U.S. experiments in dour draw
U.S. coach Bob Bradley experimented with a 4-3-3 formation in the first half
Youngster Brek Shea looked overwhelmed in his U.S. team debut
A shift to the conventional 4-4-2 saw the U.S. improve in the second half
Here's the important thing to remember when it comes to experiments in soccer, or anywhere else for that matter: sometimes the results are gonna stink.
Testing a different tactical arrangement was certainly worth a look-see. And who has enough imagination to say what Tuesday's new formation would have looked like with Landon Donovan in one of the wide spots? U.S. coach Bob Bradley arranged his team in (ostensibly) a 4-3-3 for Tuesday's friendly with Colombia outside Philadelphia.
But any talk about what the United States did well in the new look would be a fairly short conversation.
On the other hand, the night at PPL Park looked much brighter for the home side after the break. Bradley scrapped Plan A and slipped his men into something more comfortable, the true-blue 4-4-2. The result was still a 0-0 draw, but the night left plenty to talk about, good and bad.
New midfielder Jermaine Jones certainly wasn't flawless in his second U.S. appearance, but he did quite enough to keep the buzz around him going strong. He already looks like The Man on this U.S. side in transition, with terrific recognition of things happening around him.
Two players debuted internationally, one with good results (fullback Eric Lichaj) and one looking quite nervous (attacker Brek Shea). Clarence Goodson and Heath Pearce had good nights along the back line. And Stuart Holden might not have been the force that he was in Saturday's draw with Poland, but he did enough to demonstrate once again how important he seems to be for the program over the next four years.
Finally, Oguchi Onyewu did OK. And that's apparently going to be important as Bradley seems dead seat on using the burly center back, regardless of whether he's sitting on the shelf and getting stale for his Italian club.
"In the first half, I think we were playing slow and couldn't move forward," Bradley told ESPN after the match. "So we were always sort of stuck back. The flow was better in the second half. We were more mobile, our passes moved forward and took us somewhere, and that didn't happen in the first half."
Bradley wanted his team in an attack-minded 4-3-3. Effectively, the coach wanted to invert the midfield triangle from Saturday, playing with one screener (Maurice Edu) in front of the back line and two men (Jones and Michael Bradley) in slightly more advanced spots. Ideally, it would look a little more like the classic Dutch 4-3-3.
And it did appear to be a great way to get the best U.S. players on the field; an arrangement that can get Edu, Bradley and Jones into the mix holds promise.
But as we know, things drawn up on the board look different when the man in the middle blows his whistle for kickoff. Holden and the debuting Shea were anchored so far back along the outside that the United States was effectively in a 4-1-4-1. And not a good one, at that.
The midfield was a muddled mess, some of which should be expected given the newness of it all. Passing through the center third was sluggish at times and just plain poor at others. Some of the problem was Shea's youth. When the FC Dallas man stepped on the field he became the first U.S. player born in the 1990s to get into a match. He's had a breakout year for FC Dallas and he'll surely have better days, but he looked every bit of the youngest player in the pool at the moment, unsure and unable to do much at all to impact the game.
But his far more experienced teammates fared only a little better. Edu, Michael Bradley and Jones had no chemistry and had all the zip of a bowl of cold soup. There was certainly no one in a U.S. shirt to organize and settle the attack the way John Restrepo did so confidently for Colombia before halftime.
Things looked night-and-day better after the break. Jones and Michael Bradley seemed far more comfortable in the more conventional middle, aided by Clint Dempsey's introduction along the left. Shots were still few and far between, but the United States certainly had far more of the ball than Colombia, who shrank into a protective shell.
Tuesday's match and last Saturday's will provide important building blocks for next year's Gold Cup, which Bradley and the federation have made a priority.
"We want to keep building our pool, keep getting some different guys some experience," Bradley said. "And then as we get into next year, we'll have a chance to really narrow in on the group that we think will serve us best in the Gold Cup."
GK, Brad Guzan, 6 -- A wonderful save kept things from completely unraveling straight away, but the Aston Villa backup had very little to do from there.
D, Jonathan Spector, 4 -- A disappointing night for a player who needs to establish himself during this period of transition. He was way too happy to pass back to Guzan rather than try to work out a better way forward. And he managed to create trouble for his team twice in one sequence. Very little linking with Holden in front of him, and he struggled with Victor Ibarbo in defense.
D, Oguchi Onyewu, 6 -- Helped keep the usually dangerous Radamel Falcao quiet and generally looked a little surer than on Saturday. Was caught in possession once and his passing still doesn't look as smooth as it needs to be, although it wasn't terrible.
D, Clarence Goodson, 7 -- Only some brief, second-half unsteadiness kept it from being a faultless night. Lots of tidy, composed defending over 90 minutes. And his big, sliding effort near goal to block Falcao early in the match was essential.
D, Heath Pearce, 6 -- One of the stronger performances for a U.S. left back in some time. He dealt confidently with things defensively along his side, and his ability to keep the ball moving quickly helped open up the U.S. attack after the break. An inability to get in one or two crosses will nick his overall grade.
M, Maurice Edu, 4 -- Seemed to be unfairly singled out as the man subtracted at halftime, as it could have been Michael Bradley or even Jones given how bad the central triangle collapsed. Edu did lose possession once in a bad spot, and did have a tough night dealing with feisty, fast Giovanni Moreno. It's too bad we couldn't see him in the better arranged 4-4-2 after halftime.
M, Jermaine Jones, 7 -- His purposeful tackling was one of the few U.S. first-half highlights. The Bundesliga vet show his experience in protecting possession, getting his body into the right places to screen and shield while others move around him. And his drive and passing through midfield after halftime got the U.S. going in the right direction ... finally.
M, Michael Bradley, 5 -- The midfield linchpin of the last World Cup cycle will need to do more to hold off Jones as first man penciled into the order. He was OK against Colombia, but his passing, tackling and positioning just doesn't look as strong when held against Jones' work.
F, Stuart Holden, 6 -- Rattled around a lot in the first 45 but ultimately was as ineffective as everyone else. He came inside and helped a lot even as a wide midfielder, looking far more competent when the U.S. switched formations at halftime.
F, Jozy Altidore, 5 -- Stranded in the first half as more or less a lone forward with no help at all. He had more to do after intermission but as created as many disappointing moments as promising ones.
F, Brek Shea, 4 -- This just wasn't his night, with poor passing and nothing much to hang his first cap on. He needed to challenge for more balls, at least, which is something a youngster can still do even when dealing with butterflies.
D, Eric Lichaj, 6 -- He certainly was an eager pup in his international debut, entering at right back for Spector at halftime. He needed two minutes to do what Spector never did, add pressure on Colombia by becoming an offensive presence. His eagerness did get him in trouble on a couple of occasions when he chose to tackle rather than to neutralize. His late cross into Altidore was the best centering pass by a U.S. man all night.
D, Michael Parkhurst, 5 -- Entered for Onyweu at halftime, but there wasn't nearly as much to do as the United States took control. A couple of wobbly moments initially when he was around the ball, although he looked more sure over the last 25 minutes. Parkhurst won't get many chances, so he must make the very most of each one.
F, Eddie Johnson, 6 -- Some nifty work to hold the ball in tight spaces, and he did draw two fouls in dangerous areas. Overall, probably just enough to keep him in the picture -- for now.
M, Clint Dempsey, 6 -- Came in for Shea at halftime and immediately enlivened the left side with additional spunk and ideas and better movement.
M, Benny Feilhaber, 5 -- Just OK as a second-half replacement for Holden, but he's never going to be a dynamo when asked to play out wide. Much better when he works inside, although that subtracts some width from the attack.