Under Bob Bradley the USMNT has become reliant on set pieces for scoring and quite possibly more dependent on its center backs than any top 50 national team/photo from US Soccer

For all the criticisms of Bob Bradley’s tactics by commentators including myself, the continued success rate the United States enjoys on set pieces is remarkable. This is all the more remarkable when you consider the trouble the United States had scoring on set pieces in the 1999 to 2003 period after Eric Wynalda, Marcello Balboa and Alexi Lalas all outstanding in dead ball situations were off the national team. The resurgence of quality in these situations could not have come at a better time: It seems obvious that the United States does not have players with the on the ball skills or finishing ability to consistently score in the run of play. Or perhaps American managers do not know how to tactically put talented players like Landon Donovan in a position to succeed without relying on his dead ball skills.

If you eliminate the two matches against a completely outclassed Barbados team, six of the eight goals scored by the United States this year have been scored from set pieces. Of these six goals, four have been scored by the Center Backs, Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra. In other words in matches against
competitive opposition, chances are the US will rely on set pieces to score and additionally the chances that a non striker or midfielder will be the difference maker is also high. This is because in Bob Bradley’s “bucket” system the idea is to absorb pressure and to selectively counter attack. The intent of counter attacking by the US since 2007 has been largely to create corner kicks or free kick opportunity rather than to actually place a shot on goal.

Tactically it is extremely risky to rely on this sort of play. The inability of American strikers to finish and American midfielder to hold the ball or create chances may be why Bradley feels such a scheme is necessary. Very few national teams with the sort of perceived talent the United States has plays such a strange tactical scheme. At the very same time, very few international managers have two center backs like Bocanegra and Onyewu at their disposal. While it can be argued that one or maybe both are actually liabilities on the defensive end, both are deadly accurate when receiving service in dead ball situations. Watching as much international football as I do, I must state that I don’t know of two other center backs in the world who score as many goals with as few opportunities. John Terry, Rafa Marquez and Juan have all scored goals for their nations, but they do not I would venture to guess score as often in limited opportunities as do the two US backs.

The reality of the situation is this: the United States may have superior or inferior talent to most of its opposition in CONCACAF. But in fact right now it does not matter because Bob Bradley feels he has found a formula that works: sit back for much of the match and then hit the opposition not with a classic counter attacking goal but on a corner kick or free kick which is often times inevitable in a match. Bringing up the two center backs who are both physical and athletic causes problems for CONCACAF sides with smaller and less athletic players. Until someone in CONCACAF can shut down Bocanegra or Onyewu in the area or prevent the US from getting a Landon Donovan, Eddie Lewis or DaMarcus Beasley set piece, Bradley is going to keep his tactics consistent.