Here's where Bob Bradley earns his money. The U.S. manager has a few weighty decisions to make ahead of Saturday's important World Cup qualifier. There suddenly are holes to fill along the back line -- and not just at the usual problem-child spot, left back.
There also are choices to be made at striker and in the midfield as three huge points hang in the balance against an El Salvador side seemingly ripe for a Rio Tinto Stadium plucking.
The choices have been complicated by two health-related issues. Center back Jay DeMerit has picked up a groin injury, and front-runner Conor Casey had yet to join the U.S. camp in Utah as of Wednesday evening because he had his wisdom teeth removed Monday in Denver.
Casey's absence might limit Bradley's options slightly, but it isn't as concerning as DeMerit's potential absence, which would create a significant ripple effect. It isn't clear whether this injury occurred this past weekend as DeMerit held his usual spot in Watford's defense during a 1-1 tie at Swansea City or whether it happened during training once he arrived in Utah.
Either way, it's too bad, because DeMerit was almost sure to earn the start due to Oguchi Onyewu's suspension for yellow card accumulation. DeMerit was Bradley's choice as Onyewu's partner for the most recent qualifier in Mexico. The Watford captain did as well or better than most players in U.S. uniforms in that latest failed assault on Azteca.
DeMerit practiced Monday in the mountains of Park City, the U.S. base for the week just outside of Salt Lake City. But he was limited to individual work Tuesday and Wednesday, and is officially listed as day-to-day.
So, the chances you will see Carlos Bocanegra at left back probably have fallen from slim to absolutely zero. Given DeMerit's uncertain status, Bradley is likely to lean on the veteran stability Bocanegra supplies in the middle.
The other central options include Chad Marshall, whose confident demeanor and unimpeachable work in the Gold Cup provided the emerging center back with this opportunity, and Clarence Goodson. Goodson has appeared in just one World Cup qualifier, so Bradley seems unlikely to entrust his 7-0-0 record in home qualifiers to someone without the appropriate combat experience.
With Bocanegra probably bound for a central role, Jonathan Bornstein seems the most likely pick at left back. Jonathan Spector has played there lately in fill-in duty for West Ham, albeit with inconsistent results. (Someday, someone really should determine whether Spector is a right back, a left back or a center back. His professional development depends on it.)
|U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. El Salvador
Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy, Utah
8 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic, ESPN360.com
U.S. vs. Trinidad and Tobago
Hasely Crawford Stadium, Port of Spain, Trinidad
6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic, ESPN360.com
Spector also could play on the right, although Steve Cherundolo gives the Americans something more predictable. As this is a game in which El Salvador is sure to sit back patiently, stacking numbers behind the ball and picking its spots to counter, Bradley probably will lean on fullbacks comfortable with the ball and reliable in service. That points strongly toward Bornstein and Cherundolo.
Midfielder Michael Bradley has hit a bump in the German road at Borussia Mönchengladbach. He was removed at halftime two weeks ago and then was not among the 18 available for selection this past weekend. U.S. Soccer officials say that, contrary to some reports, there was no suspension, but rather a manager's decision. In other words, he was benched but not suspended.
Truth is, none of that matters for what is going on in Utah. Expect to see Bradley in his usual spot centrally. As for his partner, the choices are Benny Feilhaber -- who formerly was lost in space but finally has found a settled spot in a lineup with AGF Aarhus in Denmark -- and Houston Dynamo force Ricardo Clark.
The manager's options are fairly clear cut here. Feilhaber is the better passer, Clark the more rangy defensive screener. Again, El Salvador's tactics will be a factor. Feilhaber's superior chances of unlocking a defense with vision and pinpoint passing are likely to be preferred.
|U.S. national team blog
Luke Cyphers is in Utah and has informed speculation on how Saturday's U.S. lineup is shaping up. Blog
Clint Dempsey certainly has been the proverbial box of chocolates in the U.S. shirt lately; you never know what you'll get until you open 'em up. But he remains the best option on one flank, so there you go.
Landon Donovan is set to move into first place on the all-time list of U.S. qualifier appearances, passing the venerable likes of Claudio Reyna, Kasey Keller and Eddie Pope. Barring another attack of the swine flu, he'll be on the other flank.
The wild cards in midfield are Jose Francisco Torres, Stuart Holden and Robbie Rogers, the only true winger of the whole lot. But there's little in Bradley's track record to indicate much bent for hunches, experimentation or improvisation; he's never been a river boat gambler, and the likelihood that he will pick a biggie like Saturday to become one seems remote.
At striker, the manager is sure to select two from among Charlie Davies, Jozy Altidore and Brian Ching.
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Much of the choice comes down to an assessment of Altidore's fitness. He still hasn't played that much soccer in the past two months. After the United States' final Confederations Cup match June 26, the promising American striker didn't step on a field again until Aug. 11, the day before the U.S. match at Azteca. Then a frustrating series of transfer-related arrival snags kept Altidore away from most of Hull City's preseason training.
So, Bradley would be rolling the dice just a bit by naming Altidore to Saturday's starting 11. The thin-ish air in suburban Sandy (elevation: 4,200 feet) makes the choice a little tougher still. As it's just a small gamble, it might be one the manager is willing to take.
Ching is almost sure to be in the lineup. His ability to rattle around and make things happen by winning second balls will be critical against what is sure to be a crowded Salvadoran defensive third. Casey could do the same, and his hold-up play in the same stadium as an MLS All-Star was a highlight a month back against Everton. But those were penny ante stakes, so to speak, while Saturday's match is more of a rich man's game. With so much on the line, and since Casey is not even in camp, the Colorado Rapids striker is surely just insurance for this one. Same for hometown man Robbie Findley, whose speed could be introduced late.
That means it's most likely Ching plus Altidore or Davies, who has enjoyed a big start in France at Sochaux.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Dailysoccerfix.com, and can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.
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