The Evolution of American Tactics, 1998-2009

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Bob Bradley sprung a tactical surprise on all of us Wednesday night when the US shockingly came out at Saprissa Stadium in a 4-3-3. Bradley, for one night junked the 4-2-2-2 bucket that has earned the ire of so many American supporters in the last two years.

This tactical change was just the latest in a long line of sometimes adept and sometimes baffling tactical changes by American managers since 1998. Since our national team has an undefined stylistic approach thanks to not being fully integrated into the football world until the last two decades, the process of developing a style is ongoing and fluid.

I’ll never forget the first time the United States played in a 3-6-1 formation. It was against Paraguay in a friendly in San Diego. Chad Deering who I had never seen play before despite following the national team closely, tucked into the holding midfield role well and scored a goal, in a 2-2 draw. Steve Sampson was further encouraged by a 3-0 win over Austria in Vienna and forced the 3-6-1 wholesale on a group of veteran players not ready to adapt. World Cup 98 proved to be disaster of epic proportions.

Steve Sampson’s tenure taught us one thing. American coaches are never secure with generic looking tactical systems. They continuously feel need to tinker or experiment in order to justify their existence and longevity in the job. In many cases our fans obsession with foreign football and different tactics has led to this tinkering. By constantly claiming our managers are over their heads tactically, our managers try and show that they are in fact somewhat obsessive about tactics.

Not that the fans are all wrong: many American managers are not tactically savvy. Developing an “American style of play” has been an obsession for years now among many fans, pundits and coaches.

Bruce Arena employed a strict 3-5-2 formation he had brought from DC United in the early part of his tenure. But that formation susceptible to counter attacking and leaking goals at critical times was gradually replaced by a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-3-1-2 depending on the occasion.

When Arena switched away from the 3-5-2 he needed a hard man in the midfield to occupy space and allow the talented John O’Brien a freer role in midfield (this was when O’Brien was healthy). Pablo Mastroeni quickly emerged as this man displacing /Chris Armas who was better suited to the 3-5-2 and was injury prone as the holding midfielder.

In the 4-4-1-1, Josh Wolff or Landon Donovan often times tucked in right behind Brian McBride. OF course in the most famous of all US victories, the 2002 World Cup win over Mexico, Arena employed a 3-1-3-1-2 setup, unique in world football and highly successful for this specific occasion.

Arena eventually switched to a 4-5-1 which depended on the effectiveness of the wide midfielders getting into attacking positions. This formation also did not achieve maximum results, but had to be tried because of the weak depth the post 2002 US teams featured at forward. The international retirements of Earnie Stewart, Joe Max Moore, and Cobi Jones eventually left the US with fewer and fewer supporting striker options.

This post is less about providing a history lesson (although it can be seen as a history lesson) and more about demonstrating how often the United States changes formations and tactics whether due to outside influences, perceived pressures or simple managerial tinkering.

10 Comments

  1. bill June 5, 2009
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