The United States' struggles in this Gold Cup are not a complete surprise to those that have followed the team closely. No, a loss to Panama was not expected and the inability to finish chances against Guadeloupe was more than even the most pessimistic of followers could have predicted, but the Americans were hardly the favorites to win the tournament. That honor would go to Mexico and for all the criticism heaped upon Bob Bradley, the Americans' real issue is something the manager has zero control over.
It has been years since the U.S. produced a single competent striker or centerback. The problems at striker are well-documented, with Jozy Altidore remaining the top U.S. option despite a lack of production. The centerback position isn't much better, with Oguchi Onyewu remaining the only quality centerback to come up in the last seven years and his career has been derailed by injury. Without quality up top or at the back, the Americans are in a world of hurt and it has shown.
If the U.S. were to make a run at the Gold Cup title they would need exceptional play from their midfield. That was always going to be the case and lucky for the U.S., they have quality in the midfield. Jermaine Jones has excelled in both the German Bundesliga and the English Premier League. Michael Bradley has done well in the Netherlands and Germany, despite his struggles to get playing time in the last six months with Aston Villa. Maurice Edu is a regular for Rangers, Landon Donovan remains one of the Americans' best players and Clint Dempsey is coming off of the best season of his career for Fulham.
The quality in players is there in the midfield. No, the Americans don't have the quality of Spain or Germany, but they are playing in the Gold Cup, not Euro. There is no doubt that the U.S. has what it takes to dominate the center of the pitch against CONCACAF opponents, but to this point in the tournament they haven't. Why is that?
Part of the issue that the U.S. has had in the midfield has to do with the players. Jones has been an outstanding club player, but ever since joining the U.S. team last October he has had a bad match for every good match on the international level and that is being charitable. Donovan continues to struggle with being assertive in all matches and Dempsey had one of the poorer finishing matches in recent memory against Guadeloupe.
That said, as much of the problem with the U.S. midfield is coaching related. Bradley and his staff continues to show a lack of imagination tactically, falling back into the 4-2-2-2 that the U.S. used during the World Cup with two deep central midfielders and Donovan and Dempsey cutting in from the wings.
There is a use to that formation and it has proved to be effective at times. It is not something that the U.S. should toss out the window, but it only allows the Americans to play one way and that way isn't the best way to go when (1) you need to dominate the midfield (2) the teams you are playing are clearly inferior to you and do not pose the threat of say, England or Ghana.
Against Canada, playing with two deep central midfielders made some sense because of the threat of Dwayne De Rosario. He could exploit space in the center and make the U.S. pay for it. In fact, he almost did a couple times. But what about against Panama and Guadeloupe? Neither team had a central midfielder that would be a major threat in the attack and require two deep midfielders and neither team is overly proficient counter-attacking through the center.
Both Panama and Guadeloupe offered the United States acres of space in the center of the pitch, but with Michael Bradley and Jones sitting deep, the U.S. couldn't take advantage. Donovan or Dempsey could have come in to take advantage of that space and Dempsey did against Panama, but that left little width or help on the wings and as a result Dempsey was seemingly playing by himself. Instead of having Dempsey come in to take advantage of that space a striker could have dropped deeper, but the U.S. has a crop of inexperienced and technically deficient strikers who can't handle that responsibility.
As a result, the U.S. was unable to take advantage of the space in the center. That only played into the hands of Panama and Guadeloupe, making it impossible for the U.S. to completely dominate the center of the park, something they need to do with their issue at striker and central defense.
The question is why didn't Bob Bradley move to better exploit the space that the U.S. was being given. He could have gone about this several ways. One would be moving Dempsey to a withdrawn forward or attacking midfield role. Against Panama he was able to get onto the ball regularly in that part of the pitch, he just didn't have anywhere to go with it. Against Guadeloupe he was able to do the same and was effective in the midfield, just finishing chances, but that isn't the question at hand.
Another option would be to sit either Jones or Michael Bradley in favor of someone who offers more in the attack, like Sacha Kljestan. More forward minded and a better passer, Kljestan has the ability to get into the space in the center of the park to better give the U.S. attack some punch and recent history suggests that a player like Kljestan only helps the U.S.
For the last two years, the U.S. has struggled at the starts of matches. They've been at their best in the last 30-40 minutes, often when Benny Feilhaber has been brought into the match and put on the left side of the midfield. He's pinched in from that position and played more centrally, giving the U.S. a quality passer in the midfield and allowing them to better move the ball through the center. Feilhaber is missing from the Gold Cup with an injury, but Kljestan brings some of the same skills to the team and is able to play more naturally in the center so it wouldn't require Feilhaber coming in from the left and creating an unbalanced shape to better play through the midfield.
The last two years have proved that the U.S. is better with a good passing player in the midfield. Bradley continues to trot out essentially the same team to start matches and wait until later on to make the move for an extra midfielder, be it Feilhaber or Kljestan, with Dempsey pushing up top. Why is that still the case, especially against inferior teams that are ceding swaths of land to the U.S. in the center?
A player like Kljestan in the center of the pitch could give the U.S. the type of forward thinking midfielder they need to play through the center and since moving to Anderlecht he is much more committed defensively so he is no longer the liability he once was. That alone would be an improvement to the U.S. team, but it doesn't need to end there. Playing Aljeandro Bedoya on the left wing, putting Donovan on the right with his overlapping buddy Steve Cherundolo would also improve the U.S. play in the center. More importantly, it would free Dempsey to roam wherever he sees fit behind Altidore, putting the most skilled and smartest U.S. attacker in a position to help create through the center.
Bob Bradley cannot do anything about the lack of central defenders or strikers. That's well beyond his control and no matter what he does will be the biggest problem with the U.S. team. He can make changes to strengthen the midfield though, something that needs to be humming so the U.S. can overcome their issues up top and at the back. Step one of that is taking advantage of the space they are being given against inferior opponents.
Would such an attack work against Mexico? Maybe not because the speed of the game may be too much, but that is because Mexico is better than the U.S. and at some point that catches up to you. Panama, Jamaica and Honduras are not better than the U.S. though, but if the Americans refuse to adjust to what they are being given and do so from the start, not in the 60th minute, they might never get their chance at the Mexicans.