Along with Eric Wynalda, Benny Feilhaber and Freddy Adu are the two most polarizing figures in American soccer.
Both Feilhaber and Adu have been labeled as inconsistent luxury players who aren’t as impactful and consistent for 90 minutes as many people would like.
Nevertheless, the reason that both players are important for American soccer and the United States Men’s National Team is that both players fill a role that Michael Bradley, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, and Jozy Altidore can’t fill: the playmaker role.
This role as the central attacking midfielder or the playmaker is essential for the success of the United States Men’s National Team because it provides a link between Michael Bradley’s defensive midfielder role and the role of Dempsey, Donovan, and Jozy Altidore as attackers and goal-scorers.
The playmaker not only facilitates quality passing, but the playmaker turns the passing between Jones or Cameron, Bradley, Donovan, and Dempsey into goal-scoring chances, and the ability to set up goals or score goals are arguably the two most important skills in soccer.
For this reason, players like Feilhaber and Adu remain relevant figures for the United States, and Feilhaber currently appears to be close to winning over Jürgen Klinsmann who has had his reservations about Feilhaber due to a perceived lack of impactful play for the full 90 minutes of playing time.
Running, work rate, and defending have always been important soccer fundamentals that have always snuck into the conversation when discussing the performance and importance of playmakers – and also strikers for that matter.
Playmakers are sometimes referred to as luxury players or non-essential players because there is a belief that many people have which holds that playmakers are a liability for their lack of work rate, defending, and their lack of overall distance covered, and this opinion has an important element of truth to it, which is that running and movement without the ball or off the ball are a vital quality for any soccer player.
No matter what one’s personal opinion is about the amount and the type of running that one should expect out of a playmaker, running and movement off the ball is part and parcel with being a good playmaker.
Take for example the games Zinedine Zidane played for France in the knockout rounds of the 2006 World Cup. Zidane was demonstrating a great deal of running and movement off the ball because it was essential to one of his greatest qualities as a footballer: constantly being a passing option or outlet for his teammates.
Zidane was most effective when he constantly presented himself as a passing option for his teammates, and this required constant movement and running. The Magician of Marseille was lethal to opponents when he dictated the tempo of the game by essentially receiving seemingly every other pass, and he did this by playing passes to his teammates and instantly showing for the ball or moving into space to receive the ball back.
When Zidane played like this, he even made Brazil look mediocre.
Turning to American soccer and the United States Men’s National Team, it’s important to expect lots of running from American playmakers, but it should be the right type of running.
Constantly moving all over the field to provide one’s teammates with a player to whom the ball can be played is essential to dictating the tempo and style of the game, and American playmakers should make a major effort to use their touch, vision, ball control, and creativity all over the field.
American playmakers should show just how valuable they are to American soccer fans and Jürgen Klinsmann by constantly involving themselves in the passing all over the field because this displays how the skill-set that playmakers bring to games is vital to producing quality passing and imposing the United States’ will on opponents, as opposed to being played out of games when opponents boss the midfield and pressure the American defense.
While the purpose of the United States using playmakers is to produce a better quality of play and create more scoring opportunities, American playmakers like Mix Diskerud, Joe Corona, Benny Feilhaber, and especially Freddy Adu must make a conscientious effort to be actively involved in the passing of the United States all over the field to win over the fans and the coaching staff.
Technically, a system with two defensive midfielders should somewhat cut out some of the running needed from a central attacking midfielder or a number 10, but fair or not, it looks as if American playmakers will need to take their work rate and running to a level above and beyond what is normal.
At its core, soccer is a sport based on constant movement in addition to ball control and vision, and American playmakers will need to be virtually omnipresent on the field, in order to convince many people of their importance in the long term success of American sides against competition on the club and international level.
To win over an American audience and the coaching staff of the United States, it would appear that American playmakers will have to fight their way onto the national team and prove their worth through lots of running for the purpose of forcing a superior brand of passing and soccer to be played by the United States Men’s National Team.
If the 2013 MLS Cup playoff taught Americans anything, it was that Benny Feilhaber’s increased work rate and distance covered won over a lot of people and silenced a lot of critics.
With the 2014 World Cup approaching, the United States’ roster will probably need two true playmakers to really be able to keep possession and effectively attack Germany, Portugal, and Ghana. Mix Diskerud, Joe Corona, Benny Feilhaber, and the controversial Freddy Adu are all part of the American player pool, and the United States needs two of them on the roster with one starting.
Many people will not want Adu on the roster because of his lack of club playing time and his club limbo (which is a valid point), but the United States needs to pick two playmakers from the following options: Feilhaber, Diskerud, Corona, and Adu.
Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones or Geoff Cameron, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, and Jozy Altidore or Aron Jóhannsson need a playmaker to fire on all cylinders, and the idea that the United States can really produce quality soccer without a playmaker starting with the other players in the Front Six is a fantasy.
Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey Are Not Playmakers
Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan are excellent attacking midfielders or second strikers, but they aren’t playmakers.
The best way to get the most out of both Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey is to start them as the right and left attacking midfielders with a true playmaker in between them.
Joe Corona won over a lot of American fans and members of the American soccer media with his play in the 2013 Gold Cup, but Corona had already proven himself way before the Gold Cup, particularly with his play against Corinthians in the Copa Libertadores.
With the coaching change at Corona’s club, Tijuana, Corona has found himself in the doghouse struggling to get club minutes, but for the purposes of the United States Men’s National Team, this shouldn’t matter given his skill-set as a playmaker who can also play on the right or left side of the field.
Mix Diskerud has also begun to win more plaudits due to his playmaking abilities and his clear ability to perform well against strong competition. Recently, Diskerud has reminded people of how Donovan and Dempsey aren’t playmakers and that they somewhat lack the true traits of a playmaker or central attacking midfielder.
