After the near debacle in El Salvador, relief and some peace of mind returned to me this past Wednesday as the USA defeated Trinidad and Tobago quite handily in Tennessee.
World Cup qualifiers are not intended to be easy, but we’ve gotten to the stage as fans of the sport in America that we should qualify rather easily for the World Cup using a simple formula: win at home, and win or tie on the road.
The team has obliged us fans so far, and we sit somewhat comfortably at the top of the regional CONCACAF table with 7 points after three games.
A couple of World Cups ago, our play and personnel now would be seen as real progress. Making the World Cup with regularity? Check. Have many players suiting up for teams in Europe? Check. Making the quarterfinals of the World Cup and winning the Gold Cup? Check and check.
This progress, however, belies the simple fact that there are mirages to our success. In other words, what we see on the field, such as against Trinidad, is both a facade and provides us clues as to where trouble lies ahead.
The good? Obviously, it’s great to have young players like Jozy Altidore step up. He will be a fixture on the squad going forward. We also know we can rely on veterans like Pablo Mastroeni and Frankie Hejduk right now to carry us through.
We beat a team we had to, and looked impressive at times on both sides of the ball. Bob Bradley, to his credit, made changes after the match against El Salvador and they worked.
The bad? Well, that’s where things get interesting, and in some ways, there are more questions than answers at this point. But what I can say dispositively is that this team will not have success in tournaments against the top teams in the world, let alone against the top regional competition, unless we get better—fast.
I believe our formula for success in the recent past against good teams has been to have a mindset of playing without fear and with passion. To use our athleticism and work ethic combined with aggressive play.
Essentially, when we’ve played well, we’ve taken it to our opponents. Look at our run at the 2002 World Cup. We had young players who went straight at our competition, we played hard and we played with some flair and creativity.
We nearly made it to the semi-finals playing in that fashion.
But how are we playing now? Just watch the El Salvador game to get an idea of what we have become. Listless, scared, unaggressive, lacking any creativity by not trying to link up and string together some passes and incorporating movement off the ball. Against T&T, we resorted to just kicking the ball upfield in hopes of it landing at one of our player’s feet.
I argue that we need to blood in our young, creative attacking players and shore up our defense. I think that Bob Bradley learned that just because a player is not getting playing time with club, that he can still contribute to the US team.
In that instance, I believe Freddy Adu needs to be given plenty of playing time with the Nats so he help create, run at defenses, and create for his teammates. Have him play behind Altidore with Jozy as the lone striker (sorry Ching) and I think we have something special.
We also need to make adjustments to our defense. I’m not convinced yet that DaMarcus Beasley is the answer at left back. I say let’s try Michael Orozco or Jonathan Spector there.
Maybe even try moving Carlos Bocanegra to left back and inserting Jay DeMerit next to Oguchi Onyewu in central defense. I think if we improve our defense, then it opens up the door for us to be creative and attacking offensively.
I’ve always felt that in soccer, the best defense is a good offense. Right now, we don’t keep possession of the ball and continually give it away in midfield to inferior teams.
If we continue to play this way, we will be in for a serious reality check come this summer against Italy, Brazil and Egypt in the Confederations Cup.
The bottom line is that we need to get our defense set so we can put in more attacking-minded players up top, otherwise we will be a very one-dimensional team and opposing sides will need only watch our near loss against El Salvador to game plan against us.
We’ll find out in two months whether Bradley will make the changes needed to improve our team or if we will continue to just plod along and make the World Cup, but get easily handled by the best in the world yet again.