What should the US National Team system look like?

How can the US get its best players on the field?

This is the question that Bob Bradley has been mulling over in the recent national team matches against Poland and Colombia. It is something that he must still be thinking about because no clear answer has emerged. Bradley probably won’t get a good opportunity to find an answer in the upcoming match against South Africa because many of the presumptive national team regulars are likely to be absent.

It is also the question that many US national team fans have been trying to answer for themselves.

Best XI?

So, what is the best eleven that the US can offer and is there any way to get them all on the pitch in an effective system? It isn’t a stretch to conclude that the US has a dearth of quality forwards and a number of skillful midfielders. The goal keeper position looks pretty well settled. The defenders don’t look that strong, but would you want a system with fewer defenders?

So, what’s the best eleven? Does player selection depend on the system, or do the players you pick determine the system?

Onyewu against Colombia

Let’s say you go with the absolute best eleven players without regard to a particular system—who do you have? How about: Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Stuart Holden, Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley, Oguchi Onyewu, Tim Howard, Steve Cherundolo, Maurice Edu, and Carlos Bocanegra? That looks like one natural forward, three defenders, and six midfielders. Is anyone thinking about Steve Sampson’s 3-6-1 experiment in the lead up to the 1998 World Cup?

Of course, you could convert Maurice Edu to a defender and then you have four defenders, five midfielders, and one forward. Then again you could move Landon Donovan or Clint Dempsey up to forward and have a 4-4-2. Should Bob Bradley be fielding a system based upon the players, or should he be aiming to create a system and fitting the players into it?

Best System?

Suppose Bob Bradley picks a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2 and just gets everyone to fit into it? Doing so is difficult if you think about all the players you want to be able to look at when considering future talent. You also have to think about how often players will be available, about injuries, and the lack of time national team players get to practice together. All of those issues seem to suggest that the manager needs to create a system and stick the players in it. Of course if you do that then your system colors who you choose to bring, which can mean missing out on talented players that don’t fit the system.

Maybe Bradley could stick with a fairly simple system that allows for a good amount of variation, one that is flexible and allows him to use a lot of different players. If you do that then your tactics won’t be able to take maximum advantage of the best players. The 4-4-2 that the US plays looks like an example of a simple and flexible system. It has allowed Bob Bradley to use a number of different players without losing too much chemistry. When Bob Bradley has experimented with other systems, the result hasn’t been very good because it doesn’t look like the players understand them well enough yet.

The players by position: what have we got?

With the best eleven mentioned earlier it looks like the US needs to play with two central defenders, two full backs, two wing midfielders, one target forward, two central midfielders, and a holding midfielder. This would look something like the 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 that the US used against Colombia in the first half of the recent match.

Assuming that Tim Howard is in goal, the central defense could be manned by Oguchi Onyewu and Maurice Edu. While Edu needs work at this position he brings speed, toughness, decent passing, and aerial ability. He is a perfect complement to Onyewu, who brings strength, positioning, and aerial ability. Having Edu in central defense would allow the US defense to push further up the field without the fear of giving away too many one-on-one’s on the counterattack because Edu can catch speedy attackers. Previously, this has been a major vulnerability that has forced the US back line to drop deep, which has tended to cede possession to opposing teams.

Bradley and Jones can anchor the midfield

The fullbacks, Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo, are both experienced, have good positioning, and tackle well. While Cherundolo could get forward in the attack, Bocanegra doesn’t really have the speed or crossing ability to make a major contribution. This means that crosses coming in from the left in the attack will have to be supplied by a wing midfielder.

So the midfield could have Jermaine Jones or Michael Bradley as the central holding anchor. These two could even switch between playing as the holding midfielder and playing a more advanced central midfield role, which would allow each to conserve energy during a match. The second advanced midfield role should probably go to the most creative of US players, who has got to be Clint Dempsey. That puts Landon Donovan on the left and Stuart Holden on the right of the midfield, respectively.

So you get:






If you like the idea of total football, then this formation fits into the concept of interchangeability and not wasting energy moving back to a fixed position. Dempsey, Donovan, and Holden can all switch positions without too much difference. Bradley and Jones can do the same.

You could also have Holden pinch inside and Dempsey push up, and you get something like a 4-1-3-2 which is more offensive minded. Cherundolo could come up and whip crosses in from the right while Jones could shift over to cover for that side. It creates a non-symmetrical style that is harder to defend with zonal marking.

Bradley should create a system that works best with his best eleven and then should force other players into that system when they get called up. He needs to figure it out quickly though, so that the team will have time to fit into the new system and learn it well. Otherwise, we will continue to see mediocre performances like the first half of the US v. Colombia match. Bradley might be able to create a system that really creates an advantage against some of the better teams the US will need to beat in order to win trophies.

What’s your solution? Do you like the idea of a 4-1-3-2?

Photos by Nicolae Stoian

One Comment

  1. I dunno if I like the idea of making Edu a center back. I get your point that this could be the best group regardless of position, but it takes away his skill at carrying the ball. I do like the idea of a five-man midfield though, something I was screaming for during the World Cup.

    Germany Jones looks the real deal and gives the US something it really hasn’t had in a while, a hard-nosed holding mid. This could free Bradley to be more of a box to box guy. Jones is the guy you build the midfield around

    In the long term though, you have to look to youth for the D. Spector looks like he may have played himself out of out of a spot and Pearce is too up and down. The back for needs nothing short of a complete overhaul…