US v T&T: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

clark_T&T_200The United States eeked out a win on the road in World Cup qualifying, vaulted to the top of our qualifying group, and because other results went our way, we stand on the verge of qualifying for South Africa. For all the good to come of the result, however, the actually playing of the game was cause for serious concern as US coach Bob Bradley prepares for the last two qualifying games and the road to South Africa. The old adage of world football is that it’s a hallmark of a great team to play poorly and still get a critical win. We got the goal we needed—and it was a great goal after our best move of the game—but we were extremely fortunate to still be level and should count ourselves lucky that we were playing the group’s bottom team.

The Good

Goalkeeper Tim Howard was excellent. He made a fantastic save on a first-half free kick and commanded the penalty area with confidence and consistency. If he doesn’t make that save from Trent Noel’s shot over the wall, the US may have gone down to defeat. He made another crucial save on a Kenwyne Jones header from close range that looked easy but only because his positional play was spot on. Without Howard’s impressive performance, the US would have been sunk.

Ricardo Clark’s winner was a stunning strike that came after the US’s best move of the game to that point. Clark’s first touch was perfect and his swerving shot was unstoppable. The US had picked up their play in the second half, but still didn’t really look like scoring until Clark lit up the night. It was no accident that the goal came from a patient move that strung a dozen passes together to create the space first for Donovan on the left and then for Clark to blast home.

Subs Benny Feilhaber and Stuart Holden added possession and precision to a US team that was sorely lacking both during much of the game. Even though neither were inserted until after the goal, both markedly improved the team upon entering the game and deserve more minutes.

Unfortunately, that’s all the good. None of my points of emphasis for the game were achieved: play with confidence, control possession, and maintain defensive composure.

The Bad

Oguchi Onyewu had a decent game in his return. He still gives away too many fouls around the box – this time they were fouls, a lot of the time its just because he’s so big. But he needs to maintain his composure in the 25 yard area and recognize that a striker with his back to goal that far out isn’t going to hurt us, but three free kicks from that range taken by Steven Gerrard will likely result in one goal.

Jonathans Specter and Bornstein handled the pressure applied by the Ticos wingers fairly well. Carlos Edwards was the man of the match for both teams and Max is right to say that they did us a favor by switching him to the left for most of the game. I worry that Bornstein’s propensity for costly mistakes might have cropped up against Edwards.

Even though Bornstein avoided them, the main problem for the back four again was a dangerous habit of serious lapses. The harmless throw in that turned into the chance of the game for T&T was pathetic. Bocanegra was turned far too easily and cover was no where to be found when Cornel Glen broke in free on goal. The US was VERY lucky that his chip of Howard rebounded of the bar and we escaped without conceding the first goal. Another weak, lofted ball into the box was allowed to bounce and Bocanegra was fortunate not to be whistled for a penalty in the ensuing chaos.

The defense was not atrocious and was poorly supported by a midfield that gave away the ball like it was the plague (more on that in a minute). But still, the task in my mind was to concentrate for 90 minutes and not give away easy chances and they failed to eliminate the potentially costly mistakes.

The Ugly

Unfortunately, there was far too much ugly about this US performance. I had hoped they would play with confidence from the start and Coach Bob Bradley said before the game that he had asked his team to start aggressively and not let T&T get a foot hold in the game. What actually happened was that the US team barely even showed up in the first half.

They played terribly, but what was worse is how casual they were about their patheticness. Clint Dempsey loafed around the field as if it he couldn’t be bothered to pass to his own team mates or track down the ball after he gave it away. It was a first half display that would have seen him sent so far down the bench by Fulham Manager Roy Hodgson that he might not have played again until Christmas. But Dempsey wasn’t alone – at one point the team looked so sluggish that I asked myself if it was blisteringly hot in Port of Spain.

If the effort was poor, the possession was worse. Michael Bradley was a non-entity as the supposed focal point of the team in central midfield. He was so bad that the best part of his play was when he was anonymous. There was no connection between Bradley and his midfield partner Clark even though T&T were not putting much pressure on the duo. Donovan and Dempsey would consistently push in and up from the flanks, creating a de facto 4-2-4 formation, exposing acres of space on the flanks when the US inevitably turned the ball over.

Despite the very poor display of the US team in the first half, Coach Bradley did not make any player or tactical adjustments during the break. Keeping Feilhaber on the bench until the 62nd minute was a serious mistake. We did score with the original lineup still in tact, but that was the first genuine passage of possession and the first time we really looked like scoring in the whole game.

The US won the game but there was very little in this performance to be happy about besides the result. We are in good shape to qualify and there are still 9 months until the World Cup begins – a period the US must take full advantage of if this team is going to be a threat to progress beyond the group stage of the tournament.

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