Michael Bradley: "We Came Up Short This Year"
November 18, 2015
PORT OF SPAIN, TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO—Tuesday night's World Cup qualifier in Trinidad and Tobago could have gone much differently for the United States men's national team.
On the home side's first possession, an attacker nutmegged left back Tim Ream, allowing Kenwyne Jones into the 18-yard box with a head of steam. Jones cut his pass back across the penalty spot and into the path of an onrushing teammate. Only DeAndre Yedlin's blazing backtrack prevented a shot from close range that easily could have put the Soca Warriors ahead and started a potential disaster.
During a break in play a few minutes after Ream's gaffe, captain Michael Bradley turned to his defender, clapped enthusiastically, and said something that was inaudible from the press box. The implication, however, was clear: a mix of "let's go" and "get your shit together."
Those two feelings also served as predominant themes of the American's last two matches of 2015. It has not been a good 12 months for the U.S. squad.
"We play to win big games and on that end, we have to call a spade a spade: We came up short this year," Bradley said after the match in Port of Spain. Rumors about head coach Jurgen Klinsmann's job security swirled before the matches with St. Vincent and the Grenadines and the Soca Warriors. Stumble to open World Cup qualifying and changes would come.
After 180 minutes of soccer, the ship isn't home safely, but it avoided the iceberg and found smoother waters. While four points from two games, including the toughest test in this round, won't quite the critics completely (nor should it), they are enough to spin the international break as a win. Moreover, the play on the field and the training sessions off it showed a way forward for the U.S.
When I asked Bradley what he learned about the team over the course of the two games, he stared ahead for a few beats, then answered. "We continue to move ourselves forward," he said. "You guys may think that it's just lip service, but the reality is that we have a pretty strong mentality."
That mentality has always been a key for the American squad. From the outside, it looked as though difficult results over the summer negatively affected the mental state of the team. Bradley, obviously, would argue it's not as bad as it appeared and it likely wasn't as precarious a situation as the media and the American supporters thought. Still, the good—but not great—results of the past week give the U.S. a modicum of momentum.
Adding to that is the fact that the team got strong performances from some new faces. The brightest star belongs to the Portland Timbers' Darlington Nagbe, who drew rave reviews in training and during his two substitute appearances. He didn't do a lot, but he possesses some skills that are in short supply.
"I think with Darlington as we saw in both games, we found a player who knows how to play," Klinsmann said, a sly smile creeping across his face. "We saw a player who is very comfortable with the ball in either direction on the ball. He gives us a bit more flow in the game. He simply connects the passes."
Tim Howard is also in Nagbe's camp. "I hate to overhype him but I just think that America doesn't produce a lot of those really shifty players who can get their foot on the ball and make people miss," he said. "It's not always spectacular. It's just a little shift here there to unbalance the defense. I like him. I like him a lot."
The question is where he fits. With Portland, Nagbe excels in the middle of the field, but the U.S. already have Bradley and Jermaine Jones. When Nagbe entered against Trinidad and Tobago, the red, white, and blue shifted from a 4-4-2 to a 4-1-3-2 with Jones dropping and Nagbe lining up on the left. Klinsmann believes he can be effective there, allowing that "him coming through the middle as well is nice to have."
For now, an attacking super sub is probably the best fit, with a fresh Nagbe prepared to terrorize tired defenses. If he can stay out of the middle—he came inside perhaps a bit too much against T&T in search of the ball—the formation will be dangerous. It's early, but he does bring something different.
Elsewhere, Klinsmann showed a willingness to let Fabian Johnson play left midfield, the role he holds with his club team and one that he prefers. After years of bouncing around multiple positions, Johnson looked comfortable and should only grow into the job if he continues to be able to play there. (The flexibility he provides because he can play right and left back helps with late-game strategy. When Nagbe came on, he seamlessly transitioned into the defensive live.)
On the other side of the field, Yedlin is the right midfielder of the present and near future. "He still has a learning curve ahead of him as a defender," Klinsmann said. "We all know that. He's learning that every day now in the Premier League."
Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron solidified their argument to be the starting center backs. "They made themselves a strong case," the coach said. "There's no doubt about it."
Fullback remains a trouble spot—when has that not been the case?—although Ream and Michael Orozco were solid on the night. While neither will provide much in the way of getting into the attack, they offer stout defending, experience, and capable play. Neither will win you a match; they won't lose one either.
Overall, 2015 ended better than it looked a few months ago. The Americans got two results without players like Alejandro Bedoya and Aron Johannsson. They found a couple more faces who can push for starting spots and add a new wrinkle or two. It's been a mostly bad 12 months, but it's over now.
"Look, there's nothing we can do about it now," Bradley said. "We have to use it all as experiences to move ourselves forward. Next year is another big year."
Noah Davis is Deputy Editor of American Soccer Now. Follow him on Twitter.