Then, there is Benny Feilhaber. It’s unfortunate that after a season of quality passing and good form (not to mention his international record with the United States) that Feilhaber has only been praised or even discussed by the media or the majority of the American fan base after several excellent playoff games for Sporting Kansas City.
Furthermore, many of the people who praised Feilhaber after writing him off for so long seem to have been more interested in the amount of running he put into the second leg of the MLS Cup Semifinal against the Houston Dynamo than his technical ability, passing skills, and vision.
In short, Feilhaber garnered praise recently mostly by running a lot, and for Klinsmann’s entire tenure as coach, there has never been much support for using Feilhaber as a central attacking midfielder between Donovan and Dempsey.
The United States Men’s National Team has seen the most success when Michael Bradley was used as a defensive midfielder and when Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey flanked Benny Feilhaber who was used in the center to orchestrate the passing of the United States and create more scoring opportunities.
Given Freddy Adu’s almost total lack of playing time with Bahia, Adu has been scoffed at by Americans and non-Americans alike, but there’s never been much to suggest that the United States has the collective technical ability as a team to mock or freeze out skilled playmakers who haven’t lived up to people’s expectations or even seen a reasonable amount of club minutes.
When the 2014 World Cup comes around, the only thing that will matter is if the players that are started or used by Jürgen Klinsmann are physically fit to play and if they have the skill level to compete at the international level.
Feilhaber, Diskerud, Corona, and Adu are all skilled players with various club situations and form, and each player is different. The USMNT’s World Cup roster will probably need two or three of those players on the roster as they can all play left, right, or center, and they all bring playmaking qualities that Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and Landon Donovan don’t bring.
With strikers like Jozy Altidore, Aron Jóhannsson, and Juan Agudelo in the American player pool, using a playmaker behind Altidore and in between Donovan and Dempsey with Michael Bradley and Geoff Cameron or Jermaine Jones in front of the Back Four is a strong tactical set-up to give the USMNT a balanced and talented Front Six that can compete in a World Cup.
Whether one prefers Feilhaber, Diskerud, Corona, or Adu playing as a central attacking midfielder, the United States really does need one of them to connect the defensive midfielders to Dempsey, Donovan, and Altidore. The playmaker will strengthen the passing and the attack of the United States, and it’s time for more people to accept that the use of one is vital to World Cup success and American soccer progress.
With the 2014 World Cup coming up next summer, at the very least Jürgen Klinsmann and Americans should support starting Geoff Cameron and Michael Bradley as a two-man defensive midfield where Cameron hangs back more than Bradley, and Americans should support playing a true playmaker in between Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey behind Jozy Altidore.
This set-up gives the United States defensive coverage and quality passing deep in the American midfield, and it gives the United States three attacking midfielders including a playmaker who can not only pass and attack well but who can ensure that Altidore receives enough service.
The key to this set-up is making a point of starting a true playmaker because no one has any major doubts about the efficacy of Cameron, Bradley, Donovan, Dempsey, and Altidore, even if observers have their own Starting XI preferences.
One of the weak areas for the United States Men’s National Team is the absence of quality passing and significant possession against quality opponents.
Given Michael Bradley’s ability to help to orchestrate passing from the defensive midfielder position, starting three playmakers in a line of three with a second striker and first striker in front of them would be an excellent way to improve the quality of the United States’ passing.
If the United States were to employ this system, it would mean that Michael Bradley would sit directly in front of the Back Four with Joe Corona, Benny Feilhaber, and Mix Diskerud in front of him. Bradley, Corona, Feilhaber, and Diskerud all display lots of movement off the ball, and starting them together would foster a style of fluid passing, which is something that the United States has never displayed unless Freddy Adu or Benny Feilhaber are playing.
Despite the lack of club playing time with Bahia, Freddy Adu is another playmaker who could play in a line of three attacking midfielders at any of the three positions. Adu is controversial due to his lack of club playing time and the amount of clubs that he has played for, but Adu has always performed at the international level for the United States.
Looking more closely at this concept of using a line of three attacking midfielders, starting only one defensive midfielder in front of four defenders is a perfectly acceptable formation that has plenty of defensive-minded players in the line-up. By only using one defensive midfielder, the United States would elevate its play to a superior brand of soccer that produces more scoring chances and more goals.
Based on the teams that have qualified for the 2014 World Cup, the United States will have to look to improve the level of its play in any way that it can in order to keep up with an enormous list of incredibly talented and deep national teams.
With Corona, Feilhaber, and Diskerud playing behind Altidore and Dempsey, the USMNT can make a real attempt to field most of its most talented attacking players without being too weak on the defensive front.
The key to starting three 10s in a line of three is that the players listed as right or left midfielders on paper aren’t wingers or players who are confined to one side of the field; the system is based on the constant movement of all three 10s all over the field with Bradley being heavily involved in the passing of the United States while playing deep to provide the defensive coverage that is needed in front of the Back Four.
Another key to this system is Clint Dempsey’s freedom to go wherever he wants as opposed to just floating around Jozy Altidore. Altidore is a first striker, and his job is to constantly make runs into space and to look to get into scoring positions.
With three playmakers and Dempsey, Altidore doesn’t need to concern himself with dropping deep to receive the ball where his back would be to goal. Altidore should be the focal point of the attack without having to waste his time and energy by shielding defenders off him with his back to goal.
Not many defenders are going to be able to outrun or outmuscle Altidore, and these qualities should be directed toward the goal instead of having Altidore post defenders up like a center or power forward in basketball.
No top national team has their strikers playing with their back to goal except for the rare times that a striker receives a pass with his back to goal and takes the defender off the turn.
Strikers playing with their backs to goal is a very English and long ball style of play that always gets destroyed by elite national teams on the international level. The purpose of using multiple creative midfielders who are playmakers is to set the striker free to hunt with his eyes toward the goal.
The attacking midfielders are there for possession, creativity, and quick ball movement. Altidore is there to put the ball in the back of the net, and he has shown that his finishing has become more clinical and more deadly.
