Photo by Jose L. Argueta/ISIphotos.com
By THOMAS FLOYD
WASHINGTON – Fair or not, U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley has been much-maligned for his reluctance to deviate from a traditional 4-4-2 formation and the core player contingent that fills it.
During Sunday's 2-0 triumph over Jamaica in the Gold Cup quarterfinals at RFK Stadium, however, the 53-year-old coach threw a curveball — in the biggest match the U.S. has played since last summer's World Cup in South Africa, no less.
Bradley deployed a 4-2-3-1 formation, giving midfielders Sacha Kljestan and Alejandro Bedoya, two of the last seven players cut from the World Cup squad, their first starts of the tournament. And he used the grand stage to reward defender Eric Lichaj, 21, and forward Juan Agudelo, 18, with just their sixth and eighth caps, respectively.
"Everybody is needed in this kind of tournament," Bradley said. "This tournament is tough in terms of the games, how fast they come, the travel, so certainly we keep talking to the players that aren't getting minutes and still training these guys the days after games and pushing them hard, because they'll all need to be ready."
The new midfield alignment allowed the U.S. to dictate possession with authority and keep Jamaica back on its heels throughout the match. Kljestan thrived playing in an advanced central role, successfully distributing out of tight pockets while also switching the point of attack when necessary.
The Anderlecht midfielder looked far more comfortable in the position than the more defense-oriented Maurice Edu, who Bradley had auditioned there during previous U.S. friendlies.
"We wanted to be a team that passed the ball well, that moved the ball around a lot so I could find those gaps," Kljestan said. "We just did a really good job of moving and interchange of position. We're a good passing team when we want to be. Especially in a game like that, we needed to be to tire them out."
Added Clint Dempsey, who spent much of the game drifting inside and swapping positions with Kljestan: "We just played good football. … We were able to find players in between their lines, and we were able to create chances for ourselves."
Filling the sizable shoes of U.S. all-time leading scorer Landon Donovan, who arrived from his sister's wedding in California the morning of the game and did not start, Bedoya harassed Jamaica with his speed and hustle on the right flank from the opening minute.
It's a performance that would have seemed impossible a month ago, when Bedoya was left off the initial Gold Cup roster. But an injury to midfielder Benny Feilhaber opened up a spot for him, and the Boston College product has made the most of his opportunity.
"Everything we've asked of him, he's done and he's been fantastic," said Donovan, who replaced Bedoya in the 65th minute. "Tonight, I think he kind of hit the wall at about 60 minutes, but he was energetic and he was effective."
Also enhancing the U.S. effort were the performances of Lichaj and Agudelo, two players who both received their first caps this past fall. Lichaj, making his second start of the tournament at left back, used his pace to close down and snuff numerous Jamaica forays forward.
"We threw him out there in a tough situation and he's done well," goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "In terms of individual battles on that end of the field, we feel confident in him."
ï»¿As midfielder Michael Bradley put it, "He's strong, athletic, fast, and he really gets up and down that side."
Agudelo, meanwhile, came on as a 12th-minute substitute for the injured Jozy Altidore and brought energy and attacking ambition to the lone striker role, notching an assist on Dempsey's late clincher.
"Jozy goes down 10 minutes in, and Juan comes in with confidence, in terms of holding the ball, in terms of confidence when he has the chance to try to beat people or make plays," Bob Bradley said. "So those are good signs."
Playing 78 minutes off the bench, as Agudelo did, is less than ideal. Preparation before the match is less rigorous for substitutes, and having to nearly go the distance after entering a game cold can be a daunting proposition.
The New York Red Bulls striker, though, said he was unfazed.
"I always want to be on the field, and I always want to be prepared — in the first half and the second half," Agudelo said.
As the U.S. prepares to play Panama in Wednesday's semifinals for its sixth game in 19 days, Bradley emphasized that he feels confident about the depth of his roster and the ability of his players to adapt to different situations.
"I say it all the time — when you go into these tournaments, you have to grow as you move through it," Bradley said. "You can see the team getting sharper."