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Jun 5, 2005

U.S. protects home turf

It's all about holding serve during World Cup qualification. Ties on the road -- stealing point, as they say - are nice and all, but it's all about winning at home and getting the three points that accompany such victories.

That's what made the U.S. national team's 3-0 victory over Costa Rica on Saturday night in Salt Lake City, Utah, such a satisfying result. Bruce Arena's side has now won its first two home matches in the final round of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup. When you add that to the victory it earned down in Trinidad against the pesky Soca Warriors back in February, they have more than followed the tried-and-true formula.

Of course, that hasn't always been the case for the U.S. team.

In the run up to the 1998 World Cup in France, the Steve Sampson-coached side only won two of their first four matches at home during that final round of qualifying. It took a gutty tie on the road in Mexico City and a convincing victory up in Vancouver, Canada, to ensure a ticket to France.

The last time around, Bruce Arena's boys won their first three matches at home to jump out to the head of the group. It wasn't the fact that they went on to lose three matches in a row after starting out with a 4-0-1 record to open qualifying -- it was the loss at home against Honduras at RFK Stadium sandwiched around the defeats on the road against Mexico and Costa Rica that made for tense moments during the fall.

Perhaps the type of scoreboard watching that ensued during that fateful afternoon on October 11, 2001 during the 2-1 win over Jamaica won't have to take place later this year. If the standings in the six-team CONCACAF group do tighten up and the U.S. has a do-or-die match on the horizon, it'll be because of poor results in Hartford, Conn., against Trinidad & Tobago on August 17 and in Columbus, Ohio, against Mexico on September 3. More so in fact than anything to do with this coming Wednesday's match against Panama down in Panama City or any of the other road games in the future.

Should the U.S. play like it did against the Ticos -- or at least for 70 or 75 minutes of the 90-minute match -- there shouldn't be any reason for alarm. As it stands, the Americans (3-1-0, 9 points) sit comfortably in second place in the group behind Mexico (3-0-1, 10 points) and ahead of a group of three teams knotted at four points apiece.

Here are five observations from the U.S. side's victory over Costa Rica on Saturday night:

1. No Wanchope, no problem.

Lanky striker Paulo Wanchope came on as a substitute in the 67th minute rather than start the match due to an illness, according to reports in Costa Rica. Apparently, the braintrust of the Ticos felt that it was more important for the former Manchester City striker to rest up for its home match against Guatemala on Wednesday rather than risk further fatigue by starting against the U.S.

Considering that the 28-year-old has scored 41 goals in 60 matches for his home country, his absence had to have brought a sigh of relief from the U.S. defense. Without Wanchope battling for 50-50 balls and making darting runs into the gaps of the defense, the three-man backline of Steve Cherundolo, Eddie Pope and Carlos Bocanegra had it fairly easy for most of the night.

Setting a high line and stepping at the right moments, the Pope-led defense gave Alonso Solis and Oscar Rojas fits, forcing five offsides calls in the first 30 minutes of the match alone. Nearly every time the Ticos got something going and began to launch an attack during that first half, the linesman waved his flag, killing any chance at evening the score.

Had Wanchope been out there from the beginning -- sick or not -- one would have to guess that those offside traps wouldn't have had the same type of success.

2. Kasey Keller is the side's most important player.

It's tough when Claudio Reyna isn't in the lineup. Same goes for DaMarcus Beasley and Eddie Johnson, which was seen against England. Not having Landon Donovan would have a huge impact, as well. But without Keller manning the goal, it's a wonder where this team would be right now.

Now that Brad Friedel has retired from international play, the depth chart just isn't as impressive as far as goalkeepers go, is it? Take Keller out of the equation and the U.S. wouldn't have one keeper that has the type of international experience for club and country that is so vital for World Cup play.

As good as Tim Howard is, he just doesn't have the necessary resume against the CONCACAF opponents, and playing on the road in hostile venues.

Many of the top goalkeepers in the world - Howard included - probably would have watched one or even two of the shots the Ticos took at goal on Saturday night slip past them for tallies. It would have been understandable, too. But Keller was up to the challenge when needed, and would not yield the lead that was bestowed on him in the 6th minute of the match.

