GLENDALE, Ariz.— Michael Bradley and Omar Gonzalez stood on opposite ends of the player performance spectrum on Wednesday night as the U.S. national team held on for a 2-2 tie against arch-rival Mexico. While Bradley was turning in a virtuoso performance as the playmaker in the rarely-used (at least during the Jurgen Klinsmann era) 4-4-2 formation, Gonzalez was delivering his latest shaky effort, and the most recent evidence to suggest he isn’t the answer as Matt Besler’s partner in central defense.
Bradley was thoroughly dominant in the first half, scoring a goal and setting up another as he played a more advanced role in a 4-4-2 diamond formation that deployed him as a playmaker behind forwards Clint Dempsey and Chris Wondolowski. Almost exclusive played as either a pure defensive midfielder or box-to-box central midfielder, Bradley was given more freedom to attack and the result was a U.S. offense that looked more dynamic than we have seen it look in a long time.
"Every coach obviously tries to see where the strengths of each one of those guys and I think Michael has tremendous strength getting in the box and joining the attack,” Klinsmann said. “Purposely, we moved him out of the double-six or the six and the eight role into a 10 role. That means for Kyle in that moment — or if it's a Jermaine Jones or whoever you put in, or Maurice Edu that came in in that same role — a lot of work. A lot of work. I think it has a lot of good sides on it.”
"I think one of our strengths is that we have the ability to play in a lot of different ways,” Bradley said. “I didn't necessarily look at it so differently tonight other than now you're playing with a guy in Kyle (Beckerman) who does a good job of taking care of things and kind of being disciplined, so it gives me more freedom to be mobile, to be on the move, to get forward, to be up and down, to be more two way. There's no doubt I enjoy it.
“To kind of play off my instincts in those ways. depending on the game, depending on the opponent, it's certainly something I enjoy."
While Bradley was bossing the midfield, Gonzalez was struggling badly with Mexico’s quick attackers, caught ball-watching for the latest time in what has become a habit for the LA Galaxy defender. He looked unsettled in the team’s win against South Korea earlier this year, and on Wednesday Gonzalez was once again looking like a player on shaky ground as a national team starter.
“We have in Geoff Cameron another guy that can play center back, John Anthony Brooks another,” Klinsmann said when asked whether he was committed to Gonzalez as a starter. “That’s why I will bring into camp more players than 23 to see then what stage they are, how long they can maintain that focus, that alertness and that sharpness that you need on international level.
“It’s normal that they struggle right now because they barely start their season,” Klinsmann said in defense of Gonzalez’s struggles against Mexico. “ (MLS-based players) have 2-3 games in their season, so Mexico is far ahead of us in terms of rhythm and stuff like that. We are patient in the process. Obviously, in two months from now, I will make the decisions who is going to be the ideal pairing as the two center backs.”
Gonzalez has had his share of struggles going back to 2013, and he could be close to surrendering his starting role, with Clarence Goodson having made a good case for the job after an impressive second-half cameo against Mexico. Goodson was also impressive in last summer’s Gold Cup, and provides a steadier presence than Gonzalez does. Where Goodson is more consistent, Gonzalez can be dominant when he is at his best, as he showed early on in the final round of World Cup qualifying.
Unfortunately for Gonzalez and the national team, his best hasn’t been seen for some time, and with the World Cup two months away, Klinsmann may have no other choice but to turn to Goodson as a starter, or even Cameron.
There are no such concerns or question marks with Bradley, who eased any fears U.S. fans had about his move from AS Roma to Toronto FC affecting his level of play. Bradley was at his best on Wednesday, looking every bit the star Klinsmann was hoping he could be when he decided to deploy him as the playmaker in a 4-4-2.
In fact, the only real question left about Bradley is just when he will finally be given the captain’s armband, which feels destined to be his before long.