US need an MLS-style makeover before 2014
Change is coming to the United States national team. Less than a week after the heartbreaking 2-1 defeat to Ghana in the Round of 16, amateur and professional pundits alike have flooded the blogosphere (and even some print media!) with opinions on what went right, what went wrong, how we got here and where we're going.
Quickly, a consensus has emerged: We're really good in the midfield. But we need to be better defensively.
Thankfully for manager Bob Bradley - or his successor - there are four young defenders plying their trade in MLS who can help in the first department and potentially revolutionize the second.
The Yanks under Bradley weren't the dour, defensive side fans feared they would become. Instead, their defining feature was a relentless, fearless midfield. Whether it was going forward or (sadly more often) tracking back, Michael Bradley, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and the cast of extras who filled the fourth spot ran themselves ragged.
Through four World Cup games Michael Bradley covered more ground than any other player. Donovan was second. Dempsey was sixth. Combine the mileage of Maurice Edu, Rico Clark and the other guys who filled the last midfield slot, and there'd be a fourth US midfielder in the tournament's top 15.
So the good news is that the US boasts a midfield filled with guys who are willing to do so much work off the ball. The bad news is that they have to.
In order to become a consistent top-10 team, the US will need to find defenders with the ball skills and passing acumen to cut down on the midfield's heavy lifting. For all that Carlos Bocanegra, Jay Demerit and Oguchi Onyewu have done for the Red, White and Blue, none really fit that role.
Here are four MLS defenders who may be able to. These guys have abilities with the ball that will cause the midfield to spend less time without it.
Omar Gonzalez, LA Galaxy - 2009's MLS Rookie of the Year is also the most national-team ready of the bunch. His size (6-foot-5, 210 lbs) has garnered the 21-year old comparisons to Onyewu, but Gonzalez has more than just that going for him. He's been tactically sound from day one. He is patient, allowing opposing attackers to put themselves into bad positions before committing to a challenge. And like all top defenders, he is not easily fazed; Gonzalez doesn't let one bad play turn into three or four.
That focus and rare maturity define Gonzalez's play on the ball and off of it. Time after time he gets the Galaxy out of trouble and immediately into the attack by first winning a challenge, then playing a short pass to whichever teammate is in the best position to drive the team forward. It’s a useful trait since the national team, as it's currently constructed, play a very similar style to the Galaxy.
Geoff Cameron, Houston Dynamo - The most experienced of the four. Cameron, who stands 6-foot-3 and turns 25 later this month, proved in 2009 he has the requisite competitive fire for central defense by anchoring Houston Dynamo's backline. Unfortunately he didn't get to reprise the role this season, thanks to Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear’s move to put Cameron in the central midfield followed by a season-ending knee injury. But when the jump to the international stage eventually comes, Cameron is most likely to get his shot as a center back.
Cameron's move to central midfield for the Dynamo should tell you all you need to know. He is more than comfortable on the ball, aggressively picking out his passes and taking space if it's offered. Cameron brings a "wow" factor to the game that most defenders don't, and is capable of making game-changing plays when he pushes into the attack.
Tim Ream, New York Red Bulls – RBNY’s rookie is perhaps the biggest surprise of the bunch. The 22-year old has helped revitalize New York and is the keystone to Hans Backe's slow, steady, Clockwork Taurine possession game. Ream isn't yet as solid in his thought processes as Gonzalez nor as unpredictable in attack as Cameron, but he has a natural knack for distribution that really can't be quantified. He's always under control; his first touch and balance bring him out of danger and into position to make a telling pass in the blink of an eye. As Backe said early in the season, Ream has a "feel for the game. He plays like a European."
The best comparison is the great Lubos Kubik, a Bradley favorite in the Chicago Fire’s early days and now as a USMNT assistant. Everything the Fire did was built upon Kubik's ability to not only pick out pinpoint passes, but handle any sort of high pressure with the ball on his foot and create space to operate. Ream is the same type of player with the same type of skillset.
Ike Opara, San Jose Earthquakes - The last and youngest of the bunch is San Jose's 21-year old rookie. He stands 6-foot-2 and, like Cameron, is possessed with game-breaking athletic talent. The way Opara plays, however, is more akin to Gonzalez. He's a steady-as-she-goes distributor and a cautious dribbler. That said, Opara has shown the ability to play the ball out of trouble and find a teammate on the fly, making him sort of an Eddie Pope v2.0. He only brings out the skills when he absolutely needs to.
What does this mean for the US in 2014? It's likely that the Yanks will still be at or near the top of any competition in terms of work rate - after all, the law of the conservation of energy means energy can be neither created nor destroyed, only redirected. In other words, Michael Bradley's not going to stop running just because he has better distributors behind him.
The question is whether steadier play from the back can end up pointing the runs of Bradley and the rest in a more beneficial direction. Less time running after Ghanaians and more time making them run after you is the goal.
The path to achieving it begins in MLS.