A BLESSING IN DISGUISE
RECAPS
PREVIEWS
EXTRA TIME
BRIAN SCIARETTA - Thursday, September 10, 2009
If you ask most fans of the USA national team, chances are they will say that they are not enjoying this version of the final round of World Cup qualifying, commonly referred to as the Hex. When compared with the tournament in 2005, it is easy to understand why.

This Hex is far more competitive and challenging than the one four years ago. In that tournament, the USA qualified for the World cup with three games to spare and were never in danger of not qualifying.

This year is a far different story. The United States has faced stronger competition and has played several games in which they were forced to get a result or else face the humiliation of missing its first World Cup since 1986. At a time when the sport of soccer is trying to emerge as a major sport in the United States, having the national team fail to qualify for the World Cup could have devastating consequences.

The truth of the matter, however, is that playing such a competitive Hex could prove to be far more beneficial than the easy 2005 version. There is a skill and mentality that is acquired by playing in so many must-win games that it could pay benefits next year at the World Cup. To qualify out of this year's Hex, teams will have to play smart soccer but also with a sense of urgency.

Granted, the USA has gone through times this campaign where they have not played their best. Wednesday night's victory over Trinidad and Tobago, like most road World Cup qualifying victories, was a very unconvincing contest. The USA will have to play much better if they want to advance out of group play in next year's World Cup. Despite not playing their best, the USA was able to get a much needed 3 points and move into first place of the Hex and four points clear of fourth place Costa Rica.

The last time the USA had such a difficult qualification was in 2001 when after the 8th round of the Hex they found themselves in 4th place. At one point they had lost three games in a row. If not for Trinidad and Tobago's stunning upset of Honduras on the road, there is a good chance that the USA's run to the quarterfinals in the 2002 World Cup never happens.

The increased competition that year proved to be very valuable to USA coach Bruce Arena and the USA team. That Hex allowed the USA to come together and introduce young players like Landon Donovan, Clint Mathis, and John O'Brien into an environment where a lot was always at stake.

Arena was also able to properly evaluate his team in a competitive environment and then after qualifying, introduce players like Demarcus Beasley and Pablo Mastroeni who played little or no role in qualifying. The challenging Hex, combined with a strong set of friendlies leading up to the World Cup, allowed the USA team to take the field in South Korea with confidence and swagger.

Four years later in Germany, the USA took the field at the World Cup and played terrified and with a total lack of confidence. A lot of this can be traced back to the Hex in 2005 where the teams were weaker and the USA was able to qualify without intensity and with questionable tactics. The eight months between World Cup qualifying and the World Cup saw Arena not make any significant changes to the team. There was no accurate barometer to measure the team's ability.

This year's Hex is shaping up to be more like the 2001 version where there are four strong teams who rarely drop points at home while the bottom teams also remain competitive. When combining the ten games of the Hex along with the five Confederations Cup matches, USA coach Bob Bradley will at least have the opportunity to learn about how his team is able to compete in serious matches that friendlies cannot replicate.

Whether or not Bob Bradley makes the necessary adjustments remains to be seen, but the opportunity for solid evaluation has been there in 2009. Bradley has shown that he is far less automatic with his roster selections than Arena was in 2005 and is more flexible than some of his critics say.

During qualifying, regulars such as Heath Pearce, Demarcus Beasley, Eddie Johnson, Pablo Mastroeni, Sacha Kljestan, Brian Ching, Steve Cherundolo, and Danny Califf are no longer as likely to see playing time as they once were. Also during this qualifying, players like Jozy Altidore, Charlie Davies, Stuart Holden, and Jonnathan Spector have emerged as key players. An easier World Cup qualifying campaign may not have lead to the necessity of making these player changes.

While this very competitive Hex has exposed the weaknesses of some of the American players and has allowed Bob Bradley to introduce different players, many other questions and areas of concern have emerged. It remains to be seen how or even if Bob Bradley can solve these problems.

If the USA wraps up qualification next month, as expected, the benefits of playing a competitive Hex could be significant. The team will have gained experience in playing in the pressure of must-win games, and Bob Bradley will have a clear list of where the team needs to improve during the eight months before the World Cup.

The easy Hex of 2005 did not give Bruce Arena the indication of what areas of the team needed to be improved. Whether or not Bradley will make the necessary changes remains to be seen and the success of his coaching tenure will largely depend on what he does the next nine months. Nothing can change the fact that 2009 has been a great year for learning and that is an important prerequisite for the supreme challenges that lie ahead.
C.C.
Saturday September 12, 2009 1:15 am
Question Bob all you want, but he is not going anywhere for a year. I am not a big fan, but I am not hurt about his son getting to play either.
Possession the Ball!
Saturday September 12, 2009 1:10 am
If the best Bradley can do is praise his come from behind wins at home, and against weak teams, then they need to dump him. Anyone who thinks Ching is world class is a soccer idiot! Even against the weakest opponents, he's always the slowest and least skilled player on the pitch. Heck, there are coaches better and quicker than Ching. The fact that the US lost 2-1 against Mexico, in Mexico, with Ching starting shows what potential the US has -- not to mention LD having the swine flu.

Bradley sucks. Bradley has zero national team experience as a player, and zero professional experience as a player. And it shows in his tactics, his stupid long ball giveaway strategy, and his inability to sub timely and intellegently...

