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BRENT LATHAM - Friday, October 16, 2009
Yuri Cortez/Getty
Torres could be a revelation
When I wrote a month or so ago – before the El Salvador qualifier – lamenting the tight spot the US had gotten itself into in the Hex, I mentioned the possibility that the US could simply prove its regional superiority by winning its next three or four matches and erasing all doubts about the trip to South Africa, without a pressure packed final showdown in Washington, DC.

The tense moments Wednesday against Costa Rica, even with nothing on the line but pride, demonstrate why Bob Bradley and his team deserve a lot of credit for having done just that, if not exactly in the triumphant fashion that we might have hoped. If that Carlos Pavon penalty kick goes in instead of over the bar, the Nats might have been looking at 2-0 deficit and a road trip to Uruguay 25 minutes into the Costa Rica match.

But winning three hexagonal games in a row, two of them on the road, is no small feat, so first let's give credit where credit is due. Victories over El Salvador, and Trinidad & Tobago on the road, have been hard for teams to come by this year, and beating Honduras in Central America had been impossible until the Americans managed it.

The Hexagonal was a rocky road this go-round, not only for the Americans but for a pretty good Mexico team as well. While plenty of ink had been spilled on the struggles of the "giants of CONCACAF," few have taken the time to note what should have become obvious months ago.

This Hexagonal was a qualifying "perfect storm," of sorts, one that would have left a lesser American team on the outside looking in.

The vagaries of qualifying in this region mean classification from the Hex is as much an exercise in chaos theory as it is in quality soccer. With only three spots up for grabs (the playoff lifeline is a shaky one at best as we all know), given the off possibility that there are four teams that outclass the other two by a long way, the dynamic becomes an unforgiving one in which any slip up can amount to doom.

Bruce Arena has been adverting for years that the day will come when the US will fail to qualify for a World Cup, and this Hexagonal provided all the necessary factors to make that day the present. The stars are not likely to line up this way again for years, maybe decades.

The US dodged a bullet with aplomb, so give the Americans a little bit of their just due for escaping. But that doesn't make everything all right in the US soccer camp.

In addition to the confidence and sense of accomplishment inspired by the recent unbeaten streak, the manner in which the Americans suffered in each of their final four matches should provide a clear warning that improvement is needed if the US is to succeed at next year's World Cup.

Resting on the laurels of qualification and thinking that this team is good enough to do well in South Africa in its current form is a recipe for disaster. The team and style of play that got the US through a ten game qualifying tournament in CONCACAF will not necessarily get the Americans anywhere in the World Cup, and Bradley will need to realize that if the Americans are to succeed on their second visit to the Continent in the span of a year.

What US fans should fear most at this point is any false sense of security that arises from this qualifying triumph, and prevents the Americans from raising their game to the next level by next summer.

Without listing all the individual players involved again, there are a number of personnel issues that need to be answered still. To compete at the World Cup, the US still needs improvement across the back line, a consistent second and third option in the center of defense, a more solid destroyer in midfield, and a frequently dangerous secondary option at forward.

That's quite a laundry list, but the good news is that potential solutions are available almost across the board, and they all should be tried between now and next summer. The danger – and this is a real one given Bradley's reticence to try new options - is that the coach puts on blinders and tries to mold the core group he is working with into the solutions to all his problems, adding only experienced but limited veterans to fill holes rather than looking to improve with a wider pool of options. That's one reason it was disappointing to see so little experimentation in the Costa Rica match –which should have been a pretty good chance to test out options and build a little depth.

Another issue just as urgent as the personnel conundrums is that of style of play. The Americans seem to have developed a pair of frustrating tendencies which could thwart any chance of emerging from their group at the World Cup.

The first is the preference for longball when falling behind. If the US insists on whacking the ball hopefully up the field when it falls behind in the group stage – which it almost certainly will sooner or later – then the chances of advancing will be greatly reduced.

A long service into the box actually paid off in the clincher against Honduras when Conor Casey scored what amounted to a fortunate goal to tie the score, but that sort of strategy, equivalent to playing a soccer lottery, is not likely to get the US very far against the quality they will face in South Africa.

There does look to already be some improvement on this front, and it was inspiring to see the US control the ball for most of the match while down against Costa Rica. We need to see more of that in matches that actually count for something.

The second issue to be addressed is the flip side of the coin. The Americans simply must play with more confidence when they get the lead in important matches, looking for the killer goal rather than bunkering down in back and hoping for the best. El Salvador, Trinidad and Tobago, and especially Honduras all managed to create ample dangerous chances in the closing minutes with the Americans holding on desperately to leads they needed to keep.

The CONCACAF rivals, especially Carlos Pavon and Honduras, blew their golden chances, but the opponents of the class the US will need to beat to reach the knockout stages at the World Cup likely will not. We have all criticized Bradley's overly defensive tendencies in the past, but there are times in a match – up 3-1 with 15 minutes to play on the road in a game in which a win means World Cup qualification, for example – when an extra defender or holding midfielder would be a good thing.

As important as playing from behind with a cool head, Bradley and his team will need to learn to control tempo and possession when ahead in the next few months. In that mold, Jose Francisco Torres is the best number 10 we've got, and he should be on the field much, much more, as the American game changes when it works through him at the crux of the attack. A potential central midfield tandem of Torres and Jermaine Jones would be something to behold from both an offensive and defensive standpoint.

The danger, again, is that the qualifying success convinces Bradley that the status quo is the best possible scenario, and these tantalizing options are tossed forever into the dustbin, that Jonathan Bornstein's last minute heroics Wednesday preclude experimentation with Edgar Castillo, that Jimmy Conrad and Chad Marshall are anointed the de facto backup central backs without experimenting with other options, and so forth.

