NATAL, Brazil -- The contrasting fortunes of a few U.S. national team players were brought into focus following Sunday's 2-2 draw with Portugal. There were the heroes, Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones. Then there was the man who in some quarters was viewed as the scapegoat: Michael Bradley.
Dempsey's performance was without question inspiring. The man with a shiner on his right eye and a broken nose that still looked a bit like a U-turn was active all night, taking his lumps from Portugal's defenders, and of course, delivering what every U.S. observer thought was going to be the game winner in the 81st minute. Combined with his slalom through the Ghanaian defense in the first game, this is proving to be a World Cup to savor for the Texan.
It raises the question of whether Dempsey has usurped Landon Donovan as the best U.S. player of all time. This still feels a bit premature. Dempsey's four World Cup goals still trail Donovan's five, and Donovan was a more consistent focal point during the his three World Cup appearances. That said, Dempsey is closing fast, and if the U.S. can make a deep run into the knockout rounds, such a comparison will have to be recalculated.
Jones also stood tall against Portugal, delivering his usual midfield destroying shift as well as his spectacular 64th-minute equalizer. It would now appear as if Jones' journey from public enemy No. 1 to midfield linchpin is complete, and is all the more interesting when set against Bradley's performances so far.
While Bradley's play against Portugal was an improvement over his showing against Ghana, for the second game in a row he played below his usual standard. And he'll likely be remembered for two plays. The first was his inability to convert Fabian Johnson's centering feed in the 54th minute when his shot was cleared off the line by Ricardo Costa. The second was his turnover that sparked the buildup to Portugal's equalizer by Varela five minutes into stoppage time.
Bradley was also guilty of some giveaways, the majority of which were in the attacking third. While it might seem harsh to focus on just a few incidents over the course of a 90-minute match, that assessment comes with the territory for a player whose performance level is so critical to the U.S. team's success.
That said, it's overkill to suggest that Bradley alone is responsible for Varela's tally. Possession was coughed up a good 60 yards from the U.S. goal, and the Americans appeared to have sufficient numbers back. This happens numerous times a game from just about every player on the field, and leads to some pertinent questions. Why was Omar Gonzalez -- brought in as a substitute to shore up the defense -- caught upfield instead of positioning himself further back? Why wasn't Geoff Cameron or even Fabian Johnson more aware of Varela's presence at the back post?
The intention here isn't to absolve Bradley of blame. He admitted his own culpability after the match when he said, "The competitor in me knows that I can do better with the play at the end." But the fact remains that Bradley's mistake wasn't the only domino to fall, just the first. As a team, the U.S. needed to react better.
The contrast between the play of Bradley and Jones is noteworthy on another level. Bradley's performances have eroded while being given more responsibility in attack. Meanwhile Jones' have been in the ascendancy at a time when he's been asked to shoulder less of the offensive load. That points to one inescapable fact: The U.S., as it has for almost the entirety of its soccer history, still lacks a pure creative force in midfield. Bradley, like Jones, is a box-to-box midfielder, adept at breaking up plays on the defensive end and able to make late runs and finish off service in the box. And yes, occasionally both are able to make the killer pass to set up goals. That doesn't make either performer the second coming of Xavi or Andres Iniesta.
Dempsey isn't quite the answer either. Granted, his skills lie more on the attacking side of things when compared to Jones or Bradley. But while he's willing to take players on and deliver some clever touches, his primary strength remains his ability to get on the end of things, as illustrated by his goal on Sunday.
It's possible Landon Donovan might have helped in this area. But his absence from the roster makes this a moot point. Graham Zusi certainly has a creative bent to his game, but he has had his share of giveaways as well. It would also be a lot of responsibility to put on him in his first World Cup, and the same is true for Mix Diskerud.
It's a problem that U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann has been trying to solve since he took over back in 2011, and is a staple of international soccer in that there are always weaknesses for a manager to address. A team like Croatia would probably love to have access to a No. 6 on the U.S roster, while the Americans wouldn't mind having one of their creators like an Ivan Rakitic on the team.
The reality is that the problem is one with no easy answer. That's why any calls for Bradley to be benched are ludicrous. His pass completion percentage has actually been better than Jones' in each of the last two games (84.1 percent versus 71.1 percent). Has Bradley made mistakes? Of course. Can he play better? Without question. But someone has to try and fill the creative void, and Bradley remains the best of an imperfect set of options.
As a consequence, Dempsey and Jones find themselves in roles that play to their strengths, Bradley less so. With the match against Germany looming, Klinsmann can only hope that Bradley's form begins to converge with that of Jones and Dempsey, and that this imperfect but still talented team can push through to the knockout rounds.