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Left-side challenges persist
by Ridge Mahoney, January 22nd, 2010 7AM
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[USA-HONDURAS] The dramatic goal scored by Jonathan Bornstein last October for the USA against Costa Rica capped one of the sport's best feel-good stories of 2009, and it also highlighted areas of concern to the team and head coach Bob Bradley.

Bornstein's header in stoppage time of the final 2010 World Cup qualifier earned the USA a 2-2 tie and sparked wild celebrations in RFK Stadium -- and near-hysterical pandemonium in Honduras, which by virtue of that goal pulled even with Costa Rica on points and edged the Ticos on goal difference to finish third in the Hexagonal and avoid a playoff. In that playoff, Uruguay eliminated Costa Rica.

Bornstein's goal added layers of adulation for him in the land of the Catrachos. While it couldn't clinch his quest to establish himself as the starting U.S. left back, it certainly didn't hurt his cause. And he may get another chance to nail down a World Cup berth when the USA faces Honduras yet again in Saturday's friendly at Home Depot Center (TV: Fox Soccer Channel, Galavision, live, 9 pm ET, 6 pm PT).

Bornstein's chances are greater than those of Robbie Rogers, whose swerving corner kick Bornstein drilled into the net to earn the USA the tie, top spot in the Hexagonal and eternal gratitude in Honduras, whose fans had sportingly applauded the Americans off the field four days earlier after an electrifying 3-2 win in San Pedro Sula. Yet during the Hexagonal, and at the Gold Cup and Confederations Cup also played this year, the USA hasn't always looked secure on the left side.

LEFT BACK. The cast of candidates at left back includes Bornstein and Heath Pearce, who last summer joined FC Dallas and played mostly on the right. Bradley cited their mano-a-mano competition as one of the training camp's early highlights; somewhat quietly, since so much else was going on in 2009, Pearce started more Hexagonal matches, nine, than any other player. Bornstein has greater pace and a better left foot but, as a converted midfielder, is still figuring out the nuances of a very demanding spot on the field. Pearce is a natural defender but has much still to prove.

So far during his tenure, Bradley has seldom elected to use his rugged, left-footed captain, Carlos Bocanegra, at left back. At the 2006 World Cup, Bocanegra replaced midfielder Eddie Lewis at left back after a 3-0 blowout imposed by the Czech Republic, and he's played there the past two seasons for French club Rennes, but as of now, this starting spot looks to be a two-horse race.

LEFT MID.There are myriad candidates, including Rogers, at left mid, where the inconsistencies grew so glaring in 2009 that the team turned, again, to its attacking default, Landon Donovan. The move also showed a disquieting lack of depth, which might be mitigated in the coming months if DaMarcus Beasley can stay in the picture at Glasgow Rangers. With Beas back on the beam, Bradley can use Donovan or Clint Dempsey at right mid, or toggle them between that spot and second-forward, as he's occasionally done since taking over the national team more than three years ago. Bradley needs enough quality in other positions to have the option of playing one of them up top, since gambling on a 20-year-old Jozy Altidore in a World Cup is risky enough by itself.

Without a crafty, clever, quick partner - be it Donovan, Dempsey or the badly injured Charlie Davies - Altidore will flounder against good defenses. And without strong left-sided play, the Americans will be predictable and easier to defeat. In the 2006 World Cup opener, a collapse on the left side provided the Czech Republic an opportunity to score in the first five minutes and take command of the match.

Also on the training-camp roster is Alejandro Bedoya, who has yet to earn a cap and has played just one season in Sweden for Orebro after leaving Boston College. He's a good, left-sided option for down the road, yet, ironically, has already lasted longer in Europe than did Rogers, who came back from Heerenveen in 2008 after just nine months and admitted he wasn't ready to make the move.

By inviting an original roster of 30 players into camp, including four goalkeepers, Bradley ensured he'd have enough players for 11-v-11 scrimmages and drills. He also stocked each position with at least two players to foster increased competition; with just a few more games before the World Cup, every minute on the field is sure to be scrutinized.

Honduras has not brought its European-based players for this game. Former MLS Player of the Year Amado Guevara, who was suspended for the match in San Pedro Sula, is in the squad, as are Carlos Pavon, Noel Valladares, Osman Chavez, Emilio Izaguirre and Mauricio Sabillon. All played in the October match.

Conor Casey, who scored twice in San Pedro Sula, Benny Feilhaber and Bornstein are the only American returnees from that historic evening. All are in contention for South Africa, to which the last leg of the journey has begun.

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