The U.S. experiment continues
PHILADELPHIA -- The first stage of the U.S. national team's embryonic 2014 World Cup cycle wrapped up with a tepid 0-0 draw against Colombia on Tuesday, coming on the back of a more watchable 2-2 draw with Poland.
It will be the last time something resembling the full squad is together until the next round of friendlies in March. Coach Bob Bradley indicated that he will be taking a heavily diluted team to a Nov. 17 friendly against South Africa in Cape Town. That team, Bradley said, will consist primarily of players who won't be playing a full game the weekend before or after the match. This would leave just benchwarmers and MLS players not involved in the conference finals.
So with the next meaningful action five months away, here's what we've learned this past week:
1. Stuart Holden has earned a starting role, but not Benny Feilhaber
Against Poland on Saturday, Holden was the best American on the field along with Jermaine Jones. Holden's dead-ball ability is a huge asset, as he showed when he set up Oguchi Onyewu for a goal against Poland and delivered the only early danger against Colombia. His work on the ball is steady and his service into the box is top notch. (He did, however, fail to clear a ball that allowed Poland to make it 1-1.)
Although he wasn't as influential against Colombia, Holden's distribution will be paramount in the coming years on a team still loaded with players who prefer to run at defenders instead of sending balls into the box.
"I was happy with a lot of things, but at the same time there were things I could have done better," said Holden after the game against Colombia. "Overall, I thought I connected well and found some good spots and created some good stuff for us. That's obviously going to give me more confidence and hopefully show Bob that I can play a bigger role for this team."
Feilhaber, on the other hand, looked to be chasing the game against Poland, almost always a step behind play. Perhaps he was having an off day. Or, maybe, his lackluster play was a troubling consequence of playing in Denmark's second division. It's hard to say. But Feilhaber failed to deliver in his start against Poland. His substitute appearance against Colombia was better, suggesting that Feilhaber remains a man for coming off the bench.
2. 4-5-1 good, 4-3-3 bad
Unveiling a new potential blueprint at both games, Bradley seems to have gone 1-1 on the tactics he tried out. Against Poland, the U.S. played in a slight deviation from the usual 4-4-2. Instead of playing two pure forwards, which the U.S. really doesn't have, Clint Dempsey played as a deep-lying striker, slotting in behind Jozy Altidore, making it a 4-5-1.
The formation was a success, giving the U.S. much more command of the midfield -- where Jones and Michael Bradley didn't have to cover as much ground -- and a better pipeline to Altidore. Dempsey and his neighbor to the right, Holden, developed a good understanding and stayed out of each other's way, begging for the formation to be rehearsed more in the future.
"When Clint plays as a striker, Clint is going to find a balance between coming underneath and playing in a way where at times it's a version of 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1," said a satisfied Bradley. "And at the same time, [he has the] ability from there to get in the box and be a threat."
Against Colombia, the U.S. played the first half in a 4-3-3 with three central midfielders. Maurice Edu set up shop behind Bradley and Jones. But the midfield got crowded and the team had virtually no width. With outside players Brek Shea and Holden unfailingly drifting inside, the U.S. manpower was so concentrated that Colombia had an easy task of interfering with ball circulation and snuffing out any danger. It didn't help matters, of course, that Edu, Bradley and Jones like to play the same holding role, which only served to stifle creativity.
Until the U.S. can find proper outside forwards who will hug the sidelines, the 4-3-3 should be shelved.
3. Jermaine Jones is a serious asset
Against Poland, Jones distributed the ball well, held down the middle with Bradley and sent three superb balls over the top to Altidore (one of which set up the first goal). Against Colombia, it wasn't until Jones started aggressively playing the ball into space late in the game -- when, of course, the team had abandoned the 4-3-3 -- that the U.S. became dangerous.
"There were certainly some positives," Michael Bradley said after the Colombia game of his cooperation with Jones. "I thought the way we tried to close down Poland at times and work together, be aggressive, was a good starting point. I think Jermaine showed he's a good player and somebody who is going to help our team as we go forward."
It wasn't all good from the German-American. He gave away a ball that eventually led to Poland's equalizer and his distribution was sub-par against Colombia.
Yet Jones' overall impact in his first two games was positive. At long last comes along a central midfielder who can help perform Bob Bradley's demanding defensive tasks while still providing quality service to the front line.
4. The attackers' movement needs work
Asked to pinpoint the next project in the development of his squad, Bradley said that the team's attackers need to improve the timing and location of their runs so it's not so difficult for the midfield to pick them out and get them the ball in dangerous positions.
"We've been able to do a very good job at how we start to play out of the back, spread our center backs out, start to get our outside backs up in position, use our two center midfielders to rotate," said Bradley. "I think we're quite good at our building and to play forward and find [our wide players] in good position. The next step is what kind of movement happens between the players who are in front of [the wide players]."
This was especially a problem against Colombia. When Jones's distribution picked up, it was often that striker Eddie Johnson decided on a wrong trajectory and made himself unreachable. Or, at best, he received the ball but ran into a wall of opposition. Altidore's runs also lack sharpness at times.
For a Yanks striker to score a goal at a World Cup for the first time since 2002, this will have to change.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.