USA must fine tune backline

[USA 23] Whether by design or not, U.S. coach Bob Bradley has given his three opponents in Group C a few variations to ponder. The U.S. midfield could take several radically different looks, depending on whom Bradley chooses to play in the middle, presuming Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey man the wide slots. And even if Michael Bradley is a constant, his possible partners – Maurice Edu, Jose Francisco Torres, Ricardo Clark, Benny Feilhaber – play very differently.

So, too, can the forward line, where Jozy Altidore could be paired with Robbie Findley, Herculez Gomez, Edson Buddle, or possibly Clint Dempsey, who started up top Saturday against Turkey before dropping into midfield for the second half.

Bob Bradley can again utilize up to six substitutes Saturday (8:30 a.m. ET, ESPN2, Galavision) in the final warm-up match against Australia in Roodepoort to get a few final looks at certain players, but he’s expressed the possibility of starting his presumed starting XI; he might also choose to give more players a full 90 minutes than he has in the past two matches.

These myriad variations won't mean much, however, if the USA can’t stay tight at the back. Since qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in October, the Americans have conceded at least three goals three times: in losses to Denmark (3-1), Honduras (3-1), and Czech Republic (4-2).

Friendlies are for experimentation, yet regardless of personnel or opponent, that’s simply too many goals at the wrong end.

"First off, we need to sharpen up defensively," said defender and captain Carlos Bocanegra at a press conference Tuesday, the first one staged since the team’s arrival Monday night after a 17-hour flight, including a refueling stop in Senegal, from Washington, D.C. "I think that could be improved on. We're trying to gel as a team and peak come June 12. The thing that sticks out to me at the moment is to be a bit better defensively and have a better team shape from the back to toward the front.”

Bradley named only seven defenders to the squad, and at least three seem to be lagging behind as the World Cup approaches. Jonathan Bornstein didn’t look secure against either the Czech Republic or Turkey, Jonathan Spector labored for a half Saturday before being replaced, and Jay DeMerit – bothered by an eye irritation and an abdominal strain – is off his game.

Bocanegra expressed relief at playing 75 minutes against Turkey in his first competitive stint since undergoing sports hernia surgery in Munich May 5.

"I feel good. It was nice to get the 75 minutes,” said Bocanegra. “They’ve done a good job, the trainers and the coaches, with my program and easing me into it and not just throwing me out there full blast. I held up well. I just need to work on sharpening up the last five percent or so.”

Oguchi Onyewu played the second half Saturday in his just second appearance since rupturing his patellar tendon Oct. 14 against Costa Rica.

Steve Cherundolo missed more than a month of the German Bundesliga season with a shoulder injury, but returned in March and played a strong second half to help the U.S. overturn a 1-0 deficit against Turkey. Clarence Goodson sat out the Turkey game after marring an otherwise strong showing in the Czech Republic encounter with a defensive miscue that led to the winning goal.

After starting in midfield and scoring the goal that gave the U.S. a lead 1-0 against Czech Republic, Edu dropped into central defense for the second half. The USA lost control of midfield, and in stoppage time the Czechs scored their final goal after a ball skipped off the top of Edu’s head and fell for Tomas Necid to break through and beat keeper Brad Guzan.

“It's a position I played at the Olympics so it is familiar,” said Edu of his experience in 2008. "I got a little bit tired but I felt pretty comfortable back there. I played quite a bit in the back and the coaches have said they might play me in that position if need be.”

Edu in the back line would give the Americans yet another defensive version and alter the midfield as well.

The 74-room Irene Country Lodge, north of Johannesburg and south of Pretoria, is the team’s base camp. The USA will train at nearby Pilditch Stadium in Pretoria, a 5,000-capacity facility that is very familiar.

"It’s a place where I think we can really concentrate on our work," said Coach Bradley. "We trained at Pilditch last year during Confederations Cup and the field was quite good then and they tell me it’s even better this year. So, I think, we’ve done a good job in terms of getting these things squared away and it gives us the best chance for success.”

With 10 days to go before the opener June 12 against England, which dropped Arsenal winger Theo Walcott from its 23-man squad in a surprising move, the U.S. team scheduled a light training session Tuesday.

"The team is excited to get started," said Bradley. "The first training session after we travel is always a shorter one, where we just try to get everybody going again but you can tell there is a good level of excitement to get started."

16 comments about "USA must fine tune backline".
  1. Andy Skiendzielewski, June 2, 2010 at 7:44 a.m.

    I believe the game on Saturday is 8:30 AM, not PM, as noted in the article.

  2. Robert b Cordier, June 2, 2010 at 7:47 a.m.

    Also, Clarence Goodson started and played the first half against Turkey.

  3. Mark Arnold, June 2, 2010 at 9:48 a.m.

    Goodson played a solid first half against the fact, Ridge, you rated his performance a "5" (highest among the starting defenders) citing that he, "Deflected a shot in dangerous situation."

