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May 6, 2009

Bradley's partner in U.S. midfield still undetermined

Positional battles have cropped up throughout Bob Bradley's tenure as manager of the U.S. national team. As the Americans head into a packed summer calendar, the left back slot is still up for grabs, and Steve Cherundolo's injury problems have opened things up on the opposite flank as well. But one persistent problem that has yet to be solved is determining who will partner Michael Bradley in the center of the American midfield.

It's a puzzle made all the more complicated by the number of available candidates and their comparative skills. At present there are no fewer than six players vying for the spot, and none of them has that perfect combination of defensive steel, attacking guile and experience to make the position his own.

One would think that the elder Bradley (who could not be reached for comment on this article) would prefer a player who offers a bit more offensive flair, the better to complement the ball-hawking of Michael Bradley. But the U.S. manager's habit has been to think defense first, which would appear to consign the likes of Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey to positions further upfield. This preference will no doubt play a huge role in who ultimately wins out.

The contenders

1. Pablo Mastroeni. The player currently occupying the inside track is the veteran Mastroeni, who delivered a composed performance in the most recent qualifying victory over Trinidad & Tobago. Those fans who still haven't forgiven his red card against Italy in the last World Cup will no doubt be displeased. But the reality is that Mastroeni's toughness and experience make him a known quantity, one who plays with more consistency than any other candidate.

"[Mastroeni] has got a real good awareness of when to break up plays and when it's the right time to foul," said one MLS veteran who asked not to be identified. "He's really savvy at that, and that gives him the advantage over most guys."

Age -- Mastroeni will be 33 in August -- and a penchant for injury work against him, as does his limited ability to contribute to the attack, but unless another candidate can reliably provide those attributes, the job appears to be his to lose, at least in the short term.

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Costa Rica
June 3
At Costa Rica

U.S. vs. Honduras
June 6
Chicago

"It's rare that Pablo has a bad game, and that kind of dependability at the international level is pretty key," said the MLS veteran.

2. Maurice Edu. One player who could be poised for bigger things is Rangers midfielder Edu. The former Toronto FC player looked to be on the fringes of the U.S. team following a series of subpar displays during the semifinal round of qualifying, and his time spent riding the bench at Rangers didn't improve his situation.

But the drinking binge and subsequent boorish behavior by Barry Ferguson while on international duty with Scotland saw the Rangers' captain suspended, and it created an opportunity for Edu that he's grabbed with both hands, delivering the kind of box-to-box displays that have left manager Walter Smith singing his praises.

Now the trick is to reprise those performances consistently at the international level, which has long been Edu's biggest weakness. There's no doubting his athletic ability and defense, but in terms of his passing there have been times when he's been sharp and others when he's been off target, sometimes in the same match. If Edu's increased playing time at Rangers smooths out the peaks and valleys in his game, he may well wrest the position away from Mastroeni.

3. Jose Francisco Torres. Another interesting possibility is Pachuca midfielder Jose Francisco Torres. In terms of technical ability, the Texas native is among the more gifted players in the pool, and his performance in a substitute's role in the Americans' 2-2 draw with El Salvador showed an ability to calm the game down with his tidy passing. For a team still trying to replace the retired Claudio Reyna, this trait can't be underestimated.

"[Torres] is busy; he always looks to get on the ball," said Houston head coach Dominic Kinnear, whose team has faced Torres several times in international club competitions. "His movement is very good, and he's a good passer of the ball."

One criticism of Torres is that he sometimes tries to be too fine with his passes, but a bigger concern is that his slight frame could see him come out second best in physical confrontations. When on the ball, Torres' soccer brain is quick enough to avoid such situations, and there is little question about his work rate. But in terms of his defense, the worry is that he lacks the necessary bite to be effective.

As with Edu, a summer filled with the Confederations Cup and Gold Cup games should provide ample data to address these issues.

On the fringe

1. Sacha Kljestan. No player has endured a more sudden fall from grace than Chivas USA midfielder Sacha Kljestan. Back in January, after scoring a hat trick in a friendly against Sweden, he looked like a player poised for a breakout year. But a so-so performance against Mexico was followed by a nightmare against El Salvador as he struggled on both sides of the ball.

Kljestan was subsequently limited to a brief cameo against T&T, but the hope was that the beginning of the MLS season would see him round back into form. Instead, some indifferent displays followed, with the Chivas man showing little of the attacking verve that originally caught Bradley's eye.

Chivas head coach Preki theorized that Kljestan was simply tired, yet the midfielder resisted all offers to be rested, for training or otherwise. But last Saturday's match against San Jose may have been a turning point for Kljestan. The midfielder is still without a goal or an assist, but there were plenty of other aspects of Kljestan's game that Preki liked.

"I saw more urgency from [Kljestan], more commitment on both sides of the ball, and I thought he made good decisions on the ball," said Preki. "Defensively he worked hard.

"Commitment, that's what will get him into the national team, because we all know he's talented. If he can work both sides of the ball -- and he can -- he'll be in the national team no questions about that."

2. Ricardo Clark. Houston's Clark is another player who has been involved on a consistent basis during Bradley's tenure, and the immense amount of ground he covers means he can't be ruled out of the manager's future plans. Clark's ability to shoot from distance is also an asset.

Kinnear added that for Clark to get back in the frame he "just needs to keep playing like he's been playing" for the Dynamo. But that will also require him to sharpen up the technical aspects of his game, in particular his passing under pressure.

The long shot

1. Benny Feilhaber. Then there is the conundrum that is Feilhaber. Given the way he's struggled with injury and overall form the past 20 months, some might question even his inclusion in this list. But on-field vision isn't a quantity that the U.S. team has in abundance, and for that reason Feilhaber remains a candidate.

On the plus side, Feilhaber has not only recovered from knee surgery, but he's been getting steady time with Danish club AGF Aarhus, albeit usually off the bench. That's not something you could often say about Feilhaber during much of his club career. That said, only time will tell if the immaturity and inconsistency that Bradley criticized Feilhaber for 15 months ago have improved to the point that his heroics in the 2007 Gold Cup final can be repeated.

"Feilhaber is a player that has to be confident to be playing at his highest level," said the aforementioned MLS veteran. "If a guy like Mastroeni makes a bad pass, he's pissed for like a minute and then he's fine. I think with some of the younger players, and maybe Benny, if he makes a pass that is detrimental to the team, it might take him a week [to get over]. Confidence, it's big for everybody, but how you manufacture that is what separates the men from the boys."

With a full slate of games this summer, the process of making that distinction will be interesting to watch.

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

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