GLENDALE, Ariz. – Miguel Herrera doesn’t believe Mexico owe the United States for their place in Brazil. He certainly didn’t owe Michael Bradley a compliment after Wednesday night’s 2-2 draw.
Yet there was the coach of the Mexican national team heaping praise on the US midfielder in the wake of a performance that saw Bradley score the game’s first goal following a penetrating back-post run on Graham Zusi’s 15th-minute corner kick, then set up Chris Wondolowski’s second with a picture-perfect headed assist.
For the first 45 minutes at least, Bradley was nothing short of transcendent, prompting the kind of comment that few, if any, managers of El Tri have bestowed on their American counterparts.
"Bradley looked as if he was the best player in the world,” Herrera said.
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Bradley's talent has never been in question, but it was a shift in formation from US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s customary 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2 featuring a diamond midfield that truly freed the 26-year-old to terrorize the Mexican defense.
Rather than playing in a dual pivot as a No. 6 or shading slightly forward as a No. 8, Bradley was handed the No. 10 role against El Tri. Positive possession and chance creation – whether for his teammates or himself – became the priority as Klinsmann gave his forwards another outlet to play through.
“The hope was that he gets into the box, that he is also dangerous to score and gives [Clint Dempsey] and [Wondolowski] help,” Klinsmann said. “Often we had situations where we didn’t give enough support to our forwards. When you especially look at Jozy [Altidore], often we had him kind of disconnected.”
But with Bradley dictating pace and pulling the attacking strings, Dempsey found it far easier to resist the urge to drop deep to pick up the ball, and Wondolowski’s runs and hold-up play suddenly went rewarded more often than not.
Instead of sharing responsibilities equally with central midfield partner Kyle Beckerman, as he so often does with Jermaine Jones in the US midfield, Bradley chipped in yeoman’s work when needed, then spent the majority of his time promoting dynamic play.
“I didn’t necessarily look at it as so differently than normal other than now you’re playing with a guy in Kyle who does a good job of being disciplined and taking care of things in front of the defenders,” Bradley said. “It means that I’m able to have a little more freedom, have the ability to be a little more two-way and be more up-and-down. It’s certainly something I enjoy.”
Freeing up Bradley meant someone had to put in, as Klinsmann explained, “a lot of work” in the pocket in front of the backline. That fell to Beckerman, plenty familiar with the role and formation after years playing behind Javier Morales in Real Salt Lake’s diamond midfield.
“I thought we got a lot joy from it. That first half was a lot of fun,” Beckerman said. “[Bradley] can just be effective in more dangerous areas. For all of us, really, there was a lot of space and attacking options once we got the ball.”
Those options were often the result of surging runs by the US’ outside midfielders and defenders, with Zusi and Tony Beltran especially dangerous on the right flank. Time and time again, Bradley found the ball in the midfield and either drove forward or threaded a ball into space for his on-rushing teammates.
Of course, Herrera adapted in the second half, harrassing the US No. 10 with numbers around the ball, but Klinsmann certainly has something to think about as he weighs the way his tactical set-up ahead of the World Cup.
“We need to have at least two, if not three, different systems for the World Cup to confuse, hopefully, the opponents a little bit,” he said.