Michael Bradley leads U.S. to stunning win over World Cup champs Germany
Three musings after the United States closed out a strong European sojourn with a thrilling 2-1 win Wednesday against Germany in Cologne on Jurgen Klinsmann's first trip to his native land as U.S. national team coach.
1. Michael Bradley, playmaker
He doesn't wear the No. 10 jersey (that would be Mix Diskerud), but Michael Bradley is undoubtedly the Americans' driving creative force. Just as he did against the Netherlands, Bradley served as the key man in the U.S. attack, starting moves and setting up goals with his vision and accuracy. Apparently Klinsmann was on to something when he moved Bradley into the role last summer at the World Cup.
Back then, the Toronto FC man seemed prone to trying to do too much, effectively running himself out of games by attempting to cover too much ground. In two friendlies on this European trip, all things flowed from Bradley in the American midfield. His final passes grab the most attention, but he was equally important moving the ball, allowing the United States to gain some semblance of possession whenever possible.
After halftime changes provided him a solid backstop in Kyle Beckerman, Bradley was free to think entirely forward-first. The number of times he both started attacks and put himself in position to be available to finish them is a testament to his improving understanding of his role on this team.
The only black mark on Bradley's performance was the shot he hit directly at the German keeper, Ron-Robert Zieler that would have turned a strong 1-1 draw against the world champions into a stunning win. Luckily for Bradley, Bobby Wood arrived to lace home a wicked left-footed shot with Germany stretched, surprising the crowd and lifting the United States to a second consecutive win on the road in Europe against a top-10 team.
2. The defense is (still) a mess
Klinsmann entered this round of friendlies with a notion of identifying contributors at center-back whom he could rely on during next month's Gold Cup. Instead, every defender on this roster saw his stock drop, while the winners of the camp are those left at home. The pair that started in the middle, John Brooks and Ventura Alvarado, displayed every bit of their youth and inexperience against a decidedly second-choice Germany. Klinsmann has tabbed Brooks as nearing a spot in the first-choice starting XI, but little that the Hertha defender did against Germany would indicate he's ready for the honor.
Both Alvarado and Timothy Chandler fell asleep on the Germans' goal, botching a fairly simple marking job on an extremely dangerous player, Mario Gotze. Chandler in particular seemed uninterested in participating, wandering behind the play as Gotze staked out a patch of the box big enough to set up camp. Across the back line, confusion reigned. The only player not to stand out for mistakes in the first half was Fabian Johnson, although it's no guarantee he played particularly well.
Alvarado is still raw, making his arrival on the full team a future possibility at best. Halftime changes made a difference, as did a shift in the makeup of the midfield that allowed the Americans to better hold the ball, taking pressure off the defenders for longer stretches. The bottom line, though? Klinsmann still has tough choices to make for the Gold Cup team, and it's not just at center-back.
3. State of the striker pool
Isolated at the top of the formation for a team that didn't see much in the way of possession, neither Aron Johannsson nor Juan Agudelo made much of a mark in the first half. Klinsmann opted to pull Agudelo off at halftime, pushing Gyasi Zardes up from a midfield position to play alongside Johannsson. The dividends were almost immediate, though it's important to point out that the midfield play got markedly better with the introduction of Beckerman at the same time.
Whatever the reasons, Zardes threatened Germany with his speed and movement on several occasions. His hold-up play occupied German center-backs, creating space for his teammates that wasn't there in the first half. Zardes is more comfortable at forward, and it showed; with less defending to do, the Galaxy player can concentrate on those things he does best. His growth from playing alongside Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane during the past few seasons is starting to show up at the international level.
Agudelo didn't take his chance to shine (which turned out to be a total of only 45 minutes), but Zardes showed in two matches he's ready for prime time. Surprisingly, the most complete and in-form member of the trio, Johannsson, did little to stake his claim to playing time in meaningful matches. As if to drive home the point that club form means little at this level, the AZ Alkmaar striker fluffed a clear chance in the second half.
Meanwhile, Klinsmann's favorite college player, Jordan Morris, entered in the last quarter-hour and did several things that won't slow down the hype machine. And all Wood did was fire home a blistering winner in the 89th minute. We'll call it a mixed bag.
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.