In one of his best performances in a U.S. jersey, and one that ranks right up there with the one he turned in against Brazil when he stoned the great Romario several times in a 1-0 victory, Keller was forced to make only six saves on the evening. However, three of those saves were ones that had to make the Costa Rican players feel like they were robbed.

It started with his diving save to his right on Jafet Soto's hard shot from about 10 yards away in the 47th minute. This started a span of 15 minutes where Costa Rica had the run of play for the only time in the match. Only nine minutes later, Keller made an equally brilliant stop off the foot of Solis that appeared to be yet another equalizer for the Ticos. Finally, in the 60th minute, the Borussia Moenchengladbach standout turned in his best highlight-reel stop of the match when he kicked up his legs, he dove back to his left, and somehow got a glove on Soto's hard header from the left side.

"What can I say?" said Arena of his goalkeeper's play in the victory. "Kasey's reactions on the line are fantastic. He's still every bit as quick as he was five years ago."

Turning 36 in November, Keller might actually still be improving. His foot skills have become remarkably better and his shot-stopping abilities are second-to-none right now.

In what used to be a crowded goalkeeper situation for Arena, it's looking to be the easiest decision he has to make game-in and game-out, and will likely stay that way through the World Cup, should Keller lead them there.

3. Convey not cutting it.

Bobby Convey was granted a golden opportunity by getting the chance to start against Costa Rica. After all, this was a player who is coming off a poor season with Reading FC that saw him play most of the time with the reserves. Combined with the emergence of several other midfielders including Clint Dempsey, it would have been understood had Arena not even called in Convey for these two qualifiers.

But Arena gave Convey a boost of confidence and played him in the second half against England and then started him against Costa Rica to mark the first qualifier he's played in since the 2-0 victory over El Salvador back on September 4, 2004. Instead of infusing the side with a quick, attacking presence out of the left-side of the midfield and, later, out of the back, Convey had problems with his touch and gave the ball away in the early going. Defensively, he didn't cover as much ground as was needed, as Costa Rica midfielder Douglas Sequeira was effective on that side of the field and was given a little too much time on the ball.

Arena made a wise move in bringing on Frankie Hejduk to plug in that hole at left back in the 74th minute when Costa Rica was only down by two goals.

Convey is still only 22 years old and is a versatile player who has talent. Unfortunately for him, he's a bit behind the eight-ball because of what went on in England with his club team and the continuing added depth to the U.S. side. Until he earns his stripes as a wide player or defender in England or in another league, you have to wonder if he can be used in a position other than as a dual attacker next to Donovan where he has a bit of a free role.

4. Donovan simply gets it done.

The Los Angeles Galaxy star didn't even have one of his top matches for the U.S., yet he was the main catalyst throughout the night and scored his 20th and 21st international goals.

His first goal was a great example of placement-over-power, as his shot with the inside of his right foot bent nicely into the top left corner of the goal from 18 yards out.

On his second goal, it was all about anticipating the play, as he took off towards the goal when Josh Wolff served the ball in to Brian McBride rather than wait and see what the Fulham striker would do with his chance. It resulted in an easy tap-in. One that was more about being in the right place at the right time than anything, which of course is a trait that all the great goal scorers have.

"Landon did a great job," said Arena after the match. "Obviously the first goal was a tremendous goal, opportunistic on the second goal, which was a big goal at a time where our opponents got after us."

Now that Donovan has started off strongly with his new club in Major League Soccer and brushed off the cobwebs and scored two goals and added an assist after a five-game scoreless streak for the U.S., you have to think that his troubles from his three months in Germany are just a memory.

5. Pope's rebound.

One of the most consistent players on the U.S. national team for nearly the last decade, it was odd to see Eddie Pope struggle against England last week. Some observers even wondered aloud if the veteran center-back would get the start against the Ticos, even though the game was being played at the home stadium of his MLS side and very rarely does a healthy Eddie Pope not start a match for the U.S.

Pope did get the start, and in a tougher role as the center-back in a three-man backline to at least start the match, though that would change once the U.S. got an early lead and switched to four defenders. The Real Salt Lake standout looked more like his old self out there, as he provided solid marking and was the key component in the high line the U.S. was setting to pull the Costa Rican attackers offsides. He was also up to the challenge of facing Wanchope, an old nemesis, as he held the powerful striker in check for the entire 23 minutes he was in the match.

Having to face a physical striker like Panama's Roberto Brown, who scored the lone goal for