By: Colin Reese
Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey as the right and left attacking midfielders with Michael Bradley as a defensive or box-to-box midfielder should be the starting point for any United States Men’s National Team Front Six.
Instead of having the central attacking midfielder be free-roaming attacking midfielders like Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, the United States Men’s National Team should just start Donovan and Dempsey out wide and let them loose while a natural playmaker orchestrates the passing and the attack from the center of the park because the playmaker links the defensive midfielders to the attack and improves the passing and scoring ability of the USMNT.
Donovan and Dempsey are going to go where the game takes them and switch sides, and they should be allowed to do that for the good of the team. Embracing that philosophy eliminates the odd practice of requiring one of them to be pulling the strings in the attack instead of being attackers who play off a playmaker with more of a gift for playing final balls and creating a tempo of one-to-two touch soccer.
Furthermore, starting Donovan and Dempsey out wide, at least on paper, also eliminates the rather bizarre practice of having a first striker like Eddie Johnson or Aron Jóhannsson playing out wide when they are best used as the focal point of the attack.
Jürgen Klinsmann doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel as far as Donovan and Dempsey go because both players have proven to be effective when used as wide attacking midfielders with the freedom to play how they want to play. For them, their position is just an arbitrary spot on a piece of paper that has no bearing on where they will go throughout the match.
With Benny Feilhaber flanked by Donovan and Dempsey, then Geoff Cameron and Michael Bradley starting deeper as the two-man defensive midfield is a tactically sound way to provide defensive coverage for the three attack-minded midfielders while also using defensive midfielders that are key passing components of the American midfield.
Starting Cameron and Bradley as the defensive midfielders to protect the defense, serve as passing outlets for the defense, and to be major protagonists in the Americans’ possession and ball movement is a logical tactical approach to take in a World Cup with very talented opponents.
Mix Diskerud or Joe Corona might be better central attacking midfielders than Benny Feilhaber (and starting them would likely prove to also be an effective way to improve the passing of the United States), but Feilhaber is the most proven and the most experienced playmaker, if one is looking for some more experience and proven-skill in high pressure games with huge audiences.
Despite the Front Six advocated for by this writer, there is nevertheless a real need to test out different players like Aron Jóhannsson or Juan Agudelo in place of Jozy Altidore, and there is a need to experiment with only one defensive midfielder for the sake of testing out different two-man combinations of Altidore, Jóhannsson, and Agudelo as first strikers, as opposed to playing Dempsey or Donovan as a second striker to partner with them.
With that being said, there is also a need to select the right personnel, so that perhaps Donovan or Dempsey could start up top with a first striker with someone like Joe Corona starting out wide in the place of Donovan or Dempsey; this set-up would also require only starting one defensive midfielder.
While two defensive midfielders behind three attacking midfielders with a striker up top is a balanced and effective division of labor, different opponents and circumstances will require the need for flexibility, and this requires making sure that players like Joe Corona and Juan Agudelo are included on the World Cup roster, even if they are somewhat outside of what Klinsmann calls his “inner-circle.”
Selecting a World Cup roster isn’t just about selecting the players that have been used most recently by a national team, but it is also about selecting the players that give you talented options for the ever-changing circumstances of a World Cup.
A Front Six comprised of Cameron, Bradley, Donovan, Feilhaber, Dempsey, and Altidore is a sound choice because of the overall skill of the players and the different qualities and skill-sets that they bring, but these players are also used to and comfortable playing with one another.
Taking nothing away from Graham Zusi, Alejandro Bedoya, or Fabian Johnson, for a 4-2-3-1 formation, the best course of action is to play Donovan and Dempsey wide in the line of three attacking midfielders with Feilhaber in the center, and then Corona, Diskerud, and Johnson are the obvious players to be the understudies for these players.
And while there could be situations where Corona and Johnson could and should start, there unfortunately isn’t space for Zusi and Bedoya on the roster, if one is really evaluating skill, proven-ability, the league played in, and athleticism. Corona and Johnson are flat-out better footballers than Zusi and Bedoya, which shouldn’t be taken as harsh criticism or a denial of certain qualities that Zusi and Bedoya bring to the national team.
Zusi is a good crosser of the ball who brings two-footed technical ability, but Corona is an even better crosser with a wider array of quick passing and dribbling skills, not to mention his scoring ability.
Bedoya is a fast winger who knows how to cut inside at pace and disrupt defenses, but Johnson does this better and under more control – plus the fact that he also is an outside back that can play on either side.
In a previous article on the same topic, this writer advocated the use of Diskerud as the central attacking midfielder, but upon further reflection, Feilhaber brings more experience and proven-ability.
Cameron, Bradley, Donovan, Feilhaber, Dempsey, and Altidore is a quality USA Front Six, and Jermaine Jones, Benji Joya, Joe Corona, Mix Diskerud, Fabian Johnson, Juan Agudelo, and Aron Jóhannsson is an excellent group of substitutes that contain many players who could be or should be starters.
Going into the World Cup, the following group of midfielders and forwards is a capable list of footballers that should be able to do the United States proud:
Cameron, Jones, Bradley, Joya, Donovan, Corona, Feilhaber, Diskerud, Dempsey, Altidore, Jóhannsson, Agudelo, Adu.
The group of players above should make players like Graham Zusi, Kyle Beckerman, Alejandro Bedoya, Brad Davis, Sacha Kljestan, Chris Wondolowski, and Mike Magee players who unfortunately don’t merit roster spots, even if Klinsmann thinks that several of them merit spots.
Taking all of this into account the Best USA Front Six for the 2014 World Cup should be the following players, even if Klinsmann believes otherwise:
DEFENSIVE MIDFIELDER: Geoff CAMERON
BOX-TO-BOX MIDFIELDER: Michael BRADLEY
RIGHT ATTACKING MIDFIELDER: Landon DONOVAN
CENTRAL ATTACKING MIDFIELDER: Benny FEILHABER
LEFT ATTACKING MIDFIELDER: Clint DEMPSEY
STRIKER: Jozy ALTIDORE
This writer supports the use of the Front Six listed above with the caveat that several of the other players and formation options supported in the article merit testing and playing time for the purpose of finding the best formation and combination of players.
Having Cameron as a midfield destroyer to give Bradley more freedom to be a two-way central midfielder is an excellent way to give Donovan and Dempsey the ability to be more focused on attacking while Feilhaber links Cameron and Bradley to the three attackers: Donovan, Dempsey, and Altidore.
This Front Six is a way to really raise the level of American soccer and play to win in the 2014 World Cup because the tactics, formation, and player selections make sense, and they form a cohesive unit of international-caliber players that complement each other.
To this writer’s knowledge, Klinsmann has never used Cameron, Bradley, Donovan, Feilhaber, Dempsey, and Altidore as a Front Six, but he should have done so already.