Road to the World Cup: Five Thoughts After the Latest Qualifiers

Sean HeffernanContributor ISeptember 13, 2009

SANDY, UT - SEPTEMBER 05:  Clint Dempsey #8 of the United States slides to get the ball against Marvin Gonzales #3 during the FIFA 2010 World Cup Qualifier match between the United States and El Salvador at Rio Tinto Stadium on September 5, 2009 in Sandy, Utah.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

This week we saw all over the world a number of countries beginning to make their way toward South Africa, where in 272 days, World Cup 2010 will begin.

The United States took two steps closer to qualifying with two hard fought victories against El Salvador and Trinidad & Tobago. Many complained about the Americans difficulty defeating two teams who on paper were significantly inferior, but in World Cup Qualifying a win is a win.

It was a great week for the Beautiful Game. So without further ado here are my thoughts...


Will the World's Two Best Players Miss Out on the World Cup?

Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are widely regarded as the two best footballers in the world, but it is very possible that they won't take part in the upcoming World Cup.

Messi's Argentina lost twice last week at home to Brazil and then again days later away to Paraguay. As for Ronaldo, his beloved Portugal won a crucial game against Hungary 1-0, but will have a tough fight in the coming months to earn a playoff spot in their group if they want any chance of making it to South Africa.

Argentina is currently in fifth place in South America and would have to face the fourth place team from the US's group in a playoff if they held their current position.

Who doesn’t want to see the best players on Earth play on the biggest stage there is in sports? Each player led their clubs to the last two Champions League titles.

Ronaldo is the most complete attacker in the world. He can score in any way imaginable on the pitch:  the run of play, free kicks, long range bombs, headers, etc. The 24-year-old just left Manchester United for Real Madrid on $132 million deal making him one the most expensive athletes on the planet.

Messi won the Champions League with FC Barcelona over Manchester Untied this past season displaying his world class playmaking abilities. The young Argentine can change direction with the ball like Barry Sanders and create scoring opportunities out of nothing.

Despite both players brilliance, their countries are in real danger of not qualifying. It would be a shame if these two athletes, in their primes, on top of the world with their clubs, don't even make it to South Africa.


Remaining Questions for the USMNT

The United States should always beat El Salvador and Trinidad & Tobago, but US fans can't expect them to blow them out every time they play. The US on Wednesday won a crucial match against T&T in the Port of Spain 1-0, putting themselves on top of their group.

The top three teams make the World Cup automatically in the region and with Costa Rica looking terrible the US are pretty much are a shoe in for 2010.

At left back the US continues to struggle and former Mexican international Edgar Castillo, who was recently cleared to play for the United States, should get a real shot at the position. The only viable option head coach Bob Bradley has is moving over Carlos Bocanegra over to left back and playing Jay DeMerit in the center with Oguchi Onyweu.

Jonathan Borenstien's ill-fated clearance gave El Salvador an early lead last Saturday. The US cannot afford mistakes like that in the future. To Borenstien's credit he did have a better game against T&T, but not good enough to inspire any kind of confidence in US Soccer fans.

Bradley could consider some new faces from MLS like Tim Ward of the Chicago Fire or Todd Dunivant of the LA Galaxy, but the coach doesn’t have a whole lot of time to make up his mind before next summer.

The US needs to improve on how they start games. They have given up to many early goals in qualifying and against better teams they won't have a chance at coming back. The second half of the T&T game was the first time in as long as I can remember that the US really possessed the ball for long periods of time. Once the Americans started sitting on the ball they took control of the game which resulted in the lone goal from Ricardo Clark.

After a frustrating first half, Michael Bradley stepped up his game, distributing the ball out of the midfield with accuracy and grit. If the US can possess the ball consistently good things will happen.

The Battle for the Midfield

The other position battle is in the middle of the field, where US coach Bob Bradley's son Michael Bradley has been a constant in qualifying. Ricardo Clark, Benny Feilhaber, Maurice Edu, and Jose Francisco Torres have also been in the mix for the position in the past year.

Clark scored the crucial goal against T&T on a wicked bending ball from outside the penalty box and is rumored to be moving abroad after this season with Houston. Feilhaber could be the best passer the US has outside of Landon Donovan, but looked better on the wing as a substitute against T&T as he did when he started against El Salvador in the middle.

