Back and forth we go, and I'm loving it! No burger joint endorsements implied there. Anywho, Mr. Anonymous came through with yet more perspective on the current state of the US National Team in the comments, and I'm obliged to respond in kind, hoping that the match tonight will dispel my despair, but expecting that it will only make me all the more maudlin. Let's address some of those points and then raise another item for consideration.
(1) So what the heck is Bob-ball, and whose plan is it anyway? Do I detect the sinister shadow of Piotr Nowak?
I suppose I should clarify what I mean by Bob-ball, and why I dislike it. Bob-ball seems to me to be more about risk management than about playing a game. It sucks the joy out of the sport for me, rendering the contest an academic exercise or a terrifically boring Power Point presentation rather than a spectacle. It's the limitations of the fixed notes of a keyboard rather than the warped beauty of a theremin. Sure, you can still have the beauty of Chopin on that keyboard, but the goosebumps come far less frequently, at least in my particular case.
And what about the contention that Bob is picking the team and Nowak is pulling the tactical strings? Interesting. Yet also disturbing, considering Nowak's tendencies toward tactical inflexibility (at least when he was with United). True, when United's team was firing on all cylinders under Nowak, their possession was often intimidating. But it was rarely transcendent. Those moments tended to come from the individual skill of the players rather than the movement of the ball. Not exclusively, but in the majority--at least in the haunted chambers of my memory.
Still Nowak laid a good table. The problems came when an unexpected guest showed for dinner. Nowak's tendency was to go down firing by emphasizing his preferred strategy rather than trying to adapt his approach to the situation. So, even if Nowak is driving the boat, Bob's risk management ethos and Nowak's own inflexibility don't fill me with much hope of inspiration.
(2) The target forward, revisited . . .
It seems to me that if Bradley's approach is a quick, short-passing game--pin-ball soccer through the middle, if you will--then the qualifications for what defines an effective target forward change substantially. Aerial considerations mostly go out the window. Instead, technique and vision, and to a lesser extent, acceleration and strength, become paramount (as you alluded to). The "new target forward" needs to be able to control the quick ball on the ground to either (1) use his strength and technique to maintain possession before playing the ball (back, square, or through) for onrushing midfielders or (2) continue a darting run behind the defensive line to finish the move.
That's a tough ask to find all that in a forward, particularly in the current US player pool. There are guys coming through the system who fit the mold, particularly Altidore (as you mentioned). I've also seen glimpses from some of the current U-17 crop, and, to a lesser extent, the last group that made their way through Bradenton. Interesting times, and not the time to be Kenny Cooper. Sure, he's got strength, technique, and finishing in his bag, but I've rarely seen evidence of an ability to play with his back to goal in the middle of the park. He seems to want to drift wide and face up to defenders--which is probably where I'd want to try him anyway. Which leads into my next bit of tactical discussion . . .
(3) Wherein we look at width.
This has been a problem with United's play over the last couple of years, and seems to be invading the US approach as well. Possession is indeed half of the battle--you can't score without the ball. But for a possession game to be truly dangerous, you need quality width. Yes, as you pointed out, this often comes in the form of rampaging wingbacks (pity so few of ours can cross!), but it also requires wingers to say wide, thus stretching the defense and creating gaps in the middle that can be exploited by the ping-ping of the short-passing game.
Unfortunately, and this can either be attributed to (1) Bob not having (or not calling up) the right pieces to the puzzle or (2) the players ignoring tactical instruction, our wide midfielders tend to drift into the middle, thus clogging the space we want to be playing in. Yes, it's good to mix things up and have them assault the middle once in a while, but when nobody is consistently hugging those touchlines, the field becomes narrower, and thus more difficult to penetrate.
There was also reference made to wanting to play possession ball through the middle. Isn't this what has been the DC United bugbear? It seems counter-intuitive to try and play possession soccer consistently through the middle. That only leads to defenses packing that area, forcing the attack to . . . play wide to get around them. And we're back to square one. Where is the danger coming from in the wide areas? If it's to be the fullbacks, so be it. But we need fullbacks who can run with the ball and, much more importantly, cross. Besides Cherundolo once in a while, where is that going to come from. Hejduk? ;-)
I'd also argue that width is where Cooper might prove useful. You admitted that our centerbacks, not the most gifted of passers, often resort to the dump it down the wing style of attack. Perhaps with a bigger guy on the wing who might actually reel in a few of those less-than-accurate balls, rather than say, DMB, what seems an endemic weakness might be converted to a opportunity. Not that I'm advocating this style of play--I'm just presenting it as a lemons to lemonade scenario.
Okay, I'm fairly certain that I missed something in all that, and perhaps we'll witness the dawning of new era of American footie this evening that will make all my arguments collapse about my ears like soggy cardboard. I tend to doubt it, but here's raising a glass in continual hope. My reaction to tonight's game probably won't be posted until Thursday evening or Friday morning owing to time constraints, but I look forward to continuing the discussion.
Oh, before I forget. Did anybody happen to check out these statistics over at the US Soccer website? Fascinating stuff. I know numbers can be manipulated to show what you want to see, but I just wanted to point a few out. How many shots did our forwards have in comparison to the men behind them? Ugh. Sure we had a 60/40 advantage in possession, but note the number of final third entries (80 to 73) and penalty area entries (24 to 21). That's what I'm talking about with Bob-ball. We've got possession, but what the hell are we doing with it? Anyway, let's all get behind the boys tonight and we'll convene tomorrow or Friday to keep the discussion going. Anybody besides Mr. Anonymous who wants to chime in? Feel free, I know you're out there.