Young midfielder Torres is ahead of his time on U.S. national team
José Francisco Torres is the only U.S. team member to play club ball in Mexico
The young midfielder is so skilled that he might be too good for the U.S. squad
Torres has the skills that make other teams, like Argentina, so fun to watch
MEXICO CITY -- He's listed by the U.S. Soccer Federation as 5-foot-7 (that's generous), 135 pounds (probably accurate). With that wispy frame, soft-spoken José Francisco Torres doesn't look like a guy who might symbolize the future of the U.S. national team. But that has nothing to do with why the U.S. isn't ready for the future.
At Wednesday's pulsating World Cup qualifier here, the boos from the near-115,000 crowd at Estadio Azteca will be a little louder for Torres if U.S. coach Bob Bradley subs him in. For one, the 21-year-old Longview, Texas, native is well-known to Mexican fans. He's the only player on the national team to play his club ball in Mexico. Plucked by powerhouse Pachuca when he was in high school, Torres cracked the squad's starting lineup last year and has seen action twice at Azteca against its home team, Club América.
More important, Torres is the one who turned his back on the Mexican national team. Because his father is a Mexican immigrant, he was eligible to declare for El Tri and came very close to doing so a year ago. But after realizing he'd have a better chance of cracking the U.S. rotation, he went with his birth nation.
"It was a hard decision," Torres admitted. "I made my career in Mexico. I had been there for six years."
Getting Torres' commitment was a victory for the U.S. in yet another tug-of-war with its archrival. The young midfielder is extremely talented, with technical skills you don't often find in the U.S. player pool. He's an attacking midfielder who can keep the ball close to his feet and make stunning plays by breaking down defenders or artfully sidestepping them to deliver a perfect pass to an onrushing attacker.
"He gives the U.S. a different look when he comes on the field," one source close to U.S. Soccer said. "He looks for the ball in most positions, he wants it at his feet. He can start an attack from a deeper position with shorter passing and combo plays. To be honest, I'm not sure [Bradley] knows how to use him."
And that's the problem. He might be too good, at least for what the U.S. does. Torres hasn't seen action for the Americans since the 3-1 debacle in Costa Rica in June, and didn't take the field in South Africa despite being named to the Confederations Cup roster. Some of that is due to his inexperience. Probably more of it is due to the fact that there's no natural place for him.
"He has undeniable talent and skill," said former U.S. defender Alexi Lalas, now an ESPN analyst. "But his game is geared toward a specific style, which is, at least for now, not conducive to what the national team is doing."
The U.S. has found success with a classic formula: the 4-4-2 formation. The way the U.S. runs it, that means four defenders on the back line, two central midfielders deployed as box-to-box playmaker/enforcers, two wingers and two forwards. That stresses physicality in defense and midfield, and the ability to absorb pressure and wait for the counterattack, concentrating on moving the ball upfield on the flanks with speed. When it works properly, the U.S. can outmuscle a lot of teams and then produce a goal off a cross from the wings or a blistering shot from long range.
Or, ideally, a goal can come against the run of play on the counterattack, such as the Americans' dazzling second goal against Brazil in the Confed Cup final: an intercepted pass deep in U.S. territory by midfielder Ricardo Clark, which led to a give-and-go fast break between Landon Donovan and Charlie Davies, with the finish by Donovan.