U.S. Faces Competing Concerns Against Australia on Saturday
The U.S. national team faces Australia on Saturday morning (8:30 AM ET, ESPN2) in its final tuneup before the World Cup, and with the threat of injury in the air, Bob Bradley must balance his interest in testing a few final lineup combinations with doing his best to keep his players healthy. He also has one more chance to look at two fringe players who had surprisingly good games against Turkey last weekend.
Striker Jozy Altidore is "day to day" with a "mild" sprain of his right ankle, according to U.S. Soccer, and since he's very likely to be in the starting 11 against England on June 12, he could just wind up watching the Australia game from the stands. Friday's injuries to England's Rio Ferdinand, Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba and Italy's Andrea Pirlo (calf), demonstrated how fickle fate can be, and U.S. coach Bob Bradley may decide to limit the minutes of workhorses like Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley. He'll also need to monitor Oguchi Onyweu, Stuart Holden and Carlos Bocanegra as they continue to recover from their own knocks.
So what's left to focus on? The win over Turkey should have gone a long way to convince Bradley that his ideal back four is Bocanegra, Onyewu, Jay DeMerit and Steve Cherundolo.
Bradley tried Dempsey up front in the first half, which seemed like the most reasonable option with three inexperienced forwards on the roster. But the entire U.S. attack was stunted because of a lack of width, speed and options off the ball. That all changed in the second half with the insertion of midfielder Jose Torres and forward Robbie Findley, whose performances left us all feeling that there's a bit more depth to this American team than we imagined.
Was it enough to convince Bradley that Dempsey belongs in midfield? Was it enough to catapult Findley from the last man to make the roster to a starter on June 12? Has Torres changed the way we envision the American midfield?
Both Findley and Torres made compelling cases and have given the coach more to think about heading into Saturday's game then he would have guessed one week ago. Donovan, Dempsey and Bradley all lauded Findley's contribution, and not just for the brilliant looping pass that freed Donovan to set up the opening goal.
Bradley on Findley: He was a threat in terms of getting behind them, going at people. I think he found good spots in terms of getting the ball, holding the ball. So I thought he was sharp -- confident -- which is something. We want him, when he has certain chances, to be aggressive. I think it was a really good half to build on for him.
Dempsey: I think Findley coming on with his pace, forcing the defense to drop back so me and Landon were able to get into those pockets ... Really, I think that pace of Findley really opened them up as far as making them, they were a little bit more scared and they dropped back.
Torres' composure on the ball also made a difference. Neither Ricardo Clark nor Maurice Edu, the options in central midfield alongside Bradley, offers Torres comfort in moving the ball and setting tempo. Torres obviously lacks the defensive bite of those players, but if the U.S. has the ball, it's less critical.
Donovan on Torres: His ability just to pass, to move the ball well. And he's kind of a calming influence. We were too hectic on the ball in the first half and he kind of settled us a little bit when he got the ball.
Bradley: Jose found a very good way, when we were trying to push the game, of finding spots, getting the ball, getting the ball moving ... At that point when you're behind, we're pushing Michael to be more active and more mobile, and the understanding between the two was good. I thought Jose really played well, was sharp, found the right people and covered all the holes very well.
The emergence of both Findley and Torres changes the image we had of the U.S. team that might take the field in Rustenburg on June 12. Bradley has the Australia game to see if it's an option worth pursuing.
Dempsey told FanHouse in Philadelphia that he still thinks he can "be effective" at both forward and midfield, and it's still worth seeing what Holden can provide on the outside. But the U.S. looked very good in the second half against Turkey with Findley stretching the defense and Torres the metronome in midfield.
For Findley, it was a meaningful afternoon. His inclusion on the final World Cup roster at the expense of Brian Ching raised the most questions and drew the most criticism. His one-goal season with Real Salt Lake didn't help matters. But there were few doubts afterward that he belonged on Bradley's final 23.
"I stay away from all that stuff," Findley said to FanHouse regarding the negativity that surrounded his inclusion. " It doesn't help me out. People can say what they want. Ching, he's a great player and he's done well for the national team. I mean, it was a tough decision on the coach's end and I just made sure I came here and did what I needed to do."
He acknowledged that his performances in three friendlies earlier this year left something to be desired.
"It was something new to me and it's hard to just jump into international play like that and expect to make a difference right away. I learned a lot from those games and am still learning, and I think this is a good direction I'm going in."
On Saturday morning we'll find out if Findley, and Torres, may have the chance to continue making a difference. Bradley has coached 61 games with the national team, nearly all of which were about building a side that's ready to go on June 12. He has one more left, and still has some intriguing questions to answer.