Players like Bradley, Dempsey, Corona, Feilhaber, and Diskerud don’t need any charts or strategy explained to them, they just need to be allowed to play the way they want to play: one-to-two touch soccer with constant movement off the ball.
Starting a line of three number 10s makes this style of play possible without being tactically unsound.
While the American defense has been a problem for the United States Men’s National Team, the midfield has also been an enormous problem because the U.S. hasn’t showcased quality passing and combination play at a level that’s good enough for a deep World Cup run.
Setting the defense to the side for the moment, the American midfield is something that can be examined with some basic math.
Normally, a World Cup roster would have eight or perhaps nine midfielders, with three or four of those players being defensive midfielders. If one accepts that Bradley, Jones, Donovan, Diskerud, and Dempsey should all be on the USMNT roster, then three midfield spots are open.
Any honest evaluation of the United States Men’s National Team’s player pool in the midfield reveals Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Landon Donovan, and Clint Dempsey to be players that are probably just too talented and way too capable of playing well against strong competition to leave off the roster.
Therefore, if one looks to add another defensive midfielder to that list, a player like Kyle Beckerman is too big of a liability from an athletic standpoint to put on a World Cup roster.
Beckerman isn’t just a player who isn’t quite quick enough or fast enough to put on a World Cup roster, but he is a player that is totally overmatched in terms of speed, quickness, and agility to really compete outside of MLS and CONCACAF.
Given this reality, the United States needs an additional defensive midfielder on the roster, and the only options are Maurice Edu, Amobi Okugo, Ricardo Clark, Perry Kitchen, Jared Jeffrey, Will Trapp, or Jeremy Hall.
Of course, Geoff Cameron, who has been listed as a defender, can play the midfield destroyer probably better than any American except Bradley, and Cameron has the defensive skills, the technical ability, and the athleticism to perform at the World Cup.
Additionally, another option would be to list Shane O’Neill as a midfielder, in which case he could play as a defensive midfielder, as a center back, or as an outside back.
O’Neill is probably a better defensive midfielder than all of the options listed above with the exception of Cameron, but selecting Beckerman to represent the United States in a World Cup would be a very unrealistic expectation of his ability to really keep up with the speed of international play.
With this information in mind, selecting Shane O’Neill to be the third defensive midfielder along with Bradley and Jones would likely be the wisest course of action, even if many people view it as a risky or crazy selection. O’Neill proved his worth not only in MLS but also for Tab Ramos’s U-20 side.
Turning to the attacking midfielders, by selecting Dempsey and Donovan, the United States is left with two to three roster spots for attacking midfielders, and Mix Diskerud, Joe Corona, and Benny Feilhaber stand out as players who have clearly shown that they have the tools to play at the international level with players like Bradley, Dempsey, and Donovan.
Whether one looks at Brad Davis, Graham Zusi, or Alejandro Bedoya, any realistic examination of the touch, vision, passing ability, and general playing style and technical ability reveals them to be quite a few levels below Diskerud, Corona, and Feilhaber in terms of their ability to receive and release the ball quickly enough to not be overrun by better national teams.
Based on the number of roster spots in the midfield, by selecting Bradley, Jones, O’Neill, Dempsey, Donovan, Feilhaber, Corona, and Diskerud, the USMNT has eight players who fulfill needed roles.
Players like Bradley, Jones, and O’Neill provide defensive coverage in the midfield and serve as passing outlets for the defenders, and they also are key elements to the midfielders’ ability to pass well and keep possession.
With these players providing quality defending and excellent technical ability directly in front of the defense, the need is then to have attacking midfielders who can foster quality passing that leads to possession and the creation of goal-scoring opportunities.
Dempsey, Donovan, and Corona are all attacking midfielders who can play centrally, out right, or out left, but Donovan and Dempsey are really better suited to line up out wide with lots of freedom to roam or as second strikers with the same freedom.
On the other hand, Corona is also a true playmaker like Diskerud and Feilhaber, and the inclusion of Dempsey, Donovan, Corona, Diskerud, and Feilhaber on the roster gives the USMNT many line-up options in the midfield in front of the defensive midfielders.
Even Feilhaber and Diskerud are capable of playing on the right or on the left because their style of play is predicated on showing for the ball and moving into space wherever they are needed.
Any brand of soccer based on confining attacking midfielders to a specific side of the attacking half or the attacking third eliminates any fluidity or quality to the passing play of the team.
Diskerud, Corona, and Feilhaber are players who allow the United States to field a Front Six where players with excellent technical ability, creativity, and agility can play in front of defensive midfielders like Jones and Bradley who provide a combination of defensive ability, running endurance, and passing ability that the attacking midfielders don’t have.
When it comes time to select midfielders for the USMNT’s World Cup roster, players like O’Neill, Diskerud, Corona, and Feilhaber are needed both as support and as substitutes for players like Bradley, Jones, Dempsey, and Donovan.
Diskerud’s international play in recent months seems to have convinced the American soccer media and the American fan base of his importance as a playmaker, and the play of Feilhaber and Corona for club and country greatly overshadows anything Brad Davis, Graham Zusi, or Alejandro Bedoya have ever done.
Stuart Holden showed just how important a complete midfielder can be for the United States, and young or not, Benji Joya is the only other midfielder in the American player pool who brings Holden’s combination of attacking and defending to the midfield.
While Michael Bradley is often described as a box-to-box midfielder, his attacking ability and creativity aren’t on par with Holden’s or Joya’s, and this is why Joya would be an inspired and needed selection for the 2014 World Cup.
Like it or not, there’s no room for Zusi, Davis, Bedoya, or Kljestan on the USMNT’s World Cup roster because they can’t outplay Diskerud, Corona, Feilhaber, Joya, and O’Neill.
Jozy Altidore, Aron Jóhannsson, and Juan Agudelo will need attacking midfielders and playmakers who can provide them with the service they need to score in the World Cup, and the likes of Davis, Zusi, and Bedoya just don’t match up to the U.S.’ better attacking midfielders that have proven that they can perform at a higher level.
