What I’ll be watching for against T&T

The US doesn’t have to win tonight against T&T to qualify, but a loss or a tie sure would make the last two games a lot more difficult than necessary. But beyond the result, this game will be a great test for the US team as it builds towards South Africa 2010. What will I be watching for outside of the result?

1. Confidence

This is a game the United States should win. T&T are no pushovers at home, beating El Salvador 1-0 and tying Honduras 1-1. Even so, if the United States is going to take the next step contend at major tournaments, they have to win games like this, and more importantly, they have to play like they know they can win from the start. This team has shown that it has the psychological strength to come back from going down even on the road. But what it has yet to demonstrate is that it can take the game by the scruff of the neck and just dominate the play for 90 minutes. The US should get on top and stay on top.

2.    Possession

International football is a game of possession, possession, possession. That’s why I rate the play of passing midfielders like Benny Feilhaber more highly than others and worry about Clint Dempsey’s sloppiness. I would like to see Feilhaber get a good run in the team but recognize that he’s not going to replace Bradley and agree that those two do get caught ahead of the play too often for comfort. If Feilhaber doesn’t play, then it place more of a burden on Donovan to get a lot of the ball and other US attacking players not to waste possession cheaply. Its hard to control the game if you keep turning the ball over and that’s what I want to see the US eliminate from its game: cheap turnovers.

3.   Defensive Composure

Turnovers also put more pressure on the defense. The return of Oguchi Onyewu from suspension and, as Max predicts, the expected benching of Jonathan Bornstein, should restore some calm to the US defense. But even with the first choice defenders, the US has a propensity for careless giveaways, dreadful clearances, and a failure to close down shooters or passers in dangerous situations. The first goal in Mexico—albeit a screamer—came after Carlos Bocanegra failed to close down the shooter. El Salvador’s goal on Saturday came straight from a shambolic Bornstein clearance and another failure to close down an attacker in a dangerous position. CONCACAF teams have improved so you can’t even say anymore that you don’t get punished for these mistakes in qualifiers but you will in the World Cup. T&T have a decent attack with pace in Carlos Edwards and size in Kenwyne Jones, but if the US is going to come through its group in South Africa, it will face faster, stronger, and more skilled attackers than T&T. If T&T make a great play and score, fine. But let’s make them do the spectacular to get a goal, not gift them chances.

I expect the US to win tonight and will be glad if they do regardless of how they fare against my points of emphasis. Qualifying out of CONCACAF is tougher than it has been in the past, so getting through is the first priority. But I want to see steady improvement from this team so it can repeat this summer’s exploits next year.

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