Michael Bradley, Geoff Cameron Redefined American Midfield, and Other Thoughts on U.S. Soccer’s Win Over Panama

Eddie Johnson, Brad EvansThe U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team hit its stride a year and a day before the start of the 2014 FIFA World Cup finals in Brazil.

The Americans defeated Panama by a score of 2-0 in front of a raucous crowd in Seattle, Wash., thanks to goals from Jozy Altidore and Eddie Johnson. The resurgent forwards were among those players who came up big, as the U.S. delivered its most complete, effective and entertaining performance of the entire 2014 World Cup qualifying cycle.

The victory put the U.S. atop the CONCACAF hexagonal standings midway through the final round of World Cup qualifying. A few things of note stood out from Tuesday’s game:

Michael Bradley‘s drive and Geoff Cameron‘s athleticism redefined U.S. midfield play. The two center midfielders brought out the best in each other. Bradley, a ball-loving, tempo-dictating type of midfielder, was unleashed by Cameron’s presence. His driving run and pass to Fabian Johnson helped create Altidore’s goal in the first half. It was one of many instances when his influence was felt in the attacking third of the field.

Bradley has played deeper in the midfield — next to Jermaine Jones, who missed the Panama game with a concussion — for much of qualifying. Their classic interchange (Jones stay back when Bradley goes forward and vice-versa) too often fails to link the center midfielders, wingers and forwards together, leaving Altidore and Clint Dempsey wholly dependent on service from the wings.

With Cameron covering lots of ground and destroying Panama’s attacks behind him, “General Bradley” was able to use his quality on the ball and controlled aggression to make plays higher up the field. His passing was near-perfect, as usual, and he popped up in or around Panama’s box to take dangerous shots on a couple of occasions. He makes well-timed runs into the area and gets onto the end of plays better than any other American center midfielder in the modern era. U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann should make the most of this weapon as his team heads toward Brazil.

Cameron replaced Jones on Friday, and his versatility convinced Klinsmann to stick with him against Panama. While he’s a defender by trade, his performance Tuesday brought back memories of his Premier League debut. He played as a holding midfielder one day last August and stifled Arsenal’s attack for 90 minutes, earning “man of the match” honors. Klinsmann wanted the same from Cameron against Panama, according to U.S. Soccer.

“We asked him to win a lot of balls back, cover the two center-backs and have a strong, strong presence in there,” Klinsmann said. “I don’t know how many balls he recovered; he was constantly there. And then we asked him to play it simple, and he did that. We said once you get that ball, then just keep it simple, find Michael Bradley, find Clint [Dempsey], find the players around him and cover our two center-backs. It was a huge performance by Cameron for us.”

U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard praised Cameron’s focus and mobility.

“Awesome performance,” Howard said. “He was strong on the ball, he set up one of the goals, really, really, good. I thought he was dialed in there. It was great to see; he deserved it. He’s easy on the eye the way he moves. He has those long, loping strides and he’s very coordinated. He seems like he’s really calm in that position as well which is pretty awesome. His body language is very calm.”

The Cameron-Bradley axis brought a new dimension to the U.S. attack. By controlling the center of the field, they allowed wingers Fabian and Eddie Johnson to push forward, keeping Panama’s wide players busy with the defensive side of the game. It was no surprise when Johnson and Johnson created and scored goals.

The spotlight was shining on Eddie Johnson at CenturyLink Field, as he shone for his country in the stadium in which his club (Seattle Sounders) plays its home games. I watched him play as a right-sided midfielder-winger in Seattle and couldn’t help but feel a sense of ironic goodwill toward him.

For the first six years of his career, he played as a striker for club and country. In 2008, Fulham paid a reported $6 million to bring him from MLS to Premier League, but he failed to establish himself in England’s top flight — partly because he was often used as a … wait for it … right-sided midfielder-winger. Johnson didn’t adapt well to a new country, position or style of play, and his club and national-team career sputtered for three years.

He returned to MLS in 2012, led Seattle in goals and earned MLS “Comeback Player of the Year” honors. Johnson’s resurgence caught Klinsmann’s eye, and he announced his return to the national team in October by scoring both goals in a 2-1 road win over Antigua and Barbuda. His well-taken goal against Panama merely showed that the rebirth of his career is complete.

Johnson relished playing for his country in front of fans who embraced him as one of their own last year. Seattle fans gave him a huge ovation as he left the field.

“It’s a dream come true,” he said about playing in Seattle. “To play in the U.S. jersey, first of all, is an honor, but to play in front of my fans that I play in front of week in and week out — I couldn’t have asked for a better feeling after the goal tonight.

Johnson wouldn’t have started had Graham Zusi not been suspended (yellow card accumulation). Klinsmann is happy to have the versatile Johnson at his disposal, and he shows it by trusting him at during big games.

“That’s very simple,” Klinsmann said. “Since we try to double our positions and we try to always have somebody behind that is almost as good as the starter. Eddie’s role was if something happens to Graham Zusi or even on the left wing, we can throw him in there even if something up top happens. He has done tremendously and he deserves a huge compliment. Talking about Brad [Evans] before and Eddie, I’m constantly talking to [Soundsers head coach] Sigi [Schmid] here about how they are doing and we kind of have a feeling that we can follow him and help him therefore we were very pleased to have him in such strong shape now.”

Finally, what more can we say about soccer crowds in Seattle? The fact that 53,679 watched the Sounders play the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday, but only 35,000 or so tickets to USA-Panama were sold ahead of the game made some question how much of an appetite fans in the Pacific Northwest had for the U.S. Men’s National Team.

Well, 40,847 packed a reduced-capacity CenturyLink Field on Tuesday. They recreated the atmosphere that we’ve come to expect from fans in Seattle. They set the tone with a stunning pregame tifo display which paid homage to U.S. Soccer history. They were engaged in the game from opening whistle and willed the U.S. to victory with a wall of sound. There was an iconic moment in U.S. soccer atmospheres when chants of “We’re going to Brazil” rang out after Johnson’s goal.

This is nothing new for Brad Evans. He sees and hears it all the time when playing for the Sounders.

“It was insane,” he said. “From warm-ups to thanking the fans after the game it was absolutely nuts, but to be expected. It’s nothing new, so not surprising at all.”

Bradley plays his club soccer at the famed Stadio Olimpico in Rome. He was taken aback by the crowd and the atmosphere it created.

“Obviously for me you can’t talk about the game without talking about the crowd — unbelievable,” he said. “The best crowd I’ve played in front of in the United States without a doubt. From all the players, a big thank you to everyone who was here in the city who makes this a special night for us. People should know the difference it makes when you play in an atmosphere like this.”

The U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team remains a work in progress, but the victory over Panama showed fans what a Klinsmann-led national team looks like when everything clicks. Panama is no pushover, and the Americans will face tougher opponents on the way to and at Brazil. But if they can reproduce that form on a consistent basis, there’s no reason the U.S. can’t make a mark in Brazil … as it did in 1950.

Have a question for Marcus Kwesi O’Mard? Send it to him via Twitter at @NESNsoccer or @mkomard, his Facebook page or NESN Soccer’s Facebook page or send it here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week for his mailbag.

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