Against a Jamaica team that likes to play with a back three and central midfielders who sit deep, Bob Bradley went away from his favored 4-4-2 formation - one that would have played right into Jamaica's hands - and instead went with a 4-2-3-1 formation where both wingers had the freedom (and ability) to cut inside. The runs into the box from deep positions from the band of three attack-minded midfielders caused chaos for the Jamaican back line all night and as a result, the USMNT won comfortably.
There were some very shaky moments at the start of the game, but that's another issue for another day. The United States always starts slow and even in their fantastic triumphs like away to Honduras in the Hex and against Algeria in the World Cup, the team either gave away the first goal or gave away a clear-cut scoring opportunity early that was missed in spectacular fashion. This game was no different, but that's more about mentality than team selection and formation. In the latter two areas, Bob Bradley did everything right.
Jozy Altidore went down injured in the 9th minute, throwing a minor wrench in his plans, but instead of panicking and going back to what his team knows best, Bradley went with the lesser of two evils and stayed with his formation, despite not having a traditional back to goal striker to play up top. Many thought that the loss of Altidore meant a move to 4-4-2, but Bradley stuck to his plan, and his plan worked.
The most positive outcome that came out of this game was not necessarily the result. It wasn't even necessarily that Bob Bradley changed his ways from what is considered by many to be an outdated system to a more cosmopolitan and continental European system. The most positive outcome is that Bradley anticipated pre-game what his opponents would do and what matchups he could exploit, and thus adjusted his system accordingly.
Previously, Bradley has started games with what he and the team knows, then adjusted to in-game situations accordingly. For all of the many legitimate criticisms of Bradley, one thing he does an excellent job of is changing his personnel and formation to adapt to what is happening in the middle of a game. The problem is that most fans would like to see him anticipate situations before they happen in a much better way than he has in the past so he doesn't have to make drastic in-game changes to account for tactical deficiencies.
On Sunday, Bradley finally did that in a competitive game. After seven straight competitive fixtures of playing the exact same way, regardless of his opponent's preferred setup or available personnel, Bradley finally made a significant proactive change to start a match. He got this change exactly right, and the United States dominated possession while completely denying Jamaica attacks that were not caused by mental errors by his defenders, which he has minimal control over.
This Wednesday, Bradley and his team have a rematch against the Panama side that embarrassed them in the group stages. That team is likely to make no changes from their game against the United States. They will play two very balanced strikers, their midfielders will sit deep, and they will play a direct game. Their best player is Felipe Baloy, a big central defender who dominated Jozy Altidore, so he'll almost certainly be able to do the same against Agudelo or Chris Wondolowski. So, if Bradley is being proactive and exploiting Panama's weaknesses like he did against Jamaica, what should be done?
You only need one holding midfielder
Panama does not have a playmaker and their game is not about threading through balls on the ground through the middle of the pitch. Playing both Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones on the same level, sitting around the halfway line when in possession is a completely unnecessary waste of a body and a waste of space. An attack-minded 4-3-3 with two of Bradley, Maurice Edu, and Sacha Kljestan playing ahead of a holding player would allow the US to keep the ball and remain solid in the middle without wasting space.
Keep the wingers wide and get them the ball
The one thing that was concerning about the United States' performance against Jamaica was the occasional crowding in the center of the pitch. Stretching a defense is important in almost any game, and Panama's fullbacks are fairly average. Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, and Alejandro Bedoya can and should do some damage in wide areas, not just cutting inside.
Play a false nine or allow the center forward to roam
Felipe Baloy will dominate any player on the USMNT roster playing as a traditional back to goal No. 9. So, don't even bother trying to play someone that way. If Agudelo, Wondolowski, or perhaps even Dempsey is roaming around, Baloy will either be rendered useless or drawn out of position. Frustrating Baloy and minimizing his impact on the game is key.
Do I think Bob Bradley will actually play Clint Dempsey as the center forward in a 4-3-3? No, absolutely not, but it would be very fun to see, and it would probably work. Keeping the ball and minimizing Baloy's impact on the game is what will guide the United States to a win.
Provided Luis Tejada doesn't break Clarence Goodson's ankles streetball-style, of course.