U.S. men's national team coach Bob Bradley has a problem.
He has only two more games to solve it, and it's not looking like he will.
Bradley lacks a world-class defensive midfielder. He released his roster for the two upcoming and final World Cup qualifiers on Oct. 1. Once again, it lacked a true, dedicated holding midfielder -- one who seldom strays more than a few yards past the halfway line and makes disrupting service to opposing strikers his inexorable charge.
The incumbent in the position, Ricardo Clark of the Houston Dynamo, has proved himself serviceable enough during the qualifiers so far. But he nevertheless is a very weak link in the U.S. chain, one that will be exposed at the World Cup in South Africa in June, now that qualification is all but wrapped up.
At home against El Salvador, Bradley experimented with playing no holding midfielder at all, picking attacking midfielder Benny Feilhaber, rather than Clark, to play alongside Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Bradley's son, Michael -- with the latter and Feilhaber taking turns dropping off as the other pushed up. This is striking, considering that not terribly long ago, he was lining up two defensive midfielders. But the dearth of stoppers has made that impossible, even though it is becoming the dominant tactic in international soccer.
So, how to solve this? With the World Cup approaching, it's time to look for a pragmatic solution. What the U.S. needs is a holding midfielder who never vacates his spot. A defensive-minded stopper. An enforcer.
Bob Bradley's lineup for the World Cup is all but set, his team sheet set to be copied in bulk and laminated for all-purpose use, no matter the opponent -- but that's a whole different can of worms. Only two jobs are still calling for applicants.
Provided that everybody is fit, Tim Howard will tend the nets; Jonathan Spector, Oguchi Onyewu and Jay DeMerit (assuming that he recovers from his infected eye in time) will man the back line; Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Donovan will concern themselves with all things midfieldly; and Jozy Altidore and Charlie Davies will be forgiven for their considerable inexperience and given the jobs up front. That leaves vacancies at left back and in central midfield. The former is trivial, the latter crucial.
Both left back front-runners -- captain Carlos Bocanegra and upstart Edgar Castillo -- will do at least a passable job. And if they don't, Spector will shift over to the left with Steve Cherundolo or Frankie Hejduk slotting in on the right. No biggie.
However, what happens with the second central midfield position will go an awfully long way in determining whether the U.S. will advance to the second round of the World Cup -- which it can, if things are lined up properly. While Howard, Donovan and Altidore will garner the accolades, the outcome of games, and thus America's fate, will be determined elsewhere. Games are won and lost in midfield. Whom Bob Bradley picks to set up beside -- or behind, more likely -- the offensive-minded Michael Bradley will be key.
Historically, all great teams have had a bedrock defensive midfielder as the rubber cement that holds even the most fanciful sides together. The great Manchester United side of the '90s had Roy Keane. Covering for Luis Figo and later Zinedine Zidane on the Real Madrid side that won two Champions Leagues in 2000 and 2002 was Claude Makelele, who did the same for Jose Mourinho's back-to-back Premiership-winning Chelsea. The Arsenal team that wedged its unbeaten season in between Man. U's and Chelsea's heydays sported Patrick Vieira. Brazil's '90s successes were butressed by Dunga and Emerson. Even Johan Cruyff's Holland side of the '70s, seen by many as a paradigm of frenzied attacking, knew it could stray upfield with some considerable peace of mind, as Willem van Hanegem and Johan Neeskens weren't prone to taking prisoners behind them. The successors to this side, the Dutch 1988 European champions, shone by virtue not of the mesmerizing foursome of Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Ronald Koeman, but of the mustachioed, chainsaw-wielding Jan Wouters, who held things together at the other end.
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In short, behind every great footballing dynasty has stood a transcendent holding midfielder, an enforcer preventing opponents from taking too many liberties, making life as difficult as possible for the opposing playmaker.
Recent years support this notion, too. Every winner of a major tournament in the past decade held up the trophy by the graces of its holding midfielder. Spain's 2008 Euro victory owed a great debt of gratitude to Brazilian-born Marcos Senna. Italy's 2006 World Cup run fed off Gennaro Gattuso's scorching form. Greece's 2004 Euro stunner was made possible by Angelos Basinas and Theodoros Zagorakis, who reinforced an already impenetrable defense. In 2002, Gilberto Silva backstopped Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho. France's victories in the '98 World Cup and Euro 2000 were due in large part to its abundance of holding midfielders, consisting of Didier Deschamps and Patrick Vieira, and in a bind, even Marcel Desailly and Emmanuel Petit.
I could go on.
"That kind of position holds importance, whether it's a club game or international game," said Bruce Arena, whose tenure as U.S. coach included its run to the quarterfinals at the 2002 World Cup and who has done a remarkable job of shoring up a leaky Los Angeles Galaxy defense this year. "Depending on the way you play, the play centers around the player in that [holding midfielder] position."
"The U.S. needs a good holding defensive midfielder, or they won't make it," said Dave van den Bergh, a former Dutch international who occassionally has slotted in as a holding midfielder for FC Dallas this year. "Against a few teams, you can get away with playing without one, but against the big teams, you really can't. They need someone there to set the defensive parameters, who preserves the balance and can shift play. If you look at the big countries, they all have such a player. Brazil has Felipe Melo, Argenina has Javier Mascherano, Spain has Marcos Senna."
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So why not Clark? He's prone to creeping upfield, looking for long-range shots, one of which, admittedly, bailed the U.S. out against Trinidad and Tobago. "I do think Clark will be a good one," Van den Bergh said. "If he goes to Italy [Clark is rumored to be joining Livorno], they'll teach him to hold his position and to eliminate the strange fouls he sometimes makes." But Clark doesn't have the experience to play such a pivotal position just yet, especially on a team not terribly deep on international exposure as it is.
There are two viable alternatives, each option frought with hindrances.
German-American hard-man midfielder Jermaine Jones would be a cinch, were he not behind on his paperwork and sidelined with a fractured leg. Jones has both the pedigree and the stature, standing at 6-foot-1. He's thrived in the physical Bundesliga for nearly a decade, checking the experience box, too. But his paperwork, allowing him to switch from representing Germany to playing for the "Stars and Stripes," isn't complete. That also means he never has played for the U.S. and would, at most, appear in a few friendlies before taking up a central position. Far from ideal.
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Second in line: Maurice Edu, a similarly phyiscally imposing midfielder. Edu has a dozen games in the unforgiving Scottish Premier League under his belt. But Edu is just returning from an injury and has yet to play any minutes for his Glasgow Rangers. Yes, this shortage of playing time also applies to Onyewu, but he isn't rehabbing from injury and has been available to the U.S. Edu of course didn't help his case in the battle for minutes by going to a Jay-Z concert in Glasgow rather than watching his teammates play VfB in Stuttgart in the Champions League, saying he would be staying behind to work on his recovery.
The bulk of the starting lineup discussion has revolved around whether Donovan and Dempsey ought to man the flanks. Certainly, this doesn't put those players in their best, or indeed natural, positions. But it does allow the U.S. to line up as much talent at once as possible.
Ultimately, though, it won't matter where Donovan, Dempsey or anybody else plays, so long as the midfield behind them can't hold the territory the duo will inevitably vacate in pursuit of their natural urges. Without the right man playing defensive midfielder, this World Cup jamboree is doomed.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens is a former soccer columnist for Guardian.co.uk and a contributor to World Soccer magazine.