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Playing to its strengths sends USA to World Cup
by Ridge Mahoney, October 12th, 2009 7AM
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[WORLD CUP 2010 QUALIFYING] The USA played to its strengths and Honduras played to its weaknesses Saturday night in San Pedro Sula, and by the margin of a single goal did the Americans win, 3-2, to clinch their place in the 2010 World Cup. By using balls in the air effectively, the USA exploited a shaky central defensive pairing of Maynor Figueroa and Osman Chavez, and put enough pressure on keeper Noel Valladares that he misplayed all three goals to some extent.


Though Valladeres foiled Charlie Davies in the first half by brilliantly parrying his point-blank header, created by a trademark Stuart Holden outswinging cross, he couldn't bail out his teammates when they needed him.

Valladeres came off his line far too late to deal with the Davies flick-on from a long Oguchi Onyewu free kick, and Conor Casey easily nodded it over him into the net to tie the game. When Casey broke in alone 10 minutes later on a Landon Donovan through ball, Valladares froze himself in no-man's land, and Casey easily stroked the ball past him.

Donovan nailed the third goal with a superb free kick that Valladeres, off-balance, barely managed to wave at. The Honduran keeper came up with a couple of saves near the end to keep his team in the match, as the Americans took a few greedy cracks at a fourth goal before playing keepaway for the final minutes.

Honduras hurt its cause and helped that of the Americans by committing a few of the same errors that had plagued the USA in the Hexagonal. After scoring first, Honduras quickly conceded an equalizer; it gave up another goal when a through ball split open its central defenders; and its propensity to foul in its own defensive third conceded a free kick that was exploited. All of those sound familiar.

However, the Honduran history of choking in critical Hexagonal games, as it did in 2001 when qualification seemed guaranteed, recurred when Carlos Pavon hammered a penalty kick over the crossbar in the 87th minute.

A deflected ball had bounced off the right arm of Holden in the goalmouth, and had Pavon converted and the game ended 3-3 the Americans would have taken the field against Costa Rica at RFK Stadium Wednesday needing at least a tie to clinch a World Cup spot. Instead, it is the Hondurans, which play at San Salvador, that needs a win to have any chance of finishing ahead of Costa Rica in third place.

Critics of the national team bemoan the reliance on a big, target striker, but when the big man is the young Jozy Altidore, and he throws a Spanish international off this back to score a spectacular goal, as he did in the Confederations Cup, the tactic draws praise. Yet for Altidore and Casey and Brian Ching, the men who usually toil in that role, the reward is more often winning free kicks and carving out space for someone else.

Whoever plays that role, it can be a long, lonely slog if no one is partnering him efficiently. Critics of the national team lambaste the players and Coach Bob Bradley for what they perceive as a flawed system that yields uninspired play, yet few successful teams field two forwards with similar qualities except in special situations. And against Honduras, hitting occasional high balls for Casey and Davies, and attacking at speed produced three goals in the absence of Clint Dempsey, perhaps the team's best pure finisher, not to mention Altidore for most of the match.

Davies had his good moments and bad moments in support of Casey, who has yet to cement his place in the 23-man World Cup squad and like many of his teammates, takes plenty of heat for lack of pace and other perceived deficiencies. Earlier in the decade when he started his national team career the criticisms were much the same, and after knee surgeries and other injury issues he's not any faster.

He'd gone through 14 previous internationals, dating back to 2004, without scoring a goal, and lately had been netting for Colorado mainly from the penalty spot. Whether out of desperation or inspiration, his coach called upon him, and he responded.

This game also emphasized the team's shortcomings. There is not enough defensive pressure on the flanks, and too many balls are served uncontested. Individually and collectively, the back line needs to be tighter and better synchronized, and more aggressive getting to knockdowns and second balls. When players on the dribble drag players through midfield, lanes and gaps are filled too slowly.

Yet as they did at the Confederations Cup against Egypt and Spain, and nearly so in the final against Brazil, the Americans displayed steel and resolve and poise and teamwork, which sometimes override systems and formations.

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