A BLESSING IN DISGUISE
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.