Just how much can a national team change in the space of four years? In United States’ case, the overhaul brought in by Jurgen Klinsmann since taking charge has meant the Stars and Stripes are tackling the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ with a vastly different squad to the 2010 edition. And no, we are not just talking about the absence of such big names as Landon Donovan or Carlos Bocanegra; it is also a change of approach that has had a positive impact on two South Africa survivors, who have been vital to USA’s cause this time around.
In Klinsi’s US line-up, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey have been handed different roles to the ones carried out four years ago, and the fact that both can now focus more on attacking responsibilities has already reaped impressive dividends. Just as in the opening victory over Ghana, the pair were once again influential in the 2-2 draw with Portugal that has put the North Americans within touching distance of a spot in the Round of 16.
Stepping into the part once played by Donovan, Bradley has been able to shrug off the defensive duties he has been saddled with in previous years to concentrate on unlocking opposition defences. Against Portugal, he pulled the team’s strings with aplomb as well as repeatedly getting into scoring positions, only being denied the goal his display merited by a fine Ricardo Costa block on the line. Dempsey, in attacking midfield in 2010, has taken up the centre-forward berth vacated by injury to Jozy Altidore – Dempsey underlining his nose for goal by opportunistically nudging home his side’s second versus the Portuguese.
They’re our best players and it’s down to them that we’ve got to where we are.
“They’re incredible,” said experienced goalkeeper Tim Howard, a senior international since 2002, when speaking to FIFA.com. “Clint has taken to the responsibility of leading the line really well, while Michael can play in a variety of positions. He knows how to attack and create chances in forward areas. They’re our best players and it’s down to them that we’ve got to where we are.”
Midfielder Kyle Beckerman has also been able to witness this evolution first-hand; in fact, he himself has slipped into the ball-winning centre-of-the-park berth once held by Bradley. “Michael is simply getting better every year,” said Beckerman. “It’s his second World Cup and he’s shouldered more responsibility. Jurgen asked him to be more attacking, and that’s what he’s been doing.”
Versatility to the fore
Used in said deeper role back in 2010, as well as in a similar position for club sides Borussia Monchengladbach, Chievo and Roma, Bradley – now back in the MLS with Toronto FC – is not a complete stranger to occupying the space higher up the pitch. “I’ve always been a player who likes to be in the middle of the park, trying to have a positive impact on the play,” said USA’s No4, scorer of 16 goals from midfield for Dutch side SC Heerenveen in 2007/08. “And when I need to push further forward, I know I can make a useful contribution to the team.”
In addition to the goal-bound attempt denied by Costa, Bradley was also heavily involved in the move that led to the North Americans’ second on 81 minutes. Ghosting once more into the Portuguese box, the 26-year-old’s low effort was again blocked by Costa, the rebound falling kindly for Graham Zusi to cross for Dempsey’s clever finish. “Of course Jozy’s injury forced us to change our tactics a little, which is when I moved further forward,” said the Seattle Sounders attacker. “Our team’s like that though. We’ve got players who can finish, are versatile and have plenty of character.”
Next up for Klinsmann’s intrepid charges, who need just a point to be sure of a Round of 16 berth, are three-time world champions Germany. “Michael and Clint will be really important parts of our system, whatever position they’re in,” said Beckerman, when quizzed whether the key duo will be handed additional defensive responsibilities given the stakes on 26 June in Recife.
“It’ll be an incredibly tough game, so everybody will have to give everything. All 11 of us with have to defend and all 11 attack too, showing loads of spirit at all times. That’s the only way we’ll make it through.”