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Nov 29, 2007

A promising start for Bradley in his first season

As U.S. men's coach Bob Bradley warms his toes by the fire this holiday season, it's likely that a faint smile of contentment will crease his face. (Come to think of it, that's about the only kind of smile I've seen crease his face, but I digress.) The American manager's rebuilding project has made some progress. The U.S. won the Gold Cup this past summer and perpetuated its Jedi mind trick over Mexico in the process. But like a bad batch of eggnog, there are plenty of issues set to sour Bradley's stomach as 2008 approaches.

When he took the reins of the U.S. team last December, Bradley's immediate concern was rebuilding the spine of a side depleted by the international retirements of Brian McBride, Claudio Reyna and Eddie Pope. To that end, Bradley embarked on a program of No Player Left Behind, as 60 different performers played for the U.S. in 2007.

But as so often happens in constructing a team, the progress has been uneven. What has emerged so far is that Bradley has a glut of capable holding midfielders, although none of them have shown the ability to manage the tempo of a game the way Reyna did. Much of this can be chalked up to youth, but the early returns also indicate that candidates such as Maurice Edu, Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark are more destroyers than possession types. If Bradley continues to progress at club side Heerenveen, he may yet evolve into a kind of John O'Brien-lite, and given the U.S. coach's preference for a twin-destroyer approach in central midfield, such an evolution is an absolute must.

Which leads us to the conundrum that is Benny Feilhaber. The Derby midfielder seems to have caught a mild strain of Landon Donovan Disease, in that finding his best position has proved difficult. Feilhaber is easily the most cultured passer out of the team's young crop of midfielders, but his suspect defense and tendency to hang on to the ball too long make him less of a lock in central midfield than he should be. And his performances out wide have lacked the wow factor that his earlier showings in the middle had. Throw in his lack of playing time in England, and the player who looked best-suited to assume the role of possession midfielder is now surrounded by plenty of question marks.

The saw-tooth progression of Bradley's rebuilding program also applies to the defense, although things are more settled in this area. The improved performances of late by Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu have eased the calls for Jay DeMerit and Jimmy Conrad to get more looks, although the former duo's ability to play the ball out of the back will bear watching.

Out wide, Steve Cherundolo remains a mainstay at right back, which is in complete contrast to what is transpiring on the opposite side, where Jonathan Bornstein and Heath Pearce have yet to put a stranglehold on the position. Bornstein has proved adept at defending against speedy flank players while struggling against more powerful types. Pearce has shown the opposite tendency, meaning that matchups will likely dictate who plays in the months ahead.

Easily the biggest question mark heading into 2008 surrounds the Americans' front line. U.S. forwards have scored exactly one goal from the run of play in their last 10 matches, and between Brian Ching's injury woes and Jozy Altidore's youth, the U.S. lacks a target forward in the mold of McBride.

Of course, there are those who will claim such a player is not a prerequisite for success, and in theory that is true. The U.S. has certainly managed some solid results without a McBride-like player in the past. But against top tier sides, if there isn't a target forward present, there had better be enough speed, dynamism, and technical ability elsewhere to allow the Americans to play through the packed midfields they will undoubtedly see.

The U.S. has struggled to find enough of these qualities in the best of times, and with DaMarcus Beasley apparently sustaining a major knee injury while playing for Rangers this past Tuesday, the current climate hardly qualifies as such.

For that reason, Bradley will either need Ching to stay healthy or Altidore to continue his warp speed development, not so that the U.S. can simply lump balls forward onto either player's head, but more so that they can pass the ball into their feet and thus break out when the team is pegged back in its own half. Certainly the latter stages of the Americans' 1-0 victory over South Africa on November 17 -- when the U.S. struggled to maintain any kind of possession -- illustrates how the team could have benefited from having a seasoned, physical presence up top.

Such an approach would serve to free up either Donovan or Clint Dempsey, who at present are both occupying positions -- Donovan at right midfield, Dempsey as a lone striker -- that don't play to their strengths. A target forward would permit Donovan to get closer to goal by playing a more central role, while Dempsey could face up to goal more often, regardless of whether he's stationed out wide or in the middle.

Will the U.S. resolve these issues in 2008? Assuming the Americans make their way past Dominica or Barbados in Round 1 of World Cup qualifying, their semifinal draw will likely include Trinidad & Tobago, Cuba, and Guatemala. Such opposition will provide some testing moments, but not enough to trouble the U.S. too much, especially given the team's improved road mentality. This qualifies as both good and bad news for the Americans. The good is that the younger players should find the matches to be a perfect World Cup qualifying baptism. But it also runs the risk of not pushing the team to develop the variety in attack needed for success down the road.

The same is also true of Bradley himself. The Gold Cup saw him do almost everything right. His performance in Copa America was less successful, although the composition of his roster in that tournament heightened the impulse to give him a free pass. No such charity will be offered in 2008, not that Bradley will need it. This time next year, the U.S. likely will be looking forward to the World Cup hexagonal -- a round-robin, six-team CONCACAF qualifying tournament, with the top three teams progressing to the World Cup. Whether Bradley and his team progress or stagnate is still anybody's guess.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.