Who Should Start in Midfield for the U.S. Tonight?

Will he be smiling at 10:00 ET tonight?

We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: to hardcore soccer fans and observers, games are like Rorschach tests. Everyone sees something different.

Take last Friday’s dismal U.S. World Cup qualifier against Jamaica. To hear this fella tell it, Kyle Beckerman single-handedly bungled the game for the Americans (see 10th paragraph). For this guy, the culprit was Jermaine Jones, who, the writer says, brings little besides physical effort (and yellow cards, we’d add) to the table. Finally, to complete the set of holding-midfielder scapegoats, this scribe tossed Maurice Edu under the bus with Jones.

Hey, at least they all agreed the problem was in midfield. So do we, and it’s a problem that’s difficult to solve for tonight’s return match—a game the U.S. has to win to keep themselves in a comfortable position to advance to the CONCACAF Hexagonal.

According to ESPN’s Soccer Power Index (courtesy of Paul Carr), the U.S.’s percentage chance to advance to the final stage of qualifying is 92.5 with a win tonight, 72.9 with a tie, and 56.0 with a loss.

They obviously want to keep that percentage in the 90s, but to do that they’ll have to make changes from the group that stumbled on Friday.

We already know that Steve Cherundolo and Carlos Bocanegra will start in defense. (Aside: Jurgen Klinsmann called Bocanegra “a very, very important piece of the whole puzzle,” which … really, Jurgen? Don’t get us wrong, Bocanegra is an excellent player and an experienced veteran, but the U.S. defense didn’t concede many chances on Friday; it was the midfield fouling Jamaicans in dangerous areas that led to the goals. Not sure how Boca makes a “very, very important” difference there. But back to the post.)

In addition to the backline changes, there will likely be new faces in midfield. But who? All of the available combinations have a shortage of experience and/or quality. Here are some lineup possibilities, in order of which ones we’d prefer:

• A 4-4-2, aka The Keep It Simple. This is the formation most of these guys are most comfortable with. Your backline here is rock-solid and Edu holds in midfield while Dempsey ranges forward. Zusi and Shea work the flanks, offensively and defensively, and the entire midfield links with the forwards, who aren’t starved of service, or stranded as in a one-striker setup. This formation encourages a compact team shape, which they’ll need to be able to take the game to Jamaica.

—————————Howard

Cherundolo—Bocanegra—Cameron—Johnson

——Zusi——Edu—Dempsey—Shea

—————Altidore——Gomez

4-1-3-2 Again, staying with two forwards, but Edu roams in front of the backline, destroying Jamaican forays (Williams pitches in there too) while Dempsey and Shea link up with the strikers. This would encourage wide play, something missing entirely on Friday, while providing enough defensive starch.

—————Howard

Cherundolo—Boca—Cameron—Johnson

—————Edu

Williams—Dempsey—Shea

—Altidore—Gomez

4-3-3 We’re generally not a fan of this for the U.S., because every time it’s been deployed it quickly devolves into a 4-5-1 with a fatally isolated striker. But you’d think the U.S. could dictate pace at home, on the well-manicured Crew Stadium field, so…

—————Howard

Cherundolo—Boca—Cameron—Johnson

Zusi————Dempsey———Shea

——Altidore——Boyd——Gomez

This would be a very offensive minded setup—with three bona fide strikers on the field—requiring a high percentage of possession. High-voltage possibilities, but probably better suited to a low-stakes friendly.

Some have called for the skillful Jose Torres to play tonight, and he’s a guy who, theoretically, could fit into a playmaking role in any of the above formations. But his track record with the U.S.—and he’s had plenty of chances—does not inspire us to trust him in a game like this one. He has a habit of disappearing for long stretches, he can be overmatched by physical, athletic opponents (Jamaica gets checks in both categories), and he’s a defensive non-entity. In fact, we’d rather see Joe Corona in the U.S. midfield tonight than Torres.

Whatever combination of players takes the field, hopefully for U.S. fans they’ll be ready to perform, and possibly gain some extra motivation and focus from the game date (9/11).

Broadcast starts at 8:00 pm ET on ESPN2.

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