(Reuters) – The United States flew out to South Africa on Sunday with coach Bob Bradley knowing he must tighten up his defense and find the right role for key man Landon Donovan before the June 12 opener with England.
Saturday’s 2-1 friendly win over Turkey was a game which contained both the best and the worst of Bradley’s team and should give the coach some clues as to which formation is likely to work best when it matters.
In the first 45 minutes, the U.S. lacked an effective shape in midfield, looked short of ideas in attack and were too easily exposed at the back.
Turkey’s goal came from a simple, but well executed, counter-attack which took advantage of space left by right-back Jonathan Spector’s overlapping run down the flank and the failure of anyone to cover for him.
It was not the only piece of sloppiness. Turkey opened up the American defense twice before the goal and with smarter finishing would have caused acute embarrassment.
Bradley replaced Spector with Steve Cherundolo and center-half Clarence Goodson made way for Oguchi Onyewu and the back-line looked more solid in the second half — surely a guide to likely selection.
However, the coach said getting a tighter defense involved more than just picking the right combination.
“Ultimately, team selection is about the guys you think are in the best form. And then there are lapses that come more as a unit where the understanding (between the defenders) isn’t what it needs to be. I think for the most part we’re working through that,” he said.
In midfield Jose Torres’ introduction at the break for Ricardo Clark made for a more appealing central partnership with the hard-working Michael Bradley but it is hard to see the less physical Torres starting against England.
The more robust Maurice Edu, or Clark, are the most logical selections for the opening game with Torres perhaps coming into his own in the other Group C games against Slovenia and Algeria.
In the wide positions, Bradley started with Donovan on the right and Benny Feilhabar on the left before switching them around but with both players floating inside too frequently, the team lacked width and options.
Up front Clint Dempsey looked off the pace alongside Jozy Altidore but then the halftime re-jig, with Robbie Findley coming into the attack, allowed Dempsey to move into his preferred deeper role.
With Dempsey playing ‘inside left’ and Donovan working the right channel, the U.S. posed much more of an attacking threat. The pair were able to find the spaces to hurt the Turkish defense, Donovan setting up the goals for Altidore and Dempsey.
The second half attack looked much more like the one which did so well in the Confederations Cup a year ago but with effectively four forward-focused players, it leaves an awful lot of responsibility and work for the two central midfielders.
Donovan is not an all-round midfielder, a traditional winger or an out-and-out striker and his lack of a defined position does cause some tactical problems.
One option Bradley might consider against Australia in the final tune-up on June 5 would be to leave Altidore as a lone striker with Dempsey and Donovan floating behind him and a third midfielder brought in to tighten things up.
Altidore is not a natural target man but with Bradley opting against Brian Ching in his squad, the striker is getting used to playing more with his back to goal.
“Somebody has to do it and I am going to try to learn as much as I can about playing it,” he told Reuters.
“I feel like I have an idea how to play the position but it’s different in every team, hopefully I can get to grips with it and if I am needed to do that, I am going to do that.”
(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)