To explain this gap in skill more clearly for the purpose of avoiding any misunderstanding, consider the following:
If Bradley, Dempsey, or Donovan are injured or suspended, the United States will need players like Shane O’Neill, Joe Corona, Mix Diskerud, Benny Feilhaber, and Benji Joya to compete against quality opposition.
On the off chance that Bradley, Dempsey, and Donovan couldn’t play, the U.S. could field a Front Six made up of O’Neill, Joya, Corona, Diskerud, Feilhaber, and Altidore and still be competitive, but the same thing couldn’t be said of fielding Jones, Kljestan, Bedoya, Zusi, Davis, and Altidore.
The collective thinking of the American soccer media and the American fan base is largely a parroting of Jürgen Klinsmann’s own opinions, and the reason that this is so is because many people feel that Klinsmann’s playing resume makes his coaching decisions infallible.
This refusal to question Klinsmann’s selections or to evaluate players based on their physical gifts and skills is probably the root of the problem of the United States’ tendency to underperform as far as the quality of the soccer goes.
Many people use Klinsmann’s win/loss record as evidence of the success of his methods and of his player selections, but consistent winning against better national teams requires improving the United States’ quality of play, and the steady improvement of Bradley, Dempsey, and Altidore has nothing to do with Klinsmann.
The collective skill-level of the players on the national team is directly related to the ability of the United States to begin to consistently challenge and beat better national teams.
If you were to ask a cross section of American soccer journalists who they thought should be the midfielders on the roster, you would likely find that the responses were consistent with whichever players Klinsmann had most recently called up to the national team.
Therefore, the collective thinking is probably that Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Kyle Beckerman, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Graham Zusi, Mix Diskerud, and Fabian Johnson should be the USMNT’s midfielders, but Beckerman and Zusi can be immediately removed from the roster in favor of Corona and O’Neill, Okugo, Kitchen, or Edu.
The problem with the collective thinking is that if Bradley, Donovan, or Dempsey is unavailable for a game, then the national team is without viable substitutes.
By putting Feilhaber, Corona, and Diskerud on the roster, you ensure that those three players are available to allow the United States to pass well and create scoring chances.
While the collective thinking is that Bradley, Jones, Beckerman, Dempsey, Donovan, Zusi, Diskerud, and F. Johnson should be the USMNT’s midfielders, World Soccer Source believes that Bradley, Jones, O’Neill, Joya, Dempsey, Donovan, Corona, Feilhaber, and Diskerud represent a group of players who have the tools necessary to compete in the World Cup.
The decision is yours, but there isn’t any real evidence that Zusi and Beckerman can outperform talented and proven players like Corona, Feilhaber, Joya, or O’Neill against higher-level competition.
Then, there’s always Freddy Adu who has shown the ability to open up games and create scoring chances against top competition. Not a bad option to put on the roster given the lack of technical ability and creativity on the United States Men’s National Team.
Can Graham Zusi and Alejandro Bedoya really outplay Freddy Adu? The evidence says they can’t.
The good thing about Adu is that he can be listed as a forward in place of Terrence Boyd, which gives the USMNT four forwards: Jozy Altidore, Juan Agudelo, Aron Jóhannsson, and Freddy Adu.
This group of players leaves 10 rosters spots open for seven defenders and three goalkeepers, and O’Neill and Cameron triple as center backs, as defensive midfielders, and as outside backs.
Two things are clear about Freddy Adu: 1.) his technical skill-set, passing, and 1v1 abilities are very rare for an American (even if he is from Ghana); and 2.) Adu has been sold or loaned from club to club where he often saw lots of coaching changes.
Adu isn’t free of some flaws in his game, and these will be discussed later in this article.
In the recent takedown piece from LANCE!NET, the writer of the article, Igor Sigueira, (writing from Rio de Janeiro) wrote that the reason that Adu was not going to have his contract renewed was “technical deficiency,” but no coach was quoted as saying that.
The article itself was entitled “Bahia is going to release Freddy Adu who adds another failure to his career,” which implies that the purpose of the article was to trash Adu.
In fact, the quote from the technical director stated that they felt that other players were better than Adu, and this is different than saying that someone doesn’t have the requisite technical ability to play in Brazil. Nevertheless, many articles emerged in the United States saying that Bahia would not be renewing Adu’s contract because of a lack of technical ability, which is simply not what any member of Bahia was quoted as saying in the article.
This was the belief of the writer of the article, Igor Siqueira. While Siqueira is entitled to draw the conclusion that the comments about Adu implied that the technical director or “director of soccer”, Anderson Barros, felt Adu didn’t have the required skill-level, no one at Bahia was quoted in the LANCE!NET article as saying that Adu’s problem was a lack of the needed technical ability.
In fact the exact quote was this:
“Ele não joga porque entendemos que outros são superiores e aí ele não teve tantas oportunidades assim. Vai acabar o contrato e o Adu vai seguir a vida dele. Vai ficar livre para procurar outro clube.” This quote means: “He doesn’t play because we know (literally, understand) that others are superior and so he didn’t have many opportunities due to that. His contract is going to end and he’s going to continue on with his life. He’ll be free to look for another club.”
Turning to Adu’s reputation in the United States, the reason why Freddy Adu has so many critics is that he displays a prolific skill-set for an American soccer player, which rightly makes people have very high expectations of him. Expecting a lot from a player of his technical quality and quickness is fair, but there is a double-standard applied to Adu that other American players aren’t subjected to.
In many ways, Clint Dempsey is also the subject of a lot of criticism and cheap shots from American soccer writers, pundits, and fans. Dempsey is frequently openly disrespected by the American media, despite his outstanding club and international resume for an American soccer player, and it should be said that playing for seven seasons in the English Premier League and scoring as many goals as he did as a midfielder is a great achievement for any player.
