Friday, April 3, 2009
Initial qualifiers clarify U.S. team's strengths and weaknesses
Ives Galarcep, Special to ESPN Soccernet
Three games, seven points and plenty learned about strengths and weaknesses.
That is the best way to sum up what the first three games of the CONCACAF Hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying has been like for the U.S. national team. The Americans are in first place in the group, but just as importantly, they are learning about what they can do well, who can and can't perform, and which positions still need work.
As important as garnering points is in qualifying -- and yes, that's ultimately the most important thing -- a prohibitive favorite like the United States faces a higher standard to shoot for than simply qualifying. There is the task of fine-tuning the squad, of finding the best combination of players to help not only qualify out of CONCACAF but to succeed outside of it.
That is especially important given what lies ahead for the U.S. national team this summer. There's the Confederations Cup, with matches against world powers Brazil, Italy and Egypt. Throw in tough qualifiers at Costa Rica and against Honduras at the start of June, and you have as tough a stretch of games as the U.S. national team has ever played.U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley may have moved a few steps closer to finding the best combination to deal with that rough stretch of matches, and it took a harrowing visit to El Salvador to get there. It took watching Heath Pearce struggle badly one more time to know that a new solution at left back was necessary. It took watching Landon Donovan be unable to impose his will on the attack to decide that it was time to try a new way of deploying the U.S. team's most dangerous player. It took seeing Sacha Kljestan be overrun by El Salvador's midfield to see a player who just might not have it yet to excel in road qualifiers. It took watching Jozy Altidore come off the bench and score one more time to realize that for whatever flaws there may be in his game, the kid is a special talent who needs to play.
You learn a lot about people as well as about teams in times of adversity and Bradley learned plenty on that trip to El Salvador. Luckily for him and the national team, plenty of the questions raised in San Salvador were answered in Nashville, where Bradley's subsequent changes paid off and revealed a more dynamic and dangerous starting lineup than even the one that beat Mexico in February.
So what exactly did we learn about the U.S. team in the past week's two qualifiers? Here are some of the highlights:
1. Jozy Altidore is ready
U.S. fans have been clamoring for the young striker to get more playing time. However, his lack of club action, coupled with concerns about bringing him along too quickly and whether he was mature enough to handle starting, kept Altidore from the starting lineup. After scoring the goal to spark the U.S. team's two-goal comeback versus El Salvador, it was clear that the kid needed to play more.
Altidore responded with a hat trick against Trinidad & Tobago, showing off all the strengths of his game and making as strong a case as possible to keep starting. He also showed an ability to play alongside veteran forward Brian Ching, whose presence will help Altidore considerably.
Will his hat trick lead to more playing time at Xerez? That remains to be seen, but you can't help but wonder if the nightmare loan move to Xerez hasn't helped light a fire under the extremely talented but sometimes unmotivated Altidore. Rumblings about his work ethic are nothing new, but the word out of U.S. camp last week was that he was playing with fire and purpose, which just might be as a result of being unable to play at Xerez. Given what he did against Trinidad & Tobago without club playing time, it is scary to think how good Altidore will be once he is in a situation where he is playing regularly.
2. Beasley can play left back
No position has been more of a problem than left back and American coaches have spent more than a decade trying to find a player capable of not only being defensively sound there, but also dangerous attacking from there.
Bob Bradley may have found his man for the job in DaMarcus Beasley, who was impressive against Trinidad & Tobago at the position. While some may have come away concerned because Carlos Edwards managed to get past Beasley on the flank a couple of times, the reality is that Beasley effectively contained Edwards, who was clearly flustered by the speedy Beasley. While Edwards used some good passes to spring down the flank, he never could turn the corner on Beasley, and was therefore limited all match.
That is a pretty solid first foray into the left back position by Beasley against an English Premier League winger and the fastest right winger he will face in CONCACAF. Yes, Beasley still needs to gain experience at the position, and learn the nuances of shifting from left wing to left back, but he has the tools to be the best left back American fans have seen in a long time.
3. Hejduk and Mastroeni still have gas in the tank
When you consider the ages of Frankie Hejduk and Pablo Mastroeni, it might seem easy enough to write them off, but when you watch them play and deliver clutch performances you realize that age doesn't matter when it comes to what they can still contribute.
Hejduk has his flaws, but he has the heart of a lion, a relentless motor, the intelligence that comes with experience and a personality that teammates feed off of. Steve Cherundolo is a more talented player and could very well retake the job when he is fully healthy, but Hejduk is more than capable of holding him off and keeping the job.Mastroeni's return to the national team is an intriguing one because it comes at a time when his position is flush with young prospects. What Mastroeni has over the new generation is poise, toughness and experience that make him a steady performer. He will always carry the stigma of being a card magnet, but his performance versus Trinidad & Tobago suggests that he can still start and play well.
4. New reserve defender options are needed ASAP
The El Salvador match is one American fans would love to erase from their memories, in no small part because of the horrid defensive display put on by some of the fringe U.S. defenders who had been considered viable options. Heath Pearce and Dan Califf didn't get it done against arguably the weakest opponent in the region and aren't likely to play major roles again in qualifying.
So whom will Bradley turn to as cover for Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu? Jay DeMerit is in the mix, though injuries have kept him from seeing much playing time over the past six months. Michael Parkhurst is also an option, though there are still the memories of how overmatched he was at times in the Olympics. Reigning MLS defender of the year Chad Marshall should also be considered an option in the near future, as should Michael Orozco, who is starting and playing well in the Mexican first division.
Left back is another position that still needs reinforcements. Even though Beasley looks like a solution there, he is also a player who is prone to injury. Whether it is Jonathan Spector or Jonathan Bornstein, somebody needs to step up to give Bradley another quality option. We may have to wait until late summer to figure out who fills that role.While we certainly learned a lot about the U.S. team in last week's games, those matches will seem like pop quizzes compared to the big exams looming in June. If the performances of players such as Altidore, Donovan, Beasley and Hejduk are any indication, the lessons learned last week should help the U.S. team be better prepared when it is time to take those tough June tests.
|U.S. men's schedule
|U.S. vs. Costa Rica
At Costa Rica
U.S. vs. Honduras
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN Soccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.