Look, it is well known and established below that the United States has had a few issues in being as impressive as we know after this summer they are capable of being in the last two qualifying matches. Tonight’s match in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago is one more chance for the U.S. to play the complete game it is capable of. Let’s put the cookies on the lowest shelf too: The United States has to play a huge game tonight because these three points are the ticket to South Africa.
If the United States doesn’t want to play two games against two of the top three teams in the Hexagonal that matter next month to close qualifying, a win against the struggling Soca Warriors is essential. The logjam at the top of the Hexagon sees the Yanks in second on goal difference, but with Mexico at home tonight, a tie or loss will see them AT LEAST TO THIRD. And with Argentina’s struggles well-documented– yeah Diego, we’re ALL LOOKING AT YOU HOMEBOY-– the fourth place CONCACAF ticket has about a 50/50 chance of being a Sarah Palin death-panel ticket to a two game playoff tie with the Argentinians, which essentially means what a death-panel suggests– eleven Argentinian men more or less get to decide whether or not the fourth place CONCACAF side travels to South Africa or they do. My bet in that matchup is on Leo Messi.
While T and T is struggling, there are three things that make the qualifier immensely tricky.
One, the Soca Warriors want a repeat trip to a World Cup and three points is the only way that dying dream remains an ember and not black ash.
Two, the game is on the road where the U.S. has lost twice in qualifying and managed a desperation point thanks mostly to Frankie Hejduk, who for whatever reason, is not on the roster at this point.
Third, the Soca Warriors have upgraded coaches, players, and attacking savvy since we traveled to Nashville to see Jozy’s coming out party. While you wouldn’t know from the beating they took Saturday, a 4-1 clubbing at the hands of Hexagon leader Honduras, they’ve upgraded in the back with Bolton Wanderers starter Jlloyd Samuel, and they’ve added Deuce’s pal from Europa group stage team Fulham, West Ham youth product Bobby Zamora.
Couple that with the ever dangerous Kenwyne Jones, who you’ll recall nearly put the Soca Warriors ahead 1-0 five minutes into the game in Nashville, and you see the challenge facing the Yanks tonight in the Port-of-Spain.
These challenges all melt into the overarching problem with the Yanks of late– which is building possession from the back and taking the initiative in attack, especially on the road. While as Raf noted there were glimpses of this Saturday, the U.S. has yet to demonstrate it can sustain midfield possession in a game on the road, much less build attacks and possession from the back. Much of this is the fault of Jon Bornstein, who seems absolutely uncomfortable when he goes forward (sad, because this is supposed to be a strength), but it is an immense problem nonetheless. To make matters more complicated, the U.S. was excellent in this regard against the Soca Warriors in Nashville in this facet of the game, but much of that had to do with the success of Frankie Hejduk terrorizing the Trinidad flank for the majority of the evening. Since the Dude isn’t walking through the door tonight,
the U.S. will likely try to build that possession with Jon Spector again or with Carlos Bocanegra, neither of whom are greatly comfortable in this role. Spector has played adequately, but not as well as he did in South Africa this summer, of late, and quite frankly, as Steve Davis notes, it would do a great deal of good if someone at West Ham would decide exactly what position it is that Spector plays. Until that happens, he will continue to exist in a sort of Mike Mordecai meets Ryan Church’s talent level type state of being where he is adequate everywhere but not particularly great anywhere.
The problem with Bocanegra playing on the left in this game and helping build possession is further compounded because this is a tactical area of the game where you would feel a tinge of concern. Certainly the Soca Warriors have a player in Carlos Edwards whose pace can exploit Bocanegra. Boca will have to be careful about going forward (that is, more or less, he’ll need to mostly avoid doing it at all), and pay constant mind to his positioning, because he won’t be able to recover from mistakes easily because of Edwards’ pace.
These negatives aside, in all other aspects of the game, and with Gooch back from suspension to contain Jones, the US defense matches up well with T&T’s attackers, and should allow the 4-4-2 to open up scoring fairly easily for the US, particularly with Davies’ pace and work-rate being something that the T&T backline is ill-equipped to deal with (and, one should note, has never faced before — Davies didn’t play in the last match against T&T, and I suspect he will be a nasty surprise for the Soca Warriors).
The bottom line is that someone needs to understand that on the road it is important to maintain a semblance of order and possession, and that more build-up is required in attack. Clint Dempsey disappears in road games at times because only MB 90 and Landon Donovan seem to have the situational sense to realize that you can’t always blitzkrieg while on the road– sometimes you need to be patient and hold the ball. Couple more intelligence on this front with more solid hold up play from Altidore and Davies, and the U.S. may find a great deal of success tonight, especially given Trinidad’s precarious position in the Hexagon. Many teams are content to settle for 1 point against the Americans in the region, and if they capture three- well, terrific. Tonight, the Soca Warriors need three points and certainly T and T coach Russell Latapy and assistant Dwight Yorke may be tempted to push forward more in attack, a style that would benefit the lethal American counterattack. We shall see.
Either way, an American loss means only one thing– next month’s qualifiers will have a death panel feel, and the Yanks will find themselves certainly not assured of a trip for the first time since 1990. That would be a national tragedy, because this is the best talent pool in American history. Given these circumstances, it’s safe to say it has been a while since an American road fixture took on this meaning, but these things happen when you tie at El Salvador in a game you should absolutely win.