  4. Steven SIegel, June 2, 2010 at 10:06 a.m.

    I keep hearing that Dempsey dropped back to the midfield in the second half, but every time I saw him (I watched on tv) it looked like he was still lurking up top.

    I think Bocanegra pushed forward too much. In the first half he was consistently used far into the offensive scheme, and I think this left us vulnerable. Everytime I saw DeMerit get the ball as a central defender, Goodson was out of the picture covering for Bocanegra. Maybe that was a limited TV view, but at times it looked like we were playing with only three defenders and we were getting burned.

    Donovan got more in the center of the field in the second half.

    I keep hearing about personnel, but very little about tactics.

  5. Mike Gaynes, June 2, 2010 at 10:22 a.m.

    The headline of this article is a grim joke. With three half-fit center backs and no functional left back at all, the US defense needs magnitudes more than "fine tuning." And I don't know what Ridge has been watching, or not watching, or sleeping through, but Goodson wasn't solid, either against the Czechs or the Turks. He's a dominant player in the air, but marks poorly and gets caught out of position. The goal Turkey scored down Spector's side was Goodson's fault, not Spector's... he failed to cover when Spector made a strong attacking run. I believe Bradley blundered badly after the irreplaceable Onyewu was injured by not giving Spector -- a natural center back who has been stuck out of position at West Ham -- a run of play in the middle. And every minute of play that Bradley has given Bornstein and Pearce at left back over the past year has been wasted. The result is a backline that will presumably start with the unqualified DeMerit in the middle and the glacially slow Bocanegra at left back. That's not a defense, that's a prayer.

  6. Gregory Weiss, June 2, 2010 at 10:46 a.m.


  7. Cary Nelson, June 2, 2010 at 11:46 a.m.

    Yo Mike!!! U right on the Money about the Center backs.... all about half-match fit. I still think that DMB is a option at the left back spot. DMB... is faster than Bocanegra, and Spector. "Much" better at basic defending than Jonny B. also better at crossing than Boca and Jonny B. DMB is better on the set pieces... also. I just think at this "Point" Coach Bradley has to Look at all his options!!!!

  8. marc cheli, June 2, 2010 at 11:59 a.m.

    First of all, my respect and thanks to all socceramerica writers for their great work all these years....I am new blogging and this is my first comment here, my favorite soccer source!

    I am one of those hoping for Gooch's total & speedy recovery. I had him in my personal choice of squad to face England. ALERT!!!! There is no way, no way he is fit to play against Rooney & Crouch.Not after watching the Czech Rep game. I was wrong but I quickly accept and adjust my thoughts according to this sad reality. Not fit, even in a 5 man defense, which I, sometimes think wouldnt be bad, for such a WEAK defense. And that should be our main concern for the first match vs England. Strategically, we should try not to lose against England. A tie is not a bad result against them. LATER we can worry about more attack against slovenia & algeria. England faced with a tie against us would be forced to destroy bothslovenia and algeria to secure a second round spot and to calm ther very critical fans and press. one tie and the pressure is on everyone else. I think we should NOT acuse BB of using SCARED tactics because we need to implement better defensive tactics if we have any hopes of advancing. I know that there are lots of people who advocate all attack soccer but I invite them to be REALISTIC and to remember the Inter vs Barcelona champions league game. All those pretty talkers ended up crying about what could have been if Inter would have played how they wanted. Inter fans just partied and celebrated. Inter bosses made lots of money! The World cup is about fame for the players, history for the coaches and JOY for the fans. The more the USA advances the more parties and joy for the fans. Dont jeopardize that by encouraging our strikers to be selfish and to look for an individual notch and get us eliminated very early.If that happens we will get to watch how other countries celebrate advancing with ties and wins.

  9. marc cheli, June 2, 2010 at 12:05 p.m.

    Great game! Much better than the first game...the result at least. We still have problems with our outsidebacks. Even if Bocanegra and Cherundolo played well, I really wish they would get extra help in the form of more commitment from the defensive midfielders to cover for them. Or, (if they just cant get back quick enough), How about another defender. That would allow runs by Boca and or Goodson to pushup on corners for headers without so much risk of fast counters, for example)Im just worried about the health of Boca & Gooch plus Demerits eyes, and the inability for the Jonathans to stop the attacks. Everyone knows that England is a tougher team than Turkey and I was reading an article on the world cups fastest players and England's wingers were high in that list. I really hope the US doesnt fall into Capellos trap of thinking they can pushup with ease againt the Brits and then fall prey to their FLASHCOUNTERS like Mexico did!

  10. marc cheli, June 2, 2010 at 12:11 p.m.

    my opinion on how the line-up will be for the first game....I think it will resemble these :

    June 24, 2009
    vs. Spain #
    @ Bloemfontein, South Africa: 2-0 W

    Bocanegra (capt.)