Dempsey and Adu are similar in their willingness to try tricks or low percentage passes or flicks that most American soccer players aren’t willing to try, so when these flashes of imagination fail, the critics pounce.
Unlike Adu, Dempsey has a very consistent and impressive club resume in terms of goals, performances, and playing time, but Adu deserves a certain level of respect for playing for Benfica and Bahia.
Whatever you think of Freddy Adu, not many Americans or soccer players of any nationality would have been signed by Benfica or a Brazilian club in the Brasileirão, and that’s a testament to his skill-level.
While Clint Dempsey disproved the belief that soccer players born and raised in the United States couldn’t play creative, skillful, and world-class soccer, Freddy Adu’s early childhood spent in Ghana playing pickup soccer or whatever you wish to call it has to be given much of the credit for his playing style and ability.
Nevertheless, Freddy Adu lived in the United States as long or longer than he lived in Ghana, and he was able to further cultivate his touch, tricks, vision, passing ability, and shooting in the United States.
Adu’s quick and inventive passing combined with his trickery and scoring ability make him a rare commodity among American soccer players, but he does have a few areas of his game that need to be improved.
As Adu looks to play one-to-two touch soccer based on passing and moving with creative play, he frequently appeared to get frustrated with his former teammates in MLS’ inability to quickly receive and release passes, in addition to their failure to make runs into the pockets of space where he played passes for them.
Given this problem of playing with many players in the United States who were unable to play up to his level, the thing Freddy Adu needs to do if he comes back to MLS is to continue to make runs, show for the ball, and display lots of movement off the ball, even when his teammates aren’t playing the more advanced style of soccer that he plays.
Adu must continue to make runs and demand the ball whether or not his teammates are passing and moving in order to facilitate a superior brand of play.
One thing that was apparent with the Philadelphia Union was that Adu would frequently play first time passes into space for his teammates after they passed to him, and they just didn’t continue their runs or even see the space available to them.
The frequency with which scenarios such as the one described above occurred caused Adu to be frustrated, and they caused him to frequently begin to start running less or become less active off the ball after his teammates were struggling to play a more advanced school of soccer.
Recently with Bahia, Adu saw many coaching changes, and the current coach, Cristóvão Borges, either didn’t rate Adu or he saw Adu as a less important bench player than players of other positions. In short, Cristóvão made a point of frequently using most of his bench spots for players who weren’t attacking midfielders.
Ivan Dias Marques of CORREIO described Cristóvão (as he’s known in Brazil) as a defensive-minded coach, and many of the professional reporters and journalists in Salvador such as Ivan Dias Marques, Pedro Sento Sé, Miro Palma, and Felipe Santana took to Twitter on several occasions to voice their belief that Adu deserved more playing time based on their evaluations of him in person at practices.
With Bahia’s games basically only available in the United States via streaming with poor video quality, it’s difficult to really draw any strong conclusions about Adu’s play in Brazil since he rarely played, and his coach didn’t rate him. Coaches frequently have their favorites, and maybe Cristóvão had a justifiable reason for not playing Adu.
Even Adu’s critics and detractors are quick to concede that Adu has the talent and the quickness to play at a high level and for the United States, but many critics don’t value Adu’s creativity and technical-ability very much because they view him as a player that doesn’t play enough defense or that doesn’t show enough running and movement off the ball.
World Soccer Source views Adu as a special talent that has the ability to excel even against elite competition, but World Soccer Source also concedes that fair or not, Adu might need to display some more movement off the ball and a greater urgency to stamp his imprint on games when his teammates aren’t passing and moving in a fashion that he feels is the correct way to play soccer.
The United States Men’s National Team has other playmakers such as Benny Feilhaber, Joe Corona, and Mix Diskerud, but Adu is too talented to close the book on.
Either Freddy Adu himself or his next coach should make a point of encouraging Adu to show more movement and urgency in games with disorganized passing and lots of long balls. Additionally, Adu like all players has areas of his game that could use some improvement.
For the most part, Adu knows when to dribble, when to pass, and when to look to shoot, but certainly any player could benefit from a thorough evaluation of their play, in order to correct any weaknesses in their play.
Based on Freddy Adu’s play with Michael Bradley, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, and Jozy Altidore, in addition to Joe Corona, Juan Agudelo, and Mix Diskerud, it would appear that Adu is certainly a player who performs well and thrives with players of their technical ability and playing style, but some coach or trainer would be wise to maximize Adu’s abilities by improving any areas of his game that are causing him to not see enough playing time or to garner so much criticism, even if he receives equally as much praise from supporters.
The United States is experiencing the deepest player pool in its history, but Freddy Adu is still a special talent who can be very useful to Jürgen Klinsmann, the USMNT, and MLS if those people and entities learn how to take his talents and improve them. After all, the job of a coach is to teach and improve players, as well as offering constructive criticism and observations.
Real change comes from the player himself, but much of the criticism of Freddy Adu is excessive especially when clearly inferior players such as Brad Davis, Kyle Beckerman, Graham Zusi, Sacha Kljestan, and José Torres are playing for or being call up to the USMNT with some frequency.
All of those players are respectable professional players who have done well in their careers, but as long as players such as Freddy Adu, Benny Feilhaber, Joe Corona, and Mix Diskerud are all not seeing significant minutes with the full-strength USMNT on a consistent basis, there is a systemic problem with Klinsmann’s USMNT that goes deeper than freezing out Adu: an undervaluing of creative midfielders who are natural playmakers.
Despite the possibility of Michael Bradley and John Anthony Brooks still being injured, Jürgen Klinsmann still has a lot of new options for the United States Men’s National Team’s October World Cup qualifiers.
A prudent decision for the future success of the USMNT is for Klinsmann to start many of the proven players who he has chosen to snub in the past, but he should fill the rest of the roster with new players that need to be given experience.
The math on this is simple; Klinsmann has 11 starting line-ups spots that he can reserve for some of the more-experienced American players who he has chosen to not use, and he has 12 roster spots for the new talents in American soccer.
