Ever since Bob Bradley was rehired as United States national team coach last August, the team has undergone a change in tactics. A formation change went along with the usual player change after a World Cup, but with mixed results. Nine months after Bradley was rehired there is still no consensus on what the best formation is for the U.S., but odds are they will play a five-man midfield against Canada in their Gold Cup opener.
The 4-4-2 (or really even 4-2-2-2) formation that the Americans favored leading up to the 2010 World Cup and then in South Africa for the World Cup was tossed away. Instead, Bradley implemented a 4-5-1 formation, sometimes in a 4-2-3-1 and other times in a 4-3-2-1, but almost always with five midfielders. It made sense. The U.S. does not have one proven, quality striker, let alone two, and midfield remains the team's deepest position. The 4-5-1 allowed the Americans to get their best players on the field.
It didn't work out as planned though. For all of the midfield options at Bradley's disposal, he hasn't found a central midfield pairing that works well and Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey are still the only two dangerous attacking options. Their go-to central midfielder, Michael Bradley, struggled to get playing time after a January move to Aston Villa and their most improved midfielder, Stuart Holden, was lost for at least six months with an injury. At the same time, the U.S. still couldn't find a striker to handle the load up top.
In the months leading up to the Gold Cup, the U.S. started working the 4-4-2 back into the mix and the result were undoubtedly better. Jozy Altidore played better with a partner up top and both Donovan and Dempsey found more space to work with. Maybe the five-man midfield that seemed like such an obvious way to play for the U.S. wasn't so good after all?
Heading into the Gold Cup, the U.S. still doesn't know what their best formation is. They will use both formations throughout the tournament, but the one that they will likely go into first is the 4-5-1. Bradley took only three strikers with him to the Gold Cup and it looks as if heading into their tournament opener against Canada only one is ready to start.
Chris Wondolowski was one of the surprise picks on the roster and as surprising his making the team may have been, his starting in the opener would be even more surprising. Juan Agudelo, for all the hype and excitement, is still coming off of the bench for the New York Red Bulls and hasn't been asked to go 90 minutes much. Having just played 60 minutes on Saturday against Spain, asking Agudelo to start against Canada would be asking for too much.
That leaves Altidore, the Americans' only real striker option to start against the Canucks. Technically, Bradley would name Dempsey as Altidore's strike partner with Sacha Kljestan, Robbie Rogers or Alejandro Bedoya on the wing, but Dempsey isn't an out-and-out striker. Even if the team sheet put Dempsey up top, he was drop below Altidore and operate as the attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1.
LIke it or not, the U.S. is likely to play with five in the midfield against Canada. The real question is which five make up the midfield and whether it is the more defensive alignment with Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu and Jermaine Jones all starting or a more attacking five with two of those three and a more attack-minded three in front of them.