It wasn't a C team opponent, a pushover or a cushy home game, but the U.S. national team's 1-0 victory against a full-strength Poland squad still managed to raise more questions than it answered.
Were there promising signs and reasons for Bruce Arena to feel good about his latest trip to Europe? Definitely. Oguchi Onyewu looks like the type of center back you can build a defense around, Steve Cherundolo removed whatever small doubt might have remained about his hold on the starting right back job and Eddie Lewis staked his claim to the left back job that has been wide-open for years.
So, what is there to be concerned about? Try an offense that floated around like a rudderless ship. The U.S. attack failed to create many truly dangerous buildups against a Poland squad that was hardly applying what could be considered stifling defense. Eddie Johnson and Taylor Twellman waited in vain for service while the central midfield struggled to establish much possession and Kerry Zavagnin did considerable damage to his World Cup hopes.
If you're thinking, "So what, we won the game," you are missing the point of matches like Wednesday's. The U.S. team isn't some upstart trying to prove itself by beating another World Cup qualifier. It is a team trying to shape itself for a potentially strong run in the World Cup. Wednesday was a chance to combine players like DaMarcus Beasley with Landon Donovan, Bobby Convey and Clint Dempsey, and the team did little to show it has an attack capable of creating quality scoring chances against top competition.
This wasn't a bare-bones Japan, a young Norway or even a disinterested Guatemala. This was a quality Poland squad with veteran defenders and quality midfielders. The Poles were the first opponent for the Americans this year that could be considered anywhere near what they will face come June when they play the Czechs and Italy. It was a chance to see how Arena's offense could function without Claudio Reyna.
The results were not good. Donovan struggled mightily to make an impact in this game, thanks in no small part to Zavagnin's shocker of a game. With the central midfield rendered ineffective, the forwards were left to settle for the occasional long ball from the defense. You can hardly call that an offense, and it is scary to think how badly the Americans would struggle against a team with the defensive quality of Italy.
If Wednesday's match proved anything, it is that the U.S. team desperately needs Reyna in central midfield to relieve pressure, win and maintain possession, and provide some direction to an attack that reveals its youth whenever he isn't around. Some fans still maintain the absurd notion that Reyna somehow slows down the U.S. offense because his style differs from the overly precocious attacking approach the Americans display against lesser competition.
Although Reyna is expected back from the broken ankle he suffered two months ago in time for the World Cup, his continued absence is forcing Arena to use Donovan in a central midfield role even as it becomes increasingly evident that, against top competition, Donovan is best-suited as a second forward opposite Brian McBride. None of the American forwards on the field Wednesday did anything to dispute the team's need to start Donovan at forward at the World Cup.
Twellman played his part in the U.S. team's getting a result by getting in the way of Polish goalkeeper Artur Boruc's attempted clearance to help set up Dempsey's goal. What else did he do, really? Twellman's lack of presence helped resurrect the questions about his ability to compete against elite competition. Johnson had even less impact, mistiming his runs and offering little in the way of a dangerous threat to Poland's defense. To be fair to Twellman and Johnson, the impotence of the U.S. midfield left them starving for service, but there were a few opportunities to punish the Polish defense and neither player was able to capitalize on them.
The Americans need a forward capable of producing dangerous chances on his own, when service is lacking and opponents are smothering the U.S. midfield. This is something Donovan has over any of the forwards in the current U.S. pool. His blazing speed and confidence going at defenders is maximized at forward, where he has the freedom to attack and where opposing defenses have a more difficult time neutralizing him. Donovan's attacking strengths work well in central midfield against the occasional papier-mâché opponent, but he isn't about to run rings around the midfields of the Czechs, Italians or Ghanaians.
This, above all, is what needs to be remembered about what is awaiting the U.S. team at the World Cup: Group E is chock full of ultratalented midfields. To have success in this deadly group, Arena needs Reyna paired with either Pablo Mastroeni or John O'Brien in central midfield. These are the players with the technical ability -- and, in Mastroeni's case, the combination of bite and skill -- to keep World Cup opponents from dominating possession and limiting American scoring chances.
Wednesday's match still had its obvious benefits. The defense was extremely promising, and beating a full-strength European squad is always a positive, even if it is a Poland team similar to the one the United States beat in Poland just two years ago. A win is always nice, but the notion that the Americans, "found a way to win" is just a diplomatic way of saying the team won despite not playing well. That might have been good enough Wednesday, but it won't be good enough come June.
Ives Galarcep covers the U.S. national team and MLS for ESPNsoccernet and is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.