The other alternative is to use the same roster outlined above but start the new players.
If Klinsmann wants to start more-proven players, then this is a topic that can be discussed with specificity.
For example, Klinsmann could start Brad Guzan in goal with Jonathan Spector at right back, Shane O’Neill and Michael Orozco at center back, and Eric Lichaj at left back.
In front of them, Klinsmann can start Geoff Cameron as a defensive midfielder with Joe Benny Corona, Benny Feilhaber, and Mix Diskerud as a line of three attacking midfielders.
Up top, Klinsmann could start Juan Agudelo (if he’s healthy) or Terrence Boyd with Aron Jóhannsson.
The line-up proposed above leaves 11 or 12 roster spots open for Klinsmann, depending on the health of Agudelo.
Starting in the defense, the obvious names are DeAndre Yedlin, Chris Klute, and Andrew Farrell.
This leaves eight or nine roster spots (depending on whether or not Agudelo is healthy) for goalkeepers, midfielders, and forwards.
If there are eight roster spots, calling up Nick Rimando and some other goalkeeper like Clint Irwin, Dan Kennedy, Sean Johnson, Luis Robles, or Tally Hall leaves six more roster spots to fill.
For the final six roster spots, Perry Kitchen as a defensive midfielder, Amobi Okugo as a center back and defensive midfielder, Benji Joya as a midfielder who plays as an attacking midfielder or as a box-to-box midfielder, José Villarreal as a forward or attacking midfielder, Joe Gyau as a winger or forward, and Freddy Adu as midfielder or forward (it’s time for Klinsmann to check in with Adu).
The roster proposed above includes three goalkeepers, four outside backs, four center backs, four forwards, five attacking midfielders, three defensive or box-to-box midfielders (plus Shane O’Neill and Geoff Cameron).
To be clear, the USMNT could start the following fairly-experienced XI below:
Starting Guzan in goal with Spector, O’Neill, Orozco, and Lichaj forming the Back Four should be a strong enough defense to win or at least they should be strong enough to win.
In front of them, Cameron as a defensive midfielder behind a line of three attacking midfielders (Corona, Feilhaber, Diskerud) should be a midfield with a strong defender and good passer patrolling the back with three creative midfielders helping the United States to maintain possession and set up goals.
Up top, Agudelo or Boyd with Jóhannsson is a potent young strike force who at the very least should cause problems for all but the very best of international defenders.
These forwards still have room to improve, but all three of them are real threats on the international level. There is no reason to think that they aren’t capable of easily scoring against CONCACAF opposition unless they simply don’t receive enough service.
Something similar to the roster and starting line-up proposed in this article combines the best of both worlds for the United States Men’s National Team: more-experienced players that Klinsmann hasn’t favored as starters with new talents who can gain experience and help to strengthen the national team.
On the other hand, if Klinsmann wanted to use mainly new and/or younger players, then he could start the following XI:
What Jürgen Klinsmann really needs to learn is whether or not he’s been using the best players and if the new talents or some of the out of favor talents can improve the ability of the USMNT to better compete or win at the highest level against better national teams.
The coach of the United States enjoys using the metaphor about tossing players into the cold water, and with the 2014 World Cup approaching next summer, it’s time to see who the best American soccer players are and prepare them for the big stage.
World Soccer Source considers Juan Agudelo and Aron Jóhannsson to be first strikers also known as number 9s, and for this reason, neither one is listed on the depth chart below.
Depth Chart: USMNT Second Strikers
1.) Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders)
Clint Dempsey plays a similar position to Robinho, Thomas Müller, Jérémy Ménez, or Neymar in that they are attacking midfielders or forwards without being out-and-out strikers like Mario Balotelli or Jozy Altidore. As long as Clint Dempsey isn’t deployed as a lone striker like Spain has done with Cesc Fàbregas, Dempsey’s positional name isn’t as important as him being included in the USMNT Starting XI as an attacking midfielder or a second striker. Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey have developed a nice partnership up top, and seeing both players starting together highlights the difference between a first striker and a second striker. Of all the American players, Dempsey is the player who can best play off a first striker in a supporting role, which not only helps the first striker be less closely marked but also draws defenders away from Clint Dempsey. Given the fact that the Texan is the best American player and given his penchant for scoring goals and disrupting defenses, Clint Dempsey is the best second striker in the American player pool.
2.) Freddy Adu (E.C. Bahia)
Freddy Adu is ranked above Landon Donovan as a second striker because Donovan is best used out wide where he can use his speed to run at defenders and cut inside from out wide, but Adu is more adept at playing final balls and setting up goals than Donovan. Obviously, Donovan has a much higher amount of assists for the United States, but he’s played in a lot more games. Donovan excels at using speed to beat defenders and attacking from wide positions, but Adu has a more refined ability to play passes of a higher degree of difficulty that unlock defenses. As far as 1v1 abilities, Adu possesses probably the best ability of any American to beat quality defenders off the dribble, and Adu knows how to put the ball in the back of the net. Adu’s aggressive playing style and skills combined with his ability to take risks forces defenders to leave a first striker like Altidore unmarked as they turn their attention to the penetrating dribbling and quick passing of Adu. Donovan has better stats and accolades to his name, but using Adu as a second striker doesn’t exclude starting Landon Donovan at the same time.
3.) Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy)
Landon Donovan is more suited to start out wide as a winger or just as an attacking midfielder starting out wide than he is as a second striker because starting out wide allows Donovan to receive the ball and beat defenders with pace down the sideline, quickly combine with his teammates from a deeper position, and use his speed to cut inside towards the penalty box, which causes Dempsey and Altidore to be open when the defenders run over to mark Donovan. Along with Dempsey, Donovan is the best American soccer player, but using Donovan as a second striker doesn’t maximize his speed in the same way that starting him in the midfield does because up top Donovan would be waiting to receive service rather than sprinting at defenders from a deeper and wider position.