    R. Clark
    Dempsey-1 (Bornstein, 88)

    Davies (Feilhaber, 69)
    Altidore-1 (Casey, 84)

    June 28, 2009
    vs. Brazil #
    @ Johannesburg, South Africa: 2-3 L

    Bocanegra (capt.)

    R. Clark (Casey, 88)
    Feilhabler (Kljestan, 75)

    Altidore (Bornstein, 75)

    If you want my opinion on how the ofense SHOULD be for the England game...then:

    Because I saw Altidore take-on & beat a couple of turkish defenders and beautifullly pass the ball to Dempsey. Dempsey didnt get to it but it proves that there is Quality in those three....and that should make up for the Numbers. If you see vsSpain, Donovan&Dempsey
    score the goals. Also, I recomend going for a TIE!!! That doesnt mean dont try to means dont end up with all your players injured on the first game, play to frustrate the Brits, dont end up countered or beaten on the flanks. The defense would be like this:


    Torres,Holden and Beasley could all come in if more midfield offense is needed or just more oxygen. If altidore tires, Gomez, Buddle, Findley are there. France beat Brazil in '98 with a similar formation & and George Washington beat the British with a similar strategy back in the 1770'S.

  11. Steven SIegel, June 2, 2010 at 12:24 p.m.

    Spector-DeMerit-Onyewu-Bocanegra was the back four in their defeat of #1 Spain and did a great job, with Spector and Bocanegra in the corners. It is now a question of injuries, not innate ability. Cherundolo has been playing great of late, so that is a bonus. The US would be very solid if not for those huge question marks - that is what puts them on shaky ground.

    At this point, I can't see Onyewu playing against England unlesss he shows more progress from his injury. That would push Bocanegra into the middle with Spector probably switching sides, though I am not positive he is capable of that. Demerit looks solid enough, and would be very solid if he is well enough. Cherundolo gets the nod in Spector's position.

    I don't see where Goodson has proven himself on the pitch vs a team like England.

  12. marc cheli, June 2, 2010 at 12:45 p.m.

    Paul Gardner -What Englands injuries mean to the USA:
    "Without a doubt, Rooney will be in Capello’s squad -- but will he be fit in time for the June 12 game against the USA? Should Rooney not play in that game, the USA’s chances of a victory would appear to be much greater -- but that may not be the case. Without Rooney -- and perhaps with the possibility of Rooney being fit for subsequent games -- it would be more than likely that England would be quite satisfied with a draw in that opening game. England, coached by an Italian, playing for a draw would not be an easy opponent for the USA to break down."

    If England could be quite satisfied with a draw , due to injuries....why is it impossible for us to be satisfied with a draw as well? Due to our bigger number of injured players, especially defenders and to further our chances of advancing. Why should we be forced to employ an attack only against such a tough team?

    I can tell that Paul Gardner has a great grasp of strategy but some of his readers go overboard with their attack ONLY attitude. To those Paul Gardner readers(which I have been one since I remember)I would like to point out.....that in his Praise for Torres(which I totally agree with) he talks about "Soccer subtlety vs. athletic ability. It ought NOT to be “vs.” -- the two should combine"
    I think when you choose one over the are just limiting yourself. I think Paul is aware of that, but many of his readers get lost in his great articles and overlook that.

  13. Mike Gaynes, June 2, 2010 at 2:06 p.m.

    Cary, Beasley was tried at the left back spot during qualifying and failed due to inexperience... he didn't understanding the positioning and marking responsibilities. In retrospect, it probably would have been a good idea to just leave him there and let him learn the position, because he would have been a lot better at it than Bornstein and Pearce. But there's no way he could be considered an option now.

  14. karl ortmertl, June 2, 2010 at 4:13 p.m.

    I agree with the earlier comment, this is not a matter of fine-tuning. There's no fixing the defense at this point. A combination of mediocre talent and a bad coach means that everyone will be scoring on the U.S. You don't go far in a World Cup with a sieve for a defense. That being said, I really like our offense. Donovan, Dempsey and Torres are all world class. We'll be treated to some high scoring games before we flame out.

  15. Joseph Krantz, June 2, 2010 at 4:46 p.m.

    Our defense is a disaster as it was at the last World Cup and four years later we are still experimenting with many of the same players. As far as Torres is concerned, I'll be interested to see if Bardley uses him(he should, but that doesn't mean he will).

  16. Charles Davenport, June 3, 2010 at 9:09 a.m.

    At least there's talk about defense this world cup. 2006 was "what's Landon (or Beasley) going to do. Meanwhile the defense was horrific in the 3 friendlies before the cup. the USA needs to find some Maldinis or Cannavaros out there.
    PS: Slovenia will be a problem.

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