Six questions heading into USMNT friendlies
When the United States national team walks on to Solider Field for Saturday's friendly against Poland, head coach Bob Bradley will be seeking plenty of answers.
And that's a good thing — any team that isn't constantly questioning itself probably isn't getting any better. Bradley has called a strong group into camp and he will begin finding the solutions he seeks.
("Begin" is the operative word here. Don't make the mistake of taking too much from the pair of matches, but they will start giving the coach, as well as soccer pundits and supporters of the Stars and Stripes, information to use.)
1. Will Bob Bradley alter his approach?
The first question isn't for the coach so much as it is about him. During the previous cycle, Bradley demonstrated a reluctance to switch tactics, formations and players. Though this unwillingness was exaggerated and the squad's impressive results vindicate most of his decisions, the truth is that a new cycle calls for a new strategy. Actually, two separate two-year strategies.
As he told ESPN, "There's two years at the beginning of establishing a foundation, of challenging players with new roles, of making decisions about some players who are young but, given time, are going to be important contributors."
The identification process begins immediately, and it should include taking some risks with personnel and tactics. But will it?
2. Does Jermaine Jones fit?
The Schalke 04 midfielder will make his long-delayed debut at some point during the next three hours of Red, White and Blue soccer. (Odds he starts against Poland are high.) He joins a team full of central midfielders, and there aren't going to be enough minutes for everyone. A healthy Jones is probably the best of the bunch, and he'll contribute immediately.
But at what cost? Are his contributions worth taking time away from Stuart Holden, Benny Feilhaber, Maurice Edu and others? It comes down to a debate between looking at the near future and the Gold Cup versus peering further into the future. That's a discussion for down the road, but seeing just how good the midfielder can be is the first step.
3. Can Benny Feilhaber play?
Feilhaber, who shined in three second-half appearances during the World Cup, has continued to perform with AGF Aarhus. It seems like every weekend he scores, probably because he has been lately.
There is, however, a dramatic difference between tallying for the best side in the Danish second division and doing so on a national team level. The midfielder - one of the most technically skilled players in the American pool - boasts the talent to succeed, but does he have the focus and the desire? Recent signs point toward "Yes."
4. What's up with Jozy Altidore?
The striker didn't score in South Africa. In fact, he's only netted once in his last 893 minutes wearing a U.S. uniform. He's also struggled at Villarreal, despite having multiple chances. Therein lies the key: Altidore isn't playing badly. He continues to expand his game, using his athleticism, agility and power to torture defenders. Remember how many yellow cards he earned defenders during the World Cup?
He just can't finish, though.
A day after he put a sitter into the 20th row against Algeria, a journalist asked him what he was thinking right before he took the shot. His answer - "I can't believe I'm going to score in the World Cup!" - says everything you need to know. Calm down, Jozy, and you'll be fine.
5. Can Stuart Holden handle the middle?
Did anyone think the former Houston Dynamo man would be playing this much, this well, this quickly when he transferred to Bolton at the beginning of 2010? It might have happened even earlier had Nigel de Jong not gone Karate Kid on his leg in Amsterdam. Owen Coyle can't stay enough nice things about his American import. He's playing 90 minutes in the center of the pitch and leading the Wanderers to a surprising start in the English Premier League. Holden, a smart, two-way player, looks to be the type of player Bradley enjoys deploying. Can he rise to the challenge of directing the U.S. attack?
6. Who's going to play defense?
The devastation of the U.S. backline is overblown. Steve Cherundolo and Carlos Bocanegra have at least a year or two left, possibly more. (The former might never hang up the boots if his quotes to The New York Times are any indication.) Jonathan Spector continues to fight a funk, but he's only 24.
Oguchi Onyewu should return to form. It takes a year or more to fully recover from knee surgery. He wasn't there in South Africa, but he will be. Help is on the way in the form of Eric Lichaj, Omar Gonzalez, Tim Ream and Ike Opara, as well as Sean Franklin, Kevin Alston and youngsters Gale Agbossoumonde, Greg Garza and Bryan de la Fuente. The defense could fail miserably in the next two matches, but don't panic when looking longterm.