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Jun 30, 2009

U.S. team finds its identity

In one year's time, perhaps we can gaze wistfully back upon the Confederations Cup and see it as a critical "yellow brick road" moment for this version of the U.S. national team.

We might see the memorable march across the sketchy pitches of South Africa as the place where this incarnation found its Oz. In a wild ride of a tournament, this group seemed to find a heart. And an extra layer of courage. And a more sophisticated soccer brain -- this lingering and confounding propensity for red cards notwithstanding.

Perhaps most importantly, it seems that this version of Team USA began to find its identity ... and never underestimate the incalculable value of gaining essential self-awareness. None of us can ever be at our best until we know exactly what we are.

Claiming an identity isn't just about personnel, style and formations. All those things are certainly important. But nailing down exactly what you are is also about coming to terms with collective strengths and weaknesses. It's about identifying true leaders, who often shine brightest in troubled times. It's about pinpointing what, exactly, draws the best from players.

In early 2009, as this team slogged through CONCACAF qualifying, sometimes indifferently, perhaps the U.S. players felt they no longer needed to play with that little chip on their shoulder. But we all know differently now. This version of the U.S. team still needs to be punched in the nose before it wakes up and plays with some fire in the belly. We had micro markers along the way, as concession of early goals had become a disquieting trend. Perhaps now the players see it in a larger context.

So if Michael Bradley and others need to feel hard done by their own fans and media in order to properly channel the energy, so be it. If they must play the old "We don't get respect" card in order to dig out the extra intensity, in order to access those deeper stores of passion, fine. At some point you are what you are. You just have to go with it.

In individual matters of leadership, locker room policing and on-field accountability, plenty of holdovers from the 2006 World Cup team remain. But as some players fade from the picture, roles are bound to evolve. So a new group identity must cut its own path.

"It all takes time," said former U.S. defender Alexi Lalas, now an ESPN analyst. "More importantly, it takes moments, moments for a team to go through that defines them."

Lalas' 1994 World Cup team, which made a surprising second-round appearance, knew exactly what it was -- and a swashbuckling band of cleated dynamos it wasn't. Many players had never been part of a fully professional league.

"But everyone was on the same page," Lalas said. "Everyone knew how we were going to play. It might not be pretty at times, but it would be effective."

Individually, Lalas' self-described role was to "clean house and then go be a problem on [offensive] set pieces." He was never asked to make killer passes or dribble, but he was allowed to express himself freely off the field, and that was important.

Michael Bradley surely expressed himself by blasting the critics. Fans might not have liked it, but it was an important moment in terms of identity creation in the U.S. camp. In 1998 that self-awareness and identity was never properly cultivated. True leaders either failed to emerge, were left behind or fell asleep on the job. Locker room accord suffered as new players were still being imported at the 11th hour (hello, David Regis). Bonds of trust were never formed. Compare that to 2009 and the benefits of the shared Confederations Cup experience, the highs as well as the lows. Everyone in the U.S. locker room knows more today about the guys around them, about how they'll handle the pressure when things begin coming apart. For instance, this team surely cemented its total trust in Clint Dempsey. He might wander through a match somewhat muted, but he can still turn a contest with one audacious burst.

We also saw an identity emerge in terms of a formation to build around. There can be little doubt that some formation utilizing two holding midfielders represents the best use of the talent available. And that's not a bad thing. The best way forward is always one that best suits the personnel -- and one that everybody buys into.

Brazil won the 1994 World Cup playing a box-shaped midfield with two defensive-minded bulldogs (including current Brazilian manger Dunga). Les Bleus had Didier Deschamps and Emmanuel Petit in dual holding roles of a 4-2-3-1 in their victorious run at France '98.

Two defensive-minded midfielders can work as long as the wide midfielders are free to create. In the U.S. case, using Landon Donovan's pace and ability on the counterattack seems to best suit this side.

In any case, Bradley is the closest the U.S. has to a box-to-box midfielder. Given that his potential partners Ricardo Clark, Maurice Edu and perhaps Jermaine Jones are all better as holding midfielders, that's where the depth lies.

Knowing and accepting your weaknesses is every bit as important as understanding your strengths in developing self-awareness. Obviously, overall quality in depth is lacking. Manager Bob Bradley probably should have gone to the bench a little earlier in the final against Brazil. And some of his players were surely worn from overuse. Remember that in 2002 then-manager Bruce Arena divided up the starts in five World Cup matches among 19 players.

But what options did Bradley have? Perhaps it was his fault for bringing out-of-form players such as DaMarcus Beasley and Sacha Kljestan in the first place. Suffice it to say we know now that the depth in the squad must improve. Which brings us to the 2009 Gold Cup, a little orphan of a tournament that suddenly has more meaning in the bigger U.S. cause. The results don't matter. Gold Cup, Schmold Cup. What matters are individual performances, as a couple of potential World Cup roster spots are now wide, wide open. Precedent is there for someone to emerge.

Pablo Mastroeni was a relatively late addition to the player pool before World Cup 2002. Performance in the previous Gold Cup was his way in. In Asia the next summer he was the only U.S. World Cup player who had never appeared in a qualifier.

Jimmy Conrad earned his first U.S. cap in the summer of 2005 at the Gold Cup. A year later he was an important member of the 2006 World Cup team.

We'll know over the next few weeks whether such a player will emerge from this Gold Cup group. But we know for sure that the current U.S. version needs dependable options. Even Beasley has surely exhausted his ample supply of chances. And Kljestan needs to find the nearest Costco and pick up a bulk of "form" before he'll again be seen as part of the answer.

That knowledge alone is progress on the road to essential self-awareness.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.

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