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What the USA is still missing
by Ridge Mahoney, September 4th, 2009 7AM

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[WORLD CUP 2010 QUALIFYING] Since the 2006 World Cup, the USA has tried to replace veterans whose poise and toughness in critical situations carried the team through some very precarious moments. More than three years later, and with less than a year to go until World Cup 2010, where stands the process of filling the voids left by Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride and Eddie Pope? Has the coaching staff unearthed in the current player pool their characteristics, and not just in the players who might fill similar positions or roles on the field? Qualities personified by those three players have yet to emerge on a regular basis, which is one reason a team that beat Egypt and Spain and stripped Brazil of some samba at the Confederations Cup could struggle against El Salvador Saturday in Sandy, Utah (ESPN Classic & Telefutura, 8 pm ET), and in Trinidad next Wednesday.

Not since Reyna retired has an American shown his cleverness at varying the pace and direction and rhythm of possession by holding the ball as well as running with it or passing it. Calmness and patience and diversity in attack, especially against a bunkered-in opponent, is still hit-or-miss. Having a lot of the ball doesn't guarantee a lot of success.

There are slashers and workers aplenty in Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Charlie Davies, Brian Ching, et al, yet all need to show savvy as well, especially Donovan. So, too, must the central midfielders: Michael Bradley has a good sense of when to sit, when to go, and where to play the ball; Ricardo Clark has incredible range but not the same tactical acumen; and Benny Feilhaber's immense talent requires higher doses of deception and disguise. Jose Francisco Torres, another young player of incredible promise, has hardly been tested sufficiently to evaluate, yet plays for a top Mexican team, Pachuca, which holds its players to very high standards of team sense and individual skill.

The courage and goalscoring prowess of McBride, who in his careers for club and country has suffered enough serious injuries to force several normal players into retirement, cannot be replicated in a single individual.

Brian Ching isn't that guy, yet he's just as honest and fearless, has taken his own share of severe injuries, and is just as willing to absorb fouls and fight for balls in the air and harass opponents and do drudge work to clear space for others. If Davies and Altidore can channel enough of that spirit into their efforts, and there are signs that both young men are made up of the right stuff, the Americans will carry the same persona that moved Fulham management to re-name its pub at Craven Cottage after their former forward.

Pope could be quiet and modest and unassuming, at least on the surface, but in every artery, vein, capillary, and organ ran the blood of a competitor. Unless his body betrayed him, if a dire situation required a sharp slide tackle, or 50-yard sprint, or desperate lunge, Pope could make the play.

Frankie Hejduk embodies never-say-die intensity in an exuberant manner, Steve Cherundolo is quieter yet no less focused. Yet both of them are right backs, and in the middle controlled fury is essential. Carlos Bocanegra often wears the captain's armband, and though vocal, his composure sometimes wavers, and recently he's been moved to the left-back slot.

As a central tandem Oguchi Onyewu and Jay DeMerit can be strong and solid, yet against El Salvador both may be missing: Onyewu is suspended and DeMerit has been bothered in training by a tweaked hamstring. Both are good players; can either be a dependable leader? Chad Marshall's maturation into a leadership role helped carry Columbus to the MLS title last year, and Jonathan Spector has a powerful presence that will blossom and strengthen once he earns regular time. As individuals as well as collectively, this group has some growing still to do.

The American players have stated the methods by which they earn six points in the next two games won't be nearly as important as simply doing the math. There will be all manner of media and fan speculation about formations and tactics and player selection, as if high performance can be selected as easily as Door 4-4-2, or Door 3-5-2, or Door 4-3-3. The right game plan is necessary, and so is the right mindset.

Power - and that's what it is, this meld of mind and body and will - to withstand bad breaks and funny bounces and determined opponents must come from within; thus comes confidence to beat weaker teams, and courage to battle the best. Some players display this trait some of the time, which in the toughest times isn't enough.

Games seven and eight of this Hexagonal pit the USA against the weakest, and thus most desperate, opponents.

 

Wins in both are quite possible, but two or three players stepping up probably won't suffice, since with Altidore, Bocanegra, Cherundolo, Clark, DeMerit, Dempsey, Donovan, Feilhaber, and Conor Casey all one caution shy of suspension, the lineups might change drastically, and so there needs to be more than a chosen few capable of big plays, and brandishing big hearts.



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