There is a growing movement within US fans who want to see Jose Francisco Torres play more. The Mexican-American has been a solid contributor down in Mexico for his club Pachuca and showed promise when he's donned the Red, White, and Blue.  T

orres really can play anywhere in the midfield for Bob Bradley which helps his chances of making the team in 2010.

Former Toronto FC man Maurice Edu was making his case earlier this year for as he worked his way into the starting lineup at Rangers. Edu was part of the Rangers squad that won the league title and the domestic cup in Scotland this past season. However, Edu had surgery on his knee in the off season and is slowly making his way back to the field.

If Edu wants to be considered for the US team he will have to get healthy as soon as he can and get back into the Rangers roster.

The wild card in the battle for central midfield is German born Jermaine Jones, who is on the verge of becoming eligible to play for the United States. The 28-year-old is one of the best defensive midfielders in Germany with a knack for shutting down the center of the field and just being a bad ass.

He's also known for speaking his mind freely and we shall see if his personality fits into Bob Bradley "group" mentality. To get an idea of both the good and the bad that comes with the Schalke midfielder check out this video.

In 2007 Jones helped Schalke advance to the quarterfinals of the Champions League. From the video you can tell he has a temper as in one clip he freaks out after being given an unjust yellow card for a superb tackle he made and earns himself a red card for dissent.

Jones is coming off a hair-line fracture in his leg and has recently returned to training with Schalke and could be available for the US's trip to Honduras on October 10th.

We obviously have a real depth in the central defender role and we don't have anyone in our player pool who can be a Xavi or Steven Gerrad so why shouldn't Bob Bradley play two central defenders in the midfield. I almost wish Bradley would play a 4-3-3 with Jozy Altidore, Charlie Davies, and Clint Dempsey up top and Donovan in the midfield with two central defenders ( i.e. Bradley, Jones, Edu, or Clark).

I'd personally rather have Dempsey up top where he's more comfortable than have him doing tricks with the ball in the midfield. I doubt that Bradley would veer from the 4-4-2 with less than a year to go to the World Cup, but it’s just a thought.

The left back spot no matter what will be a question mark going into South Africa, but the race for the central midfield will be the most interesting by far on the US national team.


England Continues to Dominate

With England's thrashing of Croatia 5-1, the Three Lions are through to the World Cup after Wednesday's victory. One thing England really has going for them is that they have two of the best midfielders in the world in Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

You know Lampard and Gerrard are going come through for their squad whether it’s for club or country. Both Englishmen just have a hero quality to them that few players truly have. The duo had two goals each in the drubbing of Croatia (whom happens to be ranked 9th in the world by FIFA). England was expected to win at home in Wembley, but not by that margin.

One question mark is finding a striking partner for Wayne Rooney. Manager Fabio Capello has been starting Emile Heskey who has only scored seven times in 56 appearances for England. One would think Jermaine Defoe would be considered in that role as the Tottenham man has been red hot of late for both England and Spurs.

Defoe has scored 11 goals in just 36 appearances. He's smaller than the physical Heskey or 6'7" Peter Crouch, but if he keeps scoring goals the way he has than I don't know how Capello can keep him off the pitch.

Now that the English are qualified for the World Cup, it will be interesting to see how Capello experiments with his team for the rest of their games. There’s still a lot of time from now until next summer, but presently England looks like a force to be reckoned with.


Knock, Knock. Who's There? (Slap) KGB! We Shall Ask the Questions!

The Russians are coming! Andrei Arshavin and company defeated Wales and Lichtenstein over the weekend leaving themselves sitting in second in their group behind Germany. If Russia can win at home against the Germans on October 10th they’ll have a very good chance of winning the group.

In what could prove to be a crucial blunder Germany tied Finland 3-3 last October currently leaving Russia just one point behind the Die Mannschaft.

Russia’s captain Arshavin is playing brilliantly for Arsenal and looks to be worth every penny the club spent on him. Striker Roman Pavlyuchenko has been on form for his country scoring five goals in World Cup qualifying while Zenit St. Petersburg's Konstantin Zyryanov has been a creative force in the midfield for the Russians.


Look for Russia to surprise a lot of people next year in South Africa as they did at Euro 2008.


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