbacks, this system doesn't work.
Thirdly, the offensive burden was taken off of Jones and Bradley which played to their strengths.
Jones and Bradley recognized the need to fill the gaps behind Lichaj and Cherundolo. This took the pressure off of Jones and Bradley to contribute offensively, it protected the central defenders, and in actuality, freed up an extra central midfielder to contribute over time. In this case, Jermaine Jones: once while sitting back and hitting a long range strike for a goal, and once making a run after the defense had already committed to the other attackers.
Much has to go right for these formations to work which is why the U.S. may have had prior trouble implementing them. However, the rewards, be it wins, consistency, always threatening, or getting your best players on the field, will be worth the risk.
If this is the future for the U.S., then it should be exciting. However, announcers, analysts and fans are going to have to improve their soccer IQ.
The announcers (atrocious throughout the tournament) missed that Agudelo touched the ball, or that his hard work contributed to the possession and control the U.S. had over the game.
In fact, Altidore's injury saved the formation. In previous incarnations with Altidore up top, he can't contribute alone. He doesn't make the runs, doesn't recognize when to hold the ball or where to distribute. Agudelo did it all. The announcers and some analysts missed his impact.
The same could be said of Michael Bradley. One analyst rated his play an eight, another a five, so who was right (I'm abstaining on player ratings in order to get this article out before the Panama game)?
The more sophisticated the system, the more likely there's an unsung hero or two making the whole system work.
Furthermore, the announcers panicked over the amount of possession the U.S. had and how far forward they pushed.
In the modern game, the goal is to overwhelm the opponent, get as many opportunities as possible, force the other team to become frustrated, make mistakes, and take advantage of them.
Of course a team has to be careful of the counter, but good teams are.
It's why, once the world realized the U.S. was a great counter-attack team at the World Cup in 2002, the same strategy didn't work in 2006 (European teams are extremely proficient at snuffing out counter-attacks for some reason, much more than South American teams. This is why Brazil had trouble against the U.S. in the 2009 Confederations Cup final).
But teams can't win without the ball, and that's why possession is so important. Just don't become Arsenal, where the team just passes the ball around the eighteen yard line without ever moving the ball vertically.
Attacking is better than defending and relying on the perfect counter. People will have to get over their anxiety about the team being stretched on offense.
What to look for in the Panama Semifinal
In a game of chicken, nine times out of 10, Bob Bradley will flinch first.
One only need look at the 2010 2nd round loss to Ghana for proof.
In the must-win last group-stage game against Algeria, Maurice Edu played alongside Michael Bradley, and the team won its first game of the tournament..
Against Ghana, Bob Bradley sat Maurice Edu in favor of a poorly performing Ricardo Clark. Clark was substituted thirty minutes into the match, and the U.S. lost.
Why did Bradley change what worked?
Like most humans, Bradley will return to what's comfortable and familiar over the new and innovative even when there's evidence that a change is necessary.
Why does a coach who is willing to take a chance on minute turn conservative the next?
I don't know, but look for it against Panama.
The most likely change will be to put Donovan back in the lineup, but for whom and why?
Bedoya is the straight switch, but Bedoya has had the better tournament. Donovan's substitute play didn't strengthen the argument for a return to the old. Bradley can't replace Kljestan as he organizes the attack. It won't be Dempsey or Agudelo, and it definitely won't be Jones or Bradley.
There's no reasonable explanation to change what worked against Jamaica, but it probably will.
For now, Bradley is his own worst enemy. He needs to be confident in his changes, their success, and support their efforts, but his past decisions don't bode well for future ones.
However, Panama is the perfect opponent for the semifinal as well.
The team plays a counter-attack the U.S. will most likely see against lesser or equal opponents, so the U.S. could use the practice. They'll allow the Americans to work on their new formation, they have a little more offensive talent, and that will put pressure on the defense to be sharp (an important exercise in preparation for Mexico as long as both teams make it to the final), and most importantly, REVENGE for the group-stage, massively embarrassing loss at the hands of Panama.
It's the perfect game. Hopefully Bradley won't flinch.