The US finally woke up in this Gold Cup — maybe, anyway — with a 2-0 win over Jamaica, and the big story is that they did so with Landon Donovan spending the first 65 minutes on the bench. Off the top of my head, I can’t remember the last time the US began an important match without Donovan, but if I were to guess I’d say it was some time during the 2001 Hexagonal. That’s a few months shy of a decade — a long time to be the man.
But while Donovan’s late arrival is the big story, the real story is the tactical epiphany Bob Bradley seems, finally, to have had. Gone was the 4-5-1, gone was the Empty Bucket, the lack of midfield movement (mostly) and the lack of ideas in the final third.
In its place was the 4-1-3-1-1 the US used so well against Slovenia and Algeria last summer in South Africa, and with it, finally, was soccer of the type that doesn’t immediately get deleted from the TiVo for banality.
THE FORMATION’S KEYS
The whole point of the 4-1-3-1-1 is to free up two players on the field: The guy in the middle of the “3” and the “1” just in front of him. Everything else is more or less by the book, as the fullbacks overlap, the flank midfielders pinch in possession and dive toward goal in the final third, and the pivot protects the central pairing.
In Sunday’s match, the two free men were Michael Bradley and Sacha Kljestan, and while Bradley struggled a bit by repeatedly killing the tempo, Kljestan’s vision and ability to find space both for himself and his teammates was the decisive factor.
Kljestan’s unorthodox style and propensity to spray passes has hampered his development over the past three years, but at Anderlecht this season he came into his own. The structure the Belgian team imposed upon him and the focus they demanded sharpened his skills, and taught him to choose his moments instead of always playing for the killer pass. Instead of merely an attacker, he's become a true enganche, the guy who's able to find moments of weakness in the defense and put his teammates into a spot to exploit them.
HOW IT PLAYED OUT
Kljestan’s ability to play patiently and find possession in the final third brought more of the attackers into the play and allowed the US to attack at angles they haven’t been finding recently. The fact that it didn’t result in a glut of goals is an ongoing concern — nobody in the US pool is finishing regularly at the moment — but the variety and unpredictability of the US ventures into the Jamaican box took the starch out of the Reggae Boyz. No longer were the US team reduced to hopeful crosses and set-pieces, and as the game went on Jamaica dropped deeper and deeper in order to compensate.
Just as important was that the tactical switch gave Jermaine Jones a defined role and some protection to the central defensive pairing. In previous games, the Jones-Bradley central midfield hasn’t really worked because they’ve largely been occupying each others’ spaces, making redundant runs and only showing for the ball on one side of the pitch.
On Sunday, Jones stayed deeper, only going forward specifically when Bradley had the ball deep. It’s a more limited role, but one the US has shown a need for.
The result, of course, was that the Yanks were much less vulnerable in that “red zone” between the central midfield and central defense. It’s the area where they tend to give up the majority of their goals, and Jamaica didn’t have a single shot from that spot on the field.
Jones’ deeper positioning also freed Bradley up to play as more of a “forward destroyer,” much like Kevin-Prince Boateng for AC Milan or, if you prefer, Pablo Mastroeni for Colorado. Bradley, as mentioned, didn’t have a particularly good game — he looks fatigued — but he did a good job of disrupting the few moments of possession Jamaica did have, and generally blunted attacks before they could even start.
This is how the US need to play. It’s the lineup that best plays to their strengths and minimizes their weaknesses.
Now, Kljestan isn’t exactly Wesley Sneijder, but he doesn’t need to be. He just needs to create time and space for guys like Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Juan Agudelo. All three had good games — as did Alejandro Bedoya, the man who Donovan replaced in the 64th minute — because they were getting the ball without defenders draped all over them.
It may be counterintuitive to have a guy like Kljestan, who’s not much of a goal threat himself (there were at least three times on the day he could and should have pulled the trigger, but didn’t) placed in such an advanced position
But it works. And it’s time for Bob Bradley to stop chasing after formations and lineups that should work and focus on the ones that do.
Matthew Doyle can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @MLS_Analyst.