Still, leaving the need for future tinkering aside, each match of this Hexagonal was a dangerous trap that, style points or no, the Nats managed to navigate adequately to achieve their primary objective. Along the way, the team has been steeled by high-pressure moments at every turn, experiences that can only help when the pressure is really ratcheted up at next year's World Cup.

That's the best reason to now expect more, not less, out of a battle-tested team at next year's World Cup. But that improvement will only come with diligent and aggressive work in the meantime towards building depth and opening up new tactical options.
chris
Saturday October 17, 2009 9:43 am
nice flatliner. I thought this article was good. i've been saying for a long time that the US style of play has been terrible for a while. long ball and bunker ball are not boring, but are completely ineffective. Torres needs to start in the middle of the field (another midget flatliner) but BB doesn't like him for some reason. when JJ arrives i expect to see MB and him paired up. not the best pairing, but BB isn't going to sit junior. Finally Castillo can't be a worse option than bornstein, who i think is terrible. Unfortunately that late goal is going to be used as justification to keep him in the lineup for a while.
flatliner
Friday October 16, 2009 10:01 pm
no, richard, he won't. mainly because the world cup's soccer not futsal, and midgets have a hard time keeping pace.
dave
Friday October 16, 2009 9:31 pm
you're absolutely 100% correct.qualifying for the WC doesn't mean we don't have issues that need to be resolved.dempsey/altidore should be the starters up top and a jones/torres combo sounds great but our backline is very troubling.when gooch does return he will be extremely rusty and i really don't think he should start.i hope bradley gets a creative streak and finds the answers but at this rate i think we will have a talented yet flawed team come WC time.we can always hope they will stick us in a group with a couple of minnows.
Richard
Friday October 16, 2009 9:08 pm
Will Freddy Adu ever get an opportunity to play? To at least be a 2nd half sub?
tom
Friday October 16, 2009 9:03 pm
paul, your comment makes no sense. jones will be back playing by december, plenty of time. players who are less impressive relative to their teammates have come back in shorter time periods to play for their national teams in the world cup - totti in 06 comes to mind quickly. my biggest worry is jones will be paired with bradley, meaning our ball control and possession abilities will still not change. but brent, great article. all in all, it's impressive that the US got through on top of the group but we'll never do well in the WC like this.
John from San Luis Obispo
Friday October 16, 2009 7:56 pm
I agree that work remains to be done. First, Denmark is a good, but not great choice, for a first friendly. BB needs to mix in some South American and African qualifiers (or near-qualifiers) to let the team play against different styles of play.

I have a hard time seeing how BB could leave his son off the team, especially when the other center mids have not exactly lit the world on fire. Pairing MB with Torres or Feilhaber may work (and if Edu can get healthy and return to form, he could slot in as well). MB is not as bad as people make out... he has a nose for goal for a center mid and does not mind doing the dirty work. Though his penchant for picking up cards is a problem; however, let's not forget that his red in the Confed Cup against Spain was unwarranted and could have happened to anyone.

I do like the idea of putting Donovan as the withdrawn striker with Altidore. Dempsey could fill in for Davies as well. Bornstein has drawn scathing comment but, looking at the Costa Rica game, he was quite useful, got forward, and put a number of good crosses in frm the left. His finish was surprising but also clinical (that is what you do with open headers form 10 yards out)!
Chad
Friday October 16, 2009 4:57 pm
I would like to see the U.S. experiment with Dempsey up top with Altidore, where Dempsey's tendency for laziness wouldn't be such a liability and his moments of "magic" would be invaluable. Pushing Dempsey to forward would allow Holden more playing time in right midfield. Another option would be Dempsey at forward, shift Landon to the right, and play Torres on the left. However, I was impressed with Torres in the middle against Costa Rica. His passing and distribution were very accurate and precise and he controlled the flow of the game well. Hopefully we can line up enough friendlies to experiment, assuming Bradley is willing to experiment.
Paul
Friday October 16, 2009 4:33 pm
Brent,

I know you really do not think BB would use a central midfield of Torres & Jones for the WC, but, I think the real question is would any other coach? What I mean is if you had (you name the coach) other USMNT coach they would replace thier central midfield pairing with a player (Jones) who has not play club ball for like 18 months just because at club level he is an excellent destroyer? When the last time this guy played a meaningful national team game for anybody? It will be MB with BF, ME, RC, JJ, JT you pick...I am sorry Brent in the words of a famous NFL coach the USMNT is what it is and BB is who he is....This team will be good enough to get out of the group stage or it won't ....IMO BB would only pay musical chairs with one position max and which one I do not know
Nick
Friday October 16, 2009 4:17 pm
The theme of the blog is spot on. Long way to go and many issues which need to be resolved. Some seem to think that because we qualified we should all be joined in celebration and anoint BB as a hero...but in reality we've made the WC like 5 times in a row now with different guys at the helm only to fall on our face at the WC.

I really don't see Davies being able to make it back for this WC. That is a HUGE blow and I don't see an immediate option to replace him.

Gooch's injury will put him out until January. Pretty much killing any chance of him being loaned out somewhere during the transfer window. So he will have to jump back into the fight for playing time at Milan. It's possible he could have little to no competitive action by the time the WC roles around.

Add to that a shaky defense as of late and the unknown about BB (like what hes going to do when Edu, Jones, Castillo all become available) and I'm a bit concerned...we'll have to see.
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