EXPLORE ALL THE OPTIONS
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.