[USA CONFIDENTIAL] Since they never go away, merely fade for a while only to re-appear, any time is a good time to address the widespread injustices perceived by the American soccer cognoscenti.
Our subjects today are Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, probably the two most maligned players in the current squad.
Belief: Jose Francisco Torres is one of many Hispanic players being suppressed by U.S. Soccer, and specifically by Bob Bradley, so no one can challenge his son’s place in midfield.
Truth: Bradley is certainly not what fans and journalists envision as a brilliant, creative midfielder to direct the U.S. attack, but no other player has played as many club games for a foreign team at such a young age (23), not even Torres. And while Bradley can certainly control how many games his son plays for the USA, he’s probably not quite powerful enough to dictate selection and tactics to the coaches of clubs like Heerenveen, Borussia Moenchengladbach, and Aston Villa, for which Michael Bradley seldom played while on loan.
He’s a two-way midfielder still maturing, one of the team’s better passers and tacklers rolled into one, a class above his U.S. teammates in combined abilities, with a nose for goal, too. While he doesn’t have the range of Ricardo Clark, he’s not nearly as erratic and error-prone, either.
In time, maybe Stuart Holden or Benny Feilhaber (both currently injured) or even Sacha Kljestan can step forward as a true No. 10. Jermaine Jones might also emerge as serious challenger to Bradley’s dual role if one of those playmakers claims a regular place, but Jones is much older (29) and will be on that dreaded fringe of old-ish at the international level by the time 2014 comes around.
Yet if the coach is so terrified of Jones, why is he in the squad? Maybe because he can help the team win and not only play alongside Michael Bradley but replace him if necessary?
The current trend of some teams to use a wide player as the primary attacking catalyst is still a notion unaccepted by large swaths of the American soccer community, though it seems to have worked well in the cases of Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo and even Lionel Messi, among others. In the current lineup, much more of the true attacking impetus comes from Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey stationed out wide; they relished the space carved out by Juan Agudelo and Altidore to out-class a very confused Canada.
The anti-Hispanic conspiracy crowd is still seething over Torres, but a look at his current situation doesn’t bolster that case, either. He’s always been a role player for Pachuca, a complementary element to more dynamic and clever creators, and hasn’t been able to claim irreplaceable status for the club as those players – such as Christian Gimenez, who went to Cruz Azul a year and a half ago -- have moved on.
During the Clausura season that just ended -- Pachuca finished 13th in the overall standings and missed the playoffs -- in 13 games he scored zero goals, but did lead the team in one category: yellow cards, of which he incurred seven. It’s hard for me to fathom that he can be handed the reins to lead the U.S. attack against teams like Argentina, England, Spain and Mexico, but that is apparently what a lot of people believe. They also contend that switching to a 4-3-3 formation would enable Torres to blossom into an international-class playmaker, and sorry, I’m not buying that, either, at least not yet.
But I don’t think his U.S. career is over, either, nor should it be. He’s the same age as Michael Bradley, with plenty of room and time to grow, and as Bob Bradley has shown with certain Gold Cup selections – Kljestan and Freddy Adu in particular – he keeps his eye on players others have cast aside.
Torres got a start last summer at the World Cup against Slovenia. Aside from a nice free kick that was saved, Torres seldom looked capable of much, especially orchestrating the attack. And speaking of the World Cup ….
Besides Michael Bradley – and Torres, in absentia – probably only Altidore triggers such virulent reaction. Part of this is a strange tendency to either play poorly or pretty well, though there’s hardly a consensus if the latter occurs. I doubt if any other player – except Bradley, of course – could be so thoroughly ripped for scoring a “lucky” goal against Canada.
Let’s see: he got forward into space to control a ball in the penalty area, and while marked at a tough angle, drilled a hard, low shot the keeper couldn’t handle. Should it been saved? Yeah, but keepers occasionally get nutmegged when their attempted kick-save misses, or they try to get down in time to smother the ball, as did goalie Lars Hirschfeld, and it wriggles under them into the net. Read some posts, and you’d think Altidore scored with a feeble bouncer that deflected off two opponents and the goalie batted into his own net. Hardly.
It’s not luck when you force an opponent to make a play in a critical situation, and he can’t. Tim Howard was in the same situation twice, and came up big twice. He’s not luckier than Hirschfield, he’s better. A lot better. Isn’t that the essence of winning, being better than the opponents, and making plays when they don’t? Hirschfield stopped two shots from Agudelo that were less threatening than Altidore’s low laser.
Against Canada, Altidore set up a goal from the right wing with a precise centering ball that Agudelo, fortunately, didn’t get a big enough piece of to deflect out of Dempsey’s path. Altidore also fluffed one great chance served up by Dempsey and for that he should be, and has been, criticized. Forwards ain't perfect, either.
If Altidore is such a slug, as many contend, how did he get up the right flank in the 93rd minute against Algeria at the World Cup last year to drive a ball across goal that Dempsey put on frame and Donovan followed up to lash into the net? He played every minute of that game, remember, and even when sharp, he’s not going to scorch anybody with his pace, except maybe the often-plodding defenders he used to victimize in MLS. He was also a standout against Slovenia.
One of his weaknesses is staying sharp and in shape without regular playing time, which isn’t an issue with Michael Bradley and a few other players. This has plagued Altidore since he left New York. Don’t think the U.S. Soccer coaching staff isn’t acutely aware of self-motivation and consistency and confidence factors when they assess Altidore. He’s starting in the Gold Cup because he’s young (21) and they need him.
Altidore is far from being The Solution, no question. If Charlie Davies is healthy and back in Bradley’s good graces, he’d be well ahead of Altidore on the depth chart. A recall for Herculez Gomez might have been in order, though he didn’t start scoring until late in the season with Pachuca already falling out of contention.
Bradley is giving a long look to Chris Wondolowski to assess his value to the team and compare his attributes to those of players like Gomez. Makes sense to me. Even with qualifiers not starting until next year, now is the ideal time to see if Wondo can do the business against Concacaf opposition. If not, he’ll be dropped.
Replacing Bob Bradley is another issue -- and a relevant one -- to be addressed at another time. The current coach and his pool of players are what concern us here.
Everybody wants the coach to look at new players, that is, until one of their favorites gets dropped to make room. Then it’s a conspiracy, or stupidity, or both. Whatever.