World Cup Qualifiers

Three Points, And That's About All – Blackmon

A Ricardo Clark howler set up by (Who Else?) Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan gave the U.S. its first three road points of the Hexagon and vaulted the Americans to the top of the group and ever closer to South Africa 2010 last night in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. That’s about all you can say about the game that doesn’t involve guarded optimism or outright criticism.

The good news now is that it would take a monumental collapse in the final two games, especially given Costa Rica’s defeat against El Salvador last night, for the Yanks not to qualify. That couldn’t be stated with anything but optimism before the result last evening. The Yanks essentially need one point in their final two matches to assure themselves of a spot in South Africa (loss to Honduras is okay if they tie Costa Rica @ RFK on October 10).

The bad news is that the campaign itself seems to be limping along. The heroic night against Spain and the first 70 against Brazil seem to be fading into the Caribbean night, and the Americans are playing a brand of soccer that at best is serviceable and utilitarian and at worst is downright mediocre. San Jose Earthquake Cornell Glen just missed sending tremors throughout the region when his chipped shot beat Tim Howard in the 30th minute after Carlos Bocanegra and Gooch had taken a nap on a throw in, only to have his effort denied by the woodwork. Tim Howard made a brilliant save on a T and T free kick a few minutes later that kept the Yanks, who played most the first half without a pulse, alive.

Ricardo Clark’s goal in the 62nd minute was just what the doctor ordered, and it was orchestrated by the Yanks only real midfield attacking presence of the second half, Landon Donovan, who cut back to the middle of the field off a nice Clint Dempsey feed and fed Clark the ball he was touch once and let loose. Making the goal even more fortuitous was the fact that Stuart Holden was about to come on for Clark, who had been more or less an enigma wrapped in invisibility for the first sixty minutes of the match. Which leads me too…

Bradley’s lineup choices. I don’t get it. I don’t understand his damned determination to play a double destroyer formation that features two holding midfielders. While Benny Feilhaber wasn’t spectacular off the bench, at least he offers an attacking pulse in the center of the field. Last night, no such pulse was present outside of Donovan drifting to the center. While MB 90 played his best game since the summer, he was much more unsettled in the second half and committed a few turnovers that were the result of unnecessary forced movements of the ball. As for building possession from the back to the middle– the best illustration of the American inability to do this occurred after the goal, when Spector and Oneywu worked nicely off one another and Bradley continued the distribution train they had set up near the center of the field. As the Yanks found good attacking spaces as a result of this calm passing, Oneywu, rather than working the ball to the middle, where Clint Dempsey was headed to help, made the puzzling decision to play a long ball to Charlie Davies, which was well over his head and retrieved easily by T and T goaltender Clayton Ince. It is these sort of choices that make the backline last night, and the lack of Frankie Hejduk on this roster (until Edgar Castillo arrives), even more puzzling. There is no serious threat from the American back who offers good possession. So what do about this dilemma ? The answer is complicated.

As CNN SI writer Ridge Mahoney notes,Jon Spector can be such a threat, as he is very comfortable on the ball, but he had his hands full with T and T side back Carlos Edwards last night, and smartly decided that he needed to be cautious going forward. Spector was burnt by Edwards pace early, but never allowed the Ipswich winger to get in front of him, and that is all you can ask.

Jon Bornstein was much better last night (quite good in fact), but his man to mark, Hayden Tinto, is an MLS caliber player who the World Cup won’t serve to Bornstein on a platter. At the end of the day, the Yanks will need Castillo or a rejuvenated Cherundolo to step up and solve the possession in the back problem, especially if The Dude is not on the plane.

The Americans must be better in attack and in possession and take the initiative against lesser opponents, or else they will be punished, perhaps as early as next month in Honduras, where they face a squad who was quite frankly unlucky against Mexico last night, losing on a phantom penalty in the box converted by Blanco in the 74th minute. Possession and composure in the back is essential on the road, and despite sluggish performances last night by Clint Dempsey and Charlie Davies, the active and confident performance by Jozy Altidore at least hints that the Americans will be rewarded if they are better at being patient with the ball.

As for Bradley, one wonders why he went back to the well with Bornstein instead of Cherundolo last night, though he was rewarded by Bornstein’s performance. One wonders about the Clark/Bradley pairing, which offers little in attack, though he was rewarded by Clark’s splendid strike. Better to be lucky than good ? Maybe. Or maybe he is limited by the absence of likely starter Maurice Edu, whose two-way game makes the American midfield immediately better. Jermaine Jones is in the discussion as well, and as you know, neither were available last night. We’ll see if they are in the mix in the final two games, but given Bradley’s penchant to remain conservative, it seems likely that they’ll both only see the field when qualification is assured, which means not until after the trip to Honduras. For the sake of the American attack, let’s hope that is not the case, and hope Edu’s knee is fully healed.

For now, we and Yankette Audrina Patridge will have to settle for a Ricardo Clark howler, and hope that Audrina’s howler film Sorority Row is as satisfying as the three points the Yanks earned last night.