The first of four qualifying double-dates produced the standard four points as the USA beat Trinidad & Tobago, 3-0, in Nashville after tying, 2-2, in San Salvador, but also left some niggling
questions yet to be resolved.
Not for the first time, a few American players learned that Hexagonal games home and away are night and day in so many ways.
Hat-trick hero Jozy Altidore and three-assist man Landon Donovan earned most of the plaudits after a rousing 3-0 defeat of T&T in Nashville, yet a fiercer collective mindset than that displayed while tying El Salvador, 2-2, four days earlier enabled lineup changes invoked by Coach Bob Bradley to take maximum effect.
Only by scoring a pair of late goals by Altidore and Frankie Hejduk did the Americans avoid defeat in El Salvador. Rightly praised for their spirit and determination, the USA still let a weaker team seize the momentum and nearly ride it to victory.
Games spaced a few days apart on two different continents are lined up for June and July, so Bradley could utilize more than three dozen players before the USA heads to Mexico in mid-August to start the second phase of the Hexagonal.
Another double-date awaits in June: a treacherous trip to San Jose, Costa Rica on June 3, and a home game in Chicago against Honduras three days later, and that is just the start of an arduous schedule. The team leaves for South Africa on June 8 for the Confederations Cup, where it faces a tough group of Brazil, Italy and Egypt. The Gold Cup, which could see the Americans play six games in as many U.S. cities, kicks off July 3, with Grenada, Haiti and Honduras in their group.
A few changes to the June qualifying squad are expected for the games in South Africa, yet most likely Bradley must include as many of the European-based players as possible. He had hoped to give some playing time to defenders Jay DeMerit and Jonathan Spector against T&T, but Spector picked up yet another injury and the central pairing of Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onweyu blotted out most of the T&T attacks.
Yet an early giveaway by Onyewu provided ex-Crew striker Stern John with an excellent chance that he squandered while reminding Bradley the tall Standard Liege defender still needs to be cleaner and surer on the ball but can't be pulled out of the lineup. Despite the courage and pluck of DeMerit, who has also played right back, and an excellent 2008 season that earned Chad Marshall MLS Defender of the Year honors, finding anyone capable of unseating Onyewu in the next year is hard to fathom.
NEW LOOK ON LEFT. Is the deployment of Donovan at left mid and Beasley at left back a long-term solution? For Donovan, possibly, for Beasley, who normally plays that position, probably not.
Since Beasley, renowned mostly for speed and dribbling, broke into the national team program as a teenager nearly a decade ago, U.S. coaches have praised his ability to read the play and anticipate what's next. He can track down opponents and harass them in possession. But at 5-foot-8, and 145 pounds, he's a bit taller but about as heavy as right back Steve Cherundolo, whose modest build has caused him problems at the national team level despite a slew of attributes.
The image of Beasley tearing up the left flank on overlapping runs to attack opponents on the dribble or bend crosses from the wing is appealing; not so shimmering are the prospects of him being knocked off the ball or victimized by bad positioning, as was the case when Rodolfo Zelaya got behind him to cross a ball Cristian Castillo headed for El Salvador's second goal.
Beasley had dropped into the left-back slot after Heath Pearce had been replaced by Altidore in the 61st minute against El Salvador. Handed the start at that spot against T&T, he struggled a few times to contain Carlos Edwards, a good enough player but far from elite.
Pairing Donovan and Beasley on the flank would mesh the talents of player familiar with each other since their days with the U.S. U-17s. Yet expecting Beasley to hold the corner secure against the talented attackers he could face at the Confederations Cup and the Gold Cup, let alone the World Cup, is a grave risk.
Not many options are available, though. The development of Chivas USA defender Jonathan Bornstein seems to have stagnated, as has that of Pearce, who will likely spend the summer looking for a new club in the wake of disdainful comments from Hansa Rostock coach Andreas Zachhuber.
MIDDLE GROUND. A rough night for Sacha Kljestan against El Salvador prompted Bob Bradley to replace him with Pablo Mastroeni for the T&T game, and Mastroeni and Michael Bradley dominated the middle of the park much as Bradley and Kljestan had done against Mexico. This time, though, instead of the 21-year-old coach's son scoring twice, the 19-year-old prodigy Altidore, paired up top with Brian Ching, notched three times.
Altidore excelled at much more than finishing. He roamed laterally behind Ching, shifting out wide to attack the corners of the penalty area and dropping back to more easily link with Bradley and Donovan, who flubbed a few early touches but soon set the USA on its way. Donovan chested down a long ball from Bocanegra that had been headed on by Ching and slid a pass across the six-yard box for Altidore to tuck home.
With Mastroeni as his central partner instead of Kljestan, Bradley played more north-south and wisely used the vast areas of space conceded by T&T. Mastroeni is a smarter, stronger anchor than Kljestan. Bradley's excellence with the ball stemmed from Mastroeni's prowess at winning it.
In both games, brief appearances by Jose Francisco Torres displayed the poise and skill he utilizes in Mexico for Pachuca. There's quality present but there's no simple answer of where he should play.
At times against T&T Beasley pushed up the left side into midfield, which moved Donovan higher and gave the U.S. a 3-4-3 look going forward. Altidore and occasionally Ching slid out wide to open up space for Donovan to work the middle and open up space on the right side for Clint Dempsey, whose regular play for Fulham the past few months has strengthened his stamina and concentration. His development is crucial for the USA, especially if another attacker goes down with a serious injury.
FRONTLINE DILEMMA. The Donovan dilemma continues for Bob Bradley, who can take comfort in being able to use the pace, guile and vision of America's best player in several spots but sorely needs concrete answers for the questions around him.
Altidore scored four goals in the two games and has clearly improved while rarely playing in Spain, but would another season of inactivity for Villarreal render him too rusty to trust at the World Cup?
He didn't play in the two games, but some sharp performances for Cardiff City have brought Eddie Johnson back into the national team picture after two rather barren years. He may get some time in the June qualifiers if his good form continues, and he has to be included on one of the tournament rosters.
While the attack sputtered in San Salvador, the USA began its comeback with a sweet piece of combination play. Beasley drove a diagonal ball forward that Dempsey headed to Ching, who pivoted and slid the ball to the right and into the path of Hejduk, who hit it first-time as Dempsey darted to the near post. The cross cleared his run and Altidore, at the far post, nailed it past substitute goal Juan Jose Gomez.
Hejduk capped the comeback by heading in a deflected corner kick, and proved again that despite his age (34) and glaring limitations, his unquenchable spirit, energy and remarkable speed are still commodities vital to the U.S. effort.
Marvell Wynne is one of perhaps a half-dozen younger players on the World Cup bubble who may have to pass the likes of Hejduk in the next year to make the squad. In June and July might come their chance.
(This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Soccer America
(This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)