4.) José Villarreal (LA Galaxy)
José Villarreal is ideally suited to play as a second striker because it allows him to use his technical ability and trickery to support a first striker and draw defenders away from a first striker. Villarreal will continue to improve, but the 20-year-old is a member of a group of young American players who are demonstrating that the United States is producing more technically-skilled players than it used to. Villarreal’s general play for the Los Angeles Galaxy and his goal against Real Madrid make him too talented to not be part of the discussion for inclusion on the United States Men’s National Team. When Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan stop playing in four or five years or more, the USMNT will be in good hands, as long as Villarreal is playing.
Playmakers are rare, and the best two American soccer players, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan, are not playmakers. Attacking midfielders can be playmakers, wingers, or players like Neymar who has no clear positional name. Frequently the very best players in the world are hard to classify with a single positional name.
USMNT Depth Chart: Attacking Midfielders
1.) Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders)
Many journalists and fans consider Landon Donovan to be better than Clint Dempsey and the best American soccer player ever, but World Soccer Source disputes this. Clint Dempsey has shown a level of technical-ability, trickery, killer instinct, physical and mental toughness, and a competitive spirit above those of Landon Donovan.
Some people think Clint Dempsey is better, and some people think Landon Donovan is better. The most important thing is that both players can start together on either side of a playmaker and work together to win.
Clint Dempsey scored goals on a consistent basis in the English Premier League for seven years, and Landon Donovan has played basically his entire career in MLS. Dempsey outplayed Donovan in the 2006 World Cup and in the 2010 World Cup where Donovan scored one goal thanks to a tap in off a rebound, which Dempsey forced, and Donovan scored a penalty kick and one ruthless point blank head shot, which was his one notable goal from the 2006 and the 2010 World Cups.
The Texan is a more technically-skilled player than Donovan, and Dempsey shows a greater ability to disrupt the defensive cohesion of top national teams.
If you were to compile the individual highlights and goals of both players, Dempsey’s would be much more impressive. But more important than the highlights or the trickery, is the combination of fire, skill, toughness, and irreverence that Dempsey brings to all of his games.
Whereas Donovan sometimes puts on a disappearing act in games, Dempsey shows absolutely no respect for his adversaries, and this makes him more of a threat and more of a cold-blooded assassin against elite national teams.
The USMNT needs both Donovan and Dempsey playing together and combining with one another, but this writer views Clint Dempsey as the better player with a better track record against higher-level competition on the club and international level.
Dempsey’s left-footed upper 90 wonder strike scored against Germany in a friendly after losing Lukas Podolski with a Cruyff turn, his chipped golazo against Juventus (without Gigi Buffon playing), and his goal scored against Gigi Buffon in a friendly against Italy in 2012 are just a view examples of the Clint Dempsey Supremacy over Landon Donovan.
2.) Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy)
Landon Donovan is without question the very first American soccer player who was born and raised in the United States who demonstrated an enormous boost in the skill-level of American soccer players.
Donovan excels at using his speed and both feet to beat defenders off the dribble and play one-to-two touch passing. Donovan is the all-time goal-scoring leader and assist leader for the USMNT, but he enjoyed a four year head start on Clint Dempsey who was playing in obscurity, despite being just one year younger.
For this writer, Donovan has never shown the same technical-ability and big-game mentality as Clint Dempsey, but no one can deny Donovan’s achievements or abilities.
It’s a shame that Donovan didn’t elect to make more of an attempt to play his club soccer in Europe, as opposed to playing in MLS. People can say that he helped developed the league, but that wasn’t his responsibility. Playing in Europe for 10 years would have made Donovan an even better player than he is today.
Despite all of this, Donovan and Dempsey aren’t mutually exclusive, and they shouldn’t be competitors on the national team, as the Unites States needs both of them starting.
As the poster child for American soccer, there can be no doubting that Landon Donovan’s four year head start caused Clint Dempsey to be unjustly underrated and underappreciated by American soccer fans who worshipped Landon Donovan for being the first world-class American soccer player.
3.) Benny Feilhaber (Sporting Kansas City)
Benny Feilhaber was heavily discussed in the article entitled “Depth Chart: USMNT Playmakers,” but nevertheless Feilhaber has been the attacking midfielder other than Dempsey and Donovan who demonstrated the greatest ability to play one-to-two touch soccer against top national teams, and he still is one of the most technically-skilled American soccer players.
Whenever you see highlights of the United States performing its best against the best national teams since 2007, you will see Benny Feilhaber who proved to be a needed midfield piece to Bob Bradley’s midfields which almost always started two defensive midfielders in the middle with Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey out wide.
There’s nothing to suggest that Benny Feilhaber’s abilities and athleticism have dropped over the last few years under Klinsmann’s tenure as head coach of the national team.
4.) Freddy Adu (E.C. Bahia)
Freddy Adu remains one of the only American attacking midfielders who can truly put even top players on their heels, and Adu possesses a combination of 1v1 abilities and quickness that Donovan and Dempsey do not have. Additionally, Adu’s passing and vision are well above those of Dempsey and Donovan.
There’s a reason that teams continue to sign Freddy Adu. Say what you want about Freddy Adu and his club playing time, but he was signed by Benfica, where he actually played and scored goals, and he was signed by the famous Brazilian club, Bahia, where he has done his best to continue to fight for a spot in the game-day rosters and in the starting line-ups.
No one gets to even sit on the bench for Bahia or Benfica, if they aren’t good, and claiming that American soccer and the USMNT doesn’t need a player like that is perhaps rating the United States Men’s National Team too highly.
Selecting four attacking midfielders among Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Benny Feilhaber, Freddy Adu, Joe Benny Corona, Mix Diskerud, and several others is a tough decision, and Jürgen Klinsmann doesn’t seem to particularly rate several of these players (most notably Benny Feilhaber and Freddy Adu).
