EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - MARCH 26: The United States lines up to defend a free kick by Lionel Messi #10 of Argentina during the second half of a friendly match at New Meadowlands Stadium on March 26, 2011 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

USA Vs. Paraguay, Preview: Americans Try To Build On Positive Argentina Result

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USA Vs. Paraguay, Preview: Bob Bradley Would Be Wise To Ditch The Five-Man Midfield

In the run up to the 2010 World Cup and then again during the tournament in South Africa many people wondered what Bob Bradley was doing playing his trusty 4-4-2 formation with his United States team. While Robbie Findley was starting at striker just so the team could have two when it could easily be argued that the team didn't have one good striker, quality midfielders like Stuart Holden and Benny Feilhaber were sitting on the bench. It was clear as day that the U.S. should play with five midfielders and one forward in an effort to get the best 11 players on the field, right?

After the World Cup when Bradley was hired to continue on as U.S. coach, he made the move to a five-man midfield. Jermaine Jones returned to health and gave the Americans another quality midfielder while Maurice Edu and Stuart Holden began two of the strongest seasons of their professional careers. With Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey as the main attacking threats in the midfield and obvious fixtures in the team regardless of the formation, the U.S. had those two, as well as Michael Bradley, Jones, Edu, Holden and Feilhaber all as midfield options.

An excess of midfield options and dearth of forwards made the 4-2-3-1 formation that Bradley went to the obvious choice. As much sense as it made though, the U.S. didn't excel in their new formation. Against Poland in October the U.S. got one of their two goals on a set piece so it wasn't any real positive build up from the midfield and on the whole, the Polish midfield controlled the match better than the American midfield did. Against Colombia three days later, the U.S. midfield was abhorrant. The next time the first team got together was against Argentina on Saturday and while they picked up a draw, the midfield was overwhelmed the entire first half, there were no scoring chances and the Americans only picked up the play enough to earn the draw because of a second half move to a 4-4-2.

Three matches is not the sample size one wants to have to judge a team, but it is all the U.S. has had and they will only have two more opportunities to play before the World Cup begins in June. Bob Bradley is at the point where he needs to make a decision on how his team is going to go forward. Will they continue to play with five men in the midfield or revert back to the 4-4-2?

Making the 4-2-3-1 tougher is the recent injury to Holden. Of all the central midfield options, he was the best suited to play in the three front midfielders, but he is not an option for a while. The U.S. is also devoid of true wingers. Alejandro Bedoya's growth has stunted, Brek Shea is not an international quality winger, DaMarcus Beasley hasn't played well in years and nobody else has stepped up so playing one of them out side and sliding Dempsey centrally is not an option. Of course playing someone best suited inside, like Feilhaber, on the wing is possible so Dempsey can slide inside, but again, the U.S. would be forced to play rather narrow.

There is only one option to play as the attacking central midfield. Mikkel Diskerud is creative, vibrant and has the skills to play the position well. The problem with Diskerud is that he is only 20-years-old and playing for Stabaek in Norway he doesn't play much top competition so the step up in speed is somewhat of a shock to the very talented midfielder. He does have a bit of experience against top competition in Europa League, but two legs against Valencia in a playoff is as much as he got and even against a Chilean team without some of their top players in January, it was clear that he had to adjust some to the speed.

Some have suggested the U.S. play a 4-3-3 or even a 4-3-2-1 with Jones, Bradley and Edu playing next to each other with Dempsey and Donovan in front of them and Altidore all alone up top. The problem with this formation and any formation that played Jones, Bradley and Edu together is that they are all rather similar players. They all sit deeper, none are exceptional on the ball or passing the ball and they get so many touches on the ball between the three without being a huge attacking threat that the U.S. struggles to find much going forward.

All of this brings the U.S. back to the 4-4-2. It would not put the best 11 players on the field, but it would probably put the best team on the field. What has been clear each and every time that the U.S. takes the pitch is that any effective attack comes through Donovan or Dempsey. A five-man midfield only cuts down on the space for the two of them. Moreover, two strikers drive the back line deeper and creates space for the two best American attackers. If the U.S. is to play with one striker, there needs to be another attacking threat in the midfield to get the ball to Donovan in Dempsey in better spaces as well as to attract some attention from defenses. Right now, the U.S. just doesn't have that player.

It is unlikely that the U.S. starts Tuesday's match against Paraguay in a 4-4-2. With FC Ingodstadt requesting that Edson Buddle return to the club in preparation for their match on Friday and the U.S. agreeing, Bradley has only two true strikers at his disposal for the match. If he were to start in a 4-4-2 on Tuesday he would have no strikers on the bench, which is something that would be very un-Bob Bradley-like.

Even so, it would be equally unlikely if Bradley didn't try a 4-4-2 at some point in the match. Juan Agudelo will likely come in as a sub and show the two-striker formation that made the U.S. so much more effective against Argentina. Space will open up for Donovan and Dempsey, who will find the ball in dangerous spaces and the U.S. attack will be ten times more dangerous. That is the nature of the American team right now and they have until June 7 when they open their Gold Cup account to revert back to their 4-4-2 for good.

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USA Vs. Paraguay, Preview: Americans Try To Build On Positive Argentina Result

When the United States' scheduled friendly against Egypt in February was cancelled because of the political revolt in the country, the Americans were left with only two matches with their top team between October of 2010 and June of 2011. With the Gold Cup in June, the team needed all the preparation they could get, but when they were left without much of it, they had to make the most of what they had. That meant that the friendly against Argentina last Saturday and Tuesday's friendly against Paraguay in Nashville, TN were of the utmost importance.

Saturday's friendly against Argentina was by no means perfect and if it were not for some sparkling goalkeeping from Tim Howard, the U.S. would have likely lost by several goals. Howard did shine though, and the Americans showed some flashes in the second half that earned them a 1-1 draw. Even if they were outplayed, the U.S. is not going to complain about a result against the Argentineans and they enter Tuesday's friendly against Paraguay having answered some questions they needed to answer by the time the Gold Cup begins.

First off, Juan Agudelo continues his meteoric rise up the U.S. soccer charts, scoring his second goal in his third appearance for the senior team. Jay DeMerit showed that with only one professional match under his belt since last year's Gold Cup he's still the best central defender in the U.S. pool, although that might say more about the pool. Third, the right back position after Steve Cherundolo is as much, if not more, of a toss up than it has ever been with Timothy Chandler now in the mix.

For as many questions as Saturday may have answered, there are many more unanswered. How much longer can Jozy Altidore hold off Agudelo for the top striker spot? He scored a hat trick the last time the U.S. visited Nashville so can he replicate that performance and stake his claim to a spot he's been challenged for for the first time in years? Where does Tim Ream fit in and can he push an continually shaky Oguchi Onyewu out of the picture? Who does Bob Bradley look to at right back? Most of all, does Bradley continue to work on a 4-2-3-1 formation when it's been far less effective than the 4-4-2?

After Tuesday, the U.S. has just one more friendly, on June 4 against Spain at Gillette Stadium, before they start a Gold Cup that they have made a top priority. It may be three months away, but in terms of time together, the U.S. is in their stretch run of preparation and their penultimate test comes on Tuesday in Nashville.

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