EDGAR ZUNIGA - Friday, September 4, 2009
Things are not going according to plan.
With four games to go in CONCACAF qualifying for World Cup 2010, not only has Team USA failed to book their ticket for South Africa, they find themselves precariously close to falling into fourth place.
Just in case you're not aware, the fourth place team will compete in a home-and-away playoff against the fifth-place team from South America for a final spot in the World Cup. While fourth place isn't exactly the end, in a worst-case scenario, that could mean an encounter with a very testy Argentina squad, which is barely hovering over fifth place in South America.
Then again, because anything is possible with this inconsistent US team, if things go nightmarishly bad, they might completely crash out of the World Cup.
Chew on that for a bit.
Over the past two months, the landscape in CONCACAF has been altered somewhat. Where the US once stood, above the rest as king of the CONCACAF mountain, now you will find a smoking crater.
While the dust has settled from consecutive losses to archrival Mexico, the fallout is very much perceptible. Mexico is once again the CONCACAF giant (in case your local Mexican soccer fan hasn't already made this clear) and, suddenly, the other teams in the hexagonal feel they have a legitimate shot at beating the US.
Of course, through it all, Bob Bradley is quietly blinking and observing, with his trademark, tight-lipped expression.
What's on your mind, Bob?
Before we turn our attention to the upcoming qualifying games against El Salvador and Trinidad & Tobago, there are a couple of matters that need to be addressed regarding the debacle at Estadio Azteca.
What was up with that b.s. that Team USA was spewing heading into the game?
Paraphrasing, but it sounded a lot like this, "Oh, we are not really concerned with winning this match. It's okay if we lose because we find ourselves in a better position than Mexico and we are pretty sure we are not going to win."
What the hell is that?
That's the worst attitude any team could adopt on the eve of a big game, especially against their archrival.
No matter what, Mexico is always gunning for a win over the US. You never hear the Mexican team talking about how they hope to come away with a point when visiting the US. That weak mentality doesn't fly in Mexico and it sure as hell shouldn't be acceptable here.
Can you imagine going into a fight, thinking to yourself that it's perfectly fine if you get beat up and mugged? After all, your health insurance will cover anything that happens to you, and bones mend, right?
That might have been tolerable before the early '90s, but since the US discovered that they can compete with Mexico, they should approach every game thinking - knowing - they can win.
The most ironic twist to all this is that Charlie Davies' surprising goal in the 9th minute actually put the US ahead and in position to win the damn game. Whether it was Landon Donovan's bout with Swine Flu or the usual gripes about Azteca, the US wilted under the pressure and Bob's team lost another game in the second half, squandering a terrific opportunity to beat Mexico at home.
It shows once again that Bob is reluctant to change and adjust his strategy when the other team has clearly done so and starts ramming balls down the US goalmouth.
So, up next comes the rematch with El Salvador, which has proven to be a very resilient team on the road. Despite having lost all their matches away from Estadio Cuscatlán, each one of those losses for the Salvadorans has been by one goal. That must be maddening for them.
Meanwhile, the US is hoping to bounce back with a performance similar to their dominating 3-0 victory over Trinidad & Tobago, earlier this year in Nashville. But, will it be business as usual when the US plays at home, or will El Salvador drop the bomb on Rio Tinto Stadium, in Utah?
Now, hold on a second.
There is no way the US should drop any points to El Salvador at home. Yeah, the Salvadorans are feisty and really hungry for their first win away from Cuscatlan, but, in the latest FIFA rankings the US is ranked No. 11, and there is no way that No. 11 should drop points to No. 85, right?
Despite the sarcasm, it would be inexcusable for the US to lose to or draw with El Salvador. The US has never lost to El Salvador at home, having beaten them nine in a row and in 11 of their 16 encounters in the US.
Nevertheless, the speedy and physical Salvadorans are desperate for a win to keep their World Cup dreams alive. To prevent a debacle of apocalyptic proportions, Bob is going to have to rethink his current strategy. Yes, that means the US will have to stop countering and actually employ forward-minded tactics and attack!
If the US is going to have a good chance at beating El Salvador, they'll have to score early and often (if possible). In El Salvador's last two road losses, they gave up early goals that they were unable to overcome.
Bob will have to motivate his troops to push the subject and get El Salvador on their heels from the get-go. Forget scoring one goal and falling back to defend. Just like Mexico had no mercy in the Gold Cup final, the US has to develop a killer instinct and finish strong.
If not, it's a guarantee Team USA will have a difficult time at Rio Tinto and might find themselves in fourth place by the end of the night.
One side story to note is that of Arturo Alvarez, who grew up in Houston, Texas and played for the USA Youth National Team. Alvarez, who plays for San Jose Earthquakes, switched his soccer nationality from the US to El Salvador and made his debut against Trinidad & Tobago.
While this is not on the level of Judaseppe I mean, Giuseppe, Rossi - wouldn't it be weird if he scores on the US?
The US better win that game against El Salvador, because four days later, they'll have to travel to Trinidad & Tobago, in game to be played at Hasely Crawford Stadium, where they lost 2-1 in the previous qualifying round, albeit in a throwaway game after the US had already secured passage to the final round.
Nevertheless, the US has yet to win on the road. It is imperative they finally do so, because looming on the horizon is a trip to Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano in Honduras.
Although Trinidad & Tobago is currently in last place in the hexagonal, they can never be taken lightly. At home, they clawed back to draw with Honduras, barely lost to Costa Rica and defeated El Salvador. In their latest away game, the Soca Warriors had Mexico on the ropes in Azteca, before the Mexicans got a late goal to escape with the win.
What the US better prepare for is a team making a last ditch attempt to return to the World Cup, which makes them dangerous. There is no way the US can view this as a throwaway match, so they better forget about going in looking for a draw.
At the beginning of the year, who would've known that things would have been so tight for the US and Mexico at this stage in qualifying? If the US isn't careful, Mexico might sneak by them for that third and automatic ticket to South Africa.
Then, they'd wish they had approached the game in Azteca with more urgency.
You can never rest easy!