Selecting a 23-man roster for the World Cup will require factoring in which players can play more than one position, but for this writer, Alejandro Bedoya, José Torres, Brad Davis, and Graham Zusi have never demonstrated the same still-level as players like Benny Feilhaber, Freddy Adu, Mix Diskerud, and Joe Benny Corona.
There aren’t any real wingers among the four players highlighted in this article, except for Landon Donovan, and the reason for this is because the width in the attack can come from the outside backs.
The negative opinion that many Americans have toward playmakers in soccer is likely rooted in the fact that a fair amount of American soccer fans and coaches didn’t play soccer as children or watch the best players play enough, even in highlights.
The Americans who show no real appreciation for playmakers, creativity, and individual brilliance with the ball were baptized in the church of the English Premier League as adults where they came to know soccer through the biased lens of the English media and English football fans who glorify overly-physical play over skill soccer.
There’s a reason that England never wins anything.
No other American soccer players provoke the polarizing reaction that Freddy Adu and Benny Feilhaber provoke, and this is likely due to the fact that both of these playmakers’ greatest strength seems to be a quality that is greatly undervalued in American soccer circles: creativity.
While Americans certainly value players who show excellent skill on the ball and advanced technical ability, there has never been a strong belief in the United States that at least one member of a starting line-up should be a creative playmaker whose defensive tendencies are heavily outweighed by a focus on quick passing, playmaking, creative play, and unlocking defenses.
Playmakers should be expected to put pressure on the opposition when the opposition has the ball in order to attempt to force the opposition to give up possession, but expecting playmakers to bring the same gifts and qualities that defensive or box-to-box midfielders bring is unrealistic and unnecessary.
Every type of player brings their own strengths and weaknesses to the table, and the American soccer community (including ex-players and member of the media) needs to learn the difference between skilled attacking players and playmakers because they aren’t the same thing.
This failure by many people to recognize this difference between skilled attacking play and playmaking abilities creates a strong belief that players like Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan who are skilled attacking midfielders can bring the unique combination of playmaking abilities that Dempsey and Donovan themselves need to thrive.
Now, Michael Bradley’s improved technical ability and passing skills have some American soccer fans classifying him not as a defensive midfielder but as some sort of attacking midfielder or some sort of box-to-box midfielder who plays like Arturo Vital, Paulinho, Paul Pogba, Kevin-Prince Boateng, or Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Any examination of the play of the United States Men’s National Team since the 2006 World Cup will reveal that Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, and Jozy Altidore were all able to perform at their best and play the way they wanted to play when they had a playmaker to fulfill a role that they themselves couldn’t play.
Many American critics of Benny Feilhaber and Freddy Adu have a variety of reactions to either player’s name, and those reactions range from laughter to anger.
The real root of this phenomenon appears to be a strong belief that true playmakers either don’t play enough defense or that many of their passes don’t find their target or result in conceding possession.
The role of the playmaker is to have the vision, the willingness, and the ability to make the passes that unlock the defense or create scoring chances.
Additionally, a playmaker is supposed to constantly be available to receive a pass and quickly release a pass to a teammate in order to establish a good passing rhythm and maintain possession.
With playmakers, people remember the passes that don’t quite squeak through the defense or the chipped pass that is played a yard too long or the ambitious pass that is blocked or intercepted.
People remember mistakes more than they remember successes, and this is the reason behind the criticism of Freddy Adu and Benny Feilhaber.
While Benny Feilhaber has 40 caps for the USMNT, Freddy Adu pops up out of nowhere on the international level like the Pink Panther and performs really well only to then disappear from the USMNT for months or years.
Years later American soccer fans remember a few good passes, but they forget the way that the playmaker changed the momentum of the game or the way the playmaker improved the passing of the United States.
Years later these performances are dismissed as some examples of playmakers providing a few nice passes and a few memorable highlights, but the position and the player is dismissed as a wasted starting line-up spot that could have been occupied by someone who offered more grit, more running, or more toughness.
The problem with this dismissal is that the unique skill-set of the playmakers and the ability to perform against very skilled and famous opponents was in fact the reason for the memorable win or tie.
The United States wouldn’t have played as well in the 2009 Confederations Cup and in the 2010 World Cup without Benny Feilhaber, and the United States might have not made the 2011 Gold Cup Final without Freddy Adu filling in for Benny Feilhaber.
These are realities, and even years later, new playmakers like Joe Benny Corona or Mix Diskerud aren’t being considered as vital players who allow Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, and Jozy Altidore to play their natural positions and do what they do best.
Closing the gap with Brazil, Spain, Germany, Italy, France, Argentina, and the like will require that Americans and whoever is coaching the United States Men’s National Team truly acknowledge that elite national teams can’t be beaten without players who can unlocked balanced and organized national teams who have world-class players at every position.
Running a lot and pretending that skilled attacking midfielders are all playmakers will not give the United States the tools to unlock defenses where the center backs have the skill-sets of elite midfielders.
Whether the United States uses Joe Benny Corona, Mix Diskerud, Benny Feilhaber, or Freddy Adu, there must be a player who links the running and smooth passing of Michael Bradley with the goal-scoring and attacking threat of Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore, and Juan Agudelo.
Without a playmaker to provide service for the goal-scorers, the United States won’t ever pose a real threat to the best national teams in the world playing at full-strength.
There’s a reason that the amount of defensive players and attacking players in a Starting XI is roughly equal, and the reason is because the delegation of responsibilities is supposed to make sure that there is a strong enough defense to partner with a dangerous enough attack.
Not using a playmaker is a good way to try and contain elite national teams, but it’s not a good way to try to actual beat them in a World Cup.
There’s no American Zidane yet, and there’s no American Ronaldinho Gaúcho (who was a goal-scoring playmaker).
But, a healthy appreciation of the importance of American soccer players with playmaking qualities would be an important sign of progress for American soccer.
Playmakers in other countries are treated like kings and treasured, but many Americans view true playmakers as surplus to requirements.