Okay. So before everyone jumps off a cliff– let’s accentuate one positive. The United States, thoroughly outplayed for 70 plus minutes, managed to play 20 minutes of soccer the way they are capable of playing and tie a game in San Salvador that they had no business getting a point in. Jozy Altidore was masterful off the bench, and his brilliant touch in the interminable stoppage time should have led to three points from the jaws of zero– but Brian Ching, one of the only reliable players on the field for the United States all night, hammered his shot right into the chest of the El Salvador keeper Saturday evening and later had a bicycle kick fall four yards shy of three points and one of the more glorious comebacks in the history of the U.S. Men’s National Team. Regrettably, outside of the continued dominance of Michael Bradley, who is quickly (hush…don’t say it too loud) becoming America’s finest player not named Tim Howard or Steve Cherundolo…I have now run out of positives, and as Jon and I prepare to depart for Nashville, I leave you with some general musings and frustrations.
There are so many negatives from Saturday night’s epic 2-2 draw in El Salvador in front of 30,500 maniacal fans of the team in blue and white.
First, the obvious— El Salvador, a side ranked 106 in the world, is the worst team in the hexagon and most the teams in the group will think they can access three points on the road there. This puts the United States in the precarious position of being atop the hexagon alone but feeling it must win against the islanders from Trinidad Wednesday evening– because the other sides will feel they can overtake the Americans with three points in El Salvador. Certainly this will be Mexico’s view. What looked like an unstoppable qualifying run– the smoothest American run yet– has now become a dogfight, and a daring and dangerous dogfight if there is no result Wednesday against a Trinidad side that with Sunderland striker KeWayne Jones has the best striker in the entire qualifying group, with all due respect to Yanks are Coming Hero Brian Ching and Mexico’s elite European benchwarmers. Quite simply, there is now very little margin for error and the U.S. may have to hope to qualify the old way– 3 at home, 1 on the road, and zero at the Azteca.
Second, we miss Steve Cherundolo at the back, and we miss him a bunch. Heath Pearce gave the nightmare performance this blog has been afraid of since he claimed the starting spot on the left. His passing was horrible, his pace was slower than he has seemed in ages, and he took a horrible angle on Quintanilla goal that opened El Salvador’s account. Steve provides stability to one side– and we need him fit. In the interim, Jon Spector, the fine young defender who has aided West Ham United’s run at Europe and his impressed none other than Gianfranco Zola with his recent form– deserves a look and deserves one now. That position, in any scenario– is one that is wide open heading into the meat of the hexagon.
Third, despite Jozy Altidore’s mesmerizing performance, European benchwarming is having a destructive impact on our national team’s form. I don’t know why this hasn’t been more emphatically emphasized by other commentators– but let’s shoot straight. Is it not clear that our best players are the ones consistently on the field abroad: Michael Bradley will get relegated but is the best player on his Bundesliga side and will find a new home next season. Bradley’s work ethic is tireless and he was deservedly gassed when replaced in stoppage time. Clint Dempsey was a bit erratic with his passing at times but all in all was the Americans finest starter on the pitch Saturday, and his long ball to Brian Ching set up Altidore’s finish that gave the Yanks life. His form at Fulham, who is making its own run for Europe– is unquestioned and he is even begrudgingly admitted to be, among the English Craven Cottage faithful, the best player Fulham has. Beyond those two, Danny Califf, who was decent Saturday but is slow as a turtle, and Howard– the other field players in Europe can’t find the field and the impact of that is performances like the woeful efforts of DeMarcus Beasley Saturday evening and the absolute disappearance of the Yanks only global “brand name”, Landon Donovan. I understand that marking Donovan is more or less the strategy of all American opponents- but it is imperative the Americans get more out of Landon than he offered Saturday, and in fact, against Mexico.
Fourth, changes to the lineup are inevitable but let’s hope Bradley doesn’t get carried away. Sacha Klejstan is either suffering from Samson syndrome since the haircut, or, more likely– simply had a bad night. His defensive prowess against Mexico was eye-opening– but Sacha’s game is offense and his passing was poor and led to his replacement by the exciting young Torres Saturday. While Torres excited with his play– rushing him into the lineup seems a strange and reverting to Pablo Mastroeni, while safe in qualifying, does little to help the Yanks future prospects. As much as Bob Bradley is correct in arguing that qualifying is not about “the future” or giving players a long look– it should still be about putting the best team on the field in 2010– and Klejstan is critical to that goal. Klejstan played awful– but his creative potential and danger on free kicks is necessary and to this point far more proven than those of Jose Francisco Torres, a fine young player in his own right who brings more pace than Sacha but is not as creative a passing force. Both players aren’t yet 23, but this blog would stick with Klejstan.
Spector is worth a look at left back, as discussed above. He has more pace than Pearce, and is accustomed to flashy wing play which is the cup of tea of the year in the EPL. The U.S. will need that presence against speedy T and T winger Carlos Edwards– and Bradley is left with little choice. Beyond that, Brian Ching continues to be the most steady presence at Striker, but it is infinitely possible that after a maestro substitute performance that should make the Xerez coaches acknowledge their anti-American bias and laugh at themselves– Jozy Altidore will be on the field. One option is to pair Ching and Jozy together– which pushes Donovan into a midfield role, a move which may utilize Landon’s great skill at running at defenders and allow Bradley to replace another European outcast– Glasgow Rangers DeMarcus Beasley. Whatever happens, the U.S. must play more attacking soccer against T and T– and stop being so cautious. Home crowds often create that type of confidence– but home draws and losses in World Cup qualifying do much to erode confidence. That’s why Saturday makes Nashville a now or never, far too early in qualifying.