We need to get Feilhaber and Holden in there to control the ball with LD. Adu has no position to play, DMB is a consistent dud, and Dempsey is consistently lazy and coughs it up on the wing. However, Dempsey is a great choice as 2nd half sub up top. Torres deserves a chance, too.

Did I mention that Bob Bradley sucks?

And what about that dominant defensive mid from the Bundesliga that's now allowed to play for the US Nats with the recent FIFA rule change? The problem is that Bradley won't EVER bench his son, no matter how his son plays.
Ilya
Saturday September 12, 2009 12:05 am
Phil,
We need at least one more central defender. I do not see anyone good, but we have to find one. Cooper and Adu are questionable. And I prefer Keller over Perkins. Also, I still believe in DMB resurrection.
Kaiser Soze
Friday September 11, 2009 1:55 pm
C.C.,

I never stated that MB should not be in the pool, and he should even play to some degree. You stated that he is in the top 18 and I do not disagree. I guess I get ruffled when the line-up always must include him, unless he subs himself by collecting yet another red card resulting from an ill-advised late challenge. We play four in the back and then sprinkle on two more defensive mids, and of the choices at that position one must be MB, without question? He may end up being third or fourth in the depth chart with everyone healthy (Jones, Edu, etc.) then we will see if I have any grounds to what I am saying. Why don't you read about the current situation at Gladback where the manager benched him because he did not respond well to criticism and direction. Of course no problem with the Nats.

We could not hold and distribute the ball at T&T because BB left our two creative mids on the bench (Feilhaber, Torres) but do not question BB lest you be a traitor. How about a manager with no ties, simply to evaluate talent, unlike now and with Arena (UVA, DC, etc.). Similarly look at BB's ties (MB, Sacha, Bornstein, etc.).

I understand that BB's job is the safest of almost any nation in the world, maybe that is part of the problem.

Thanks to Ben & Ed C. for their well written input.
The Union Jack
Friday September 11, 2009 1:08 pm
phil - I like the line up. I would only switch out Adu for Ching. Not that Ching should see significant playing time but you need another true forward since Duece mainly plays mid and has some recent success up top for us.

Brian you stated in the article "To qualify out of this year's Hex, teams will have to play smart soccer but also with a sense of urgency". The sense of urgency is still lacking. The team has not qualified yet. And there are realistic senarios in the last two games in which they will fail to get the third spot. We needed these last six points. Not getting all six would have put us in harms way. But how the team went about it was reminiscent of the Italy and Brazil Confed Cup games. No soul at USSF should be breathing easy right now.

We could learn something from the Mexicans. Two months ago their backs were on the floor. Now (and I hate to say it) they are playing the best out of all the team in the Hex.
Ben
Friday September 11, 2009 7:41 am
Kaiser Soze,

While it is uncommon for such a father/son pairing to occur, it is not unheard of. There are several examples in baseball and at Man Utd, Sir Alex gave his son Darren his first team debut in 1992. Granted, the following season Darren was sold to Wolverhampton. A father/ son combo will always bring questions until one or the other does something to prove that it is simply a player/coach relationship on the field, i.e. selling him to another team or benching an underperforming player.

Phil - I have to give you props. Thats a great looking line up and one I am sure that many U.S. fans would love to see. My only question is what other young players would you have in mind should Freddy's loan move not work out?
Ed C.
Friday September 11, 2009 3:36 am
I agree with having little Bradley on the team, because he is one of our best 23 that should go to the WC but again, here I go again, harping on about getting rid of his father. Its like a dictatorship really - nobody voted the guy in, nor did we, the fans, vote in an US Soccer people, and this is what we're stuck with!

phil has my vote too!!!
Scott
Friday September 11, 2009 3:28 am
I agree completely with the idea this article presents. You do not get better playing easy games. You get better when you are challenged. Bruce Arena made the arrogant (go figure) mistake of thinking that it was because of his fine coaching and perfect line-up selections that the US was so easily the best team in the Northwestern Hemisphere.

Phil, I love the line-up. I'm so sick of watching garbage like the 1st half in Trinidad where there's 3 passes (or less) and a long ball played to the opposing keeper (or even the sideline ball boy). I watched the Mexico-Honduras game after the US game and the ball control that the Mexicans displayed was really enjoyable to watch (and it creates many more opportunities than the hopeful long ball).
C.C.
Friday September 11, 2009 1:10 am
I am so sick about all of the father/son carping going on among supporters. The reality is that Bob is your coach (at least until this time next year) and Michael is easily one of the 18 best players we have. Get over it already.
Kaiser Soze
Thursday September 10, 2009 10:50 pm
Phil for USSF president, and soon. Read Phil's post. You are not alone out there my friend, well done.

Phil since we seem to be on the same page, can you comment on how in the Wide World of Sports the dynamic of a father and son can even occur at this level? Even if both were deemed the absolute top choice (not even close) it has to raise questions/criticism.
Page 1 of 2
1 2  Next »
ADD YOUR COMMENTS
Name


Email (will not appear on the site)


Comment


Join the YA Email Alert?

Comments are moderated and will be posted if they are on-topic and free of profanity, abuse and spam. HTML and links are not allowed.

SUBMIT COMMENT

A big question for U.S. fans heading into the World Cup is surely on Jozy Altidore and just what is plaguing the young striker at Sunderland.
RECENT POSTS
USMNT - Mexico ratings
Green must avoid Adu-like hype
Tension with Russia creep in
Decisions await Johannsson