KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Darlington Nagbe looked right at home in the U.S. national team midfield. Michael Bradley fit in a deep-lying midfield role.
Still, their impressive work together in the second half of Wednesday's 1-0 win ovr Ecuador doesn't have coach Jurgen Klinsmann ready to lock in his first-choice midfield for the Copa America, which begins June 3.
MORE: Copa America schedule | Nagbe stands out vs. Ecuador | American defenders' test
The American side is in Kansas City for Saturday's final pre-Copa match, against Bolivia. Then it's off the California, where the Yanks will face Colombia to begin June's tournament involving the best teams in the Western Hemisphere.
Klinsmann acknowledged that he came away impressed with how Nagbe and Bradley looked on Wednesday, particularly Bradley's efforts as a pure defensive midfielder, a role he hasn't play a ton for the U.S.
"It's definitely an option to have and an option that can work very well," Klinsmann said of using Bradley in a more deep-lying midfield role. "It always depends on the other elements around. This is when you go from a 4-4-2 into a 4-3-3 or you play a 4-2-3-1 with two holding midfielders. It always changes with who you have around and how you put the puzzle together at the end of the day.
"The puzzle with us is a different puzzle than Toronto, so you can never say, 'OK, this is the club situation. It should be the same with the national team.' "
While that might be true, it isn't a coincidence that Bradley looked so comfortable playing in a more defensive role for the U.S. He spent the early 2016 MLS season playing a much deeper midfield role for Toronto FC than he has before, and while it has reduced his attacking impact with TFC, Bradley has helped make Toronto tougher to play against.
Klinsmann knows what sort of conduit Bradley can be between the defense and attack, but he prefers his influence closer to goal than too deep on the other side of the field.
"I think the major point that we want Michael to do with us is receive the ball higher up, not coming back and picking up the ball from the center backs," Klinsmann said. "This is huge because otherwise we lose one passing option in midfield. When he receives the ball behind the opponent's strikers or midfield, then we can start the game, really. This is a point that we discuss many, many times. If he can always stagger higher up and receive the ball there out of the center in a No. 6 role, I think it can work really well."
For a good while the U.S. has lacked reliable options in the middle of the field that could maintain possession and circulate the ball cleanly, which has often left Bradley with even more responsibility as the stabilizing force in the middle. Nagbe looks more than capable of giving Bradley someone he can combine with, and someone else who can keep the ball under pressure.
"Darlington as a player, with his elements and his game, is very technical and explosive moving forward. It's nice that he grows more and more in our group and gives us that element," Klinsmann said. "Over time, you want to see more and more that the players put their own stamp on the team with their personality and hopefully making some difference with some killer passes in his position, like he did now.
"You also need to give players time to grow into that role" he added. "Obviously, there is the competition with the ones that are already here. That's just normal for every team. You just want to see him become consistent, demand the maximum out of himself, go both ways. You have to grind it out defensively as well. That's an element that he has to learn with us because he's not asked to do that role. He has Chara to do that in Portland most of the time. It's just a normal process he is going through."
Bradley wouldn't come out and say he prefers playing deeper in midfield, but the sense you get from is response is that he believes he can be a difference-maker in that role.
"For me, the ability to play in different ways in the midfield depending on the game, depending on the opponent, depending on who I’m playing with on a given day, is something that has been useful," Bradley said. "But I feel like I have good things to add to the team playing in that spot a little deeper, but ultimately the decision is not mine, and you step on the field ready to give everything you have every time."
Before you go penciling in Bradley and Nagbe as starters against Colombia on June 3, consider something else Klinsmann said about using Bradley as pure defensive midfielder.
"Sometimes, it depends on the opponents. If the opponents come with a 10, a real playmaker that needs to be tightly marked, then you have an option with Kyle Beckerman where Kyle is going at that guy," he said. "It really depends on every game situation, but it's a good option to have."
With James Rodriguez expected to be pulling the strings in the Colombia midfield, Klinsmann could still go with Beckerman in the Copa America opener. That said, Bradley and Nagbe have given Klinsmann something to think about as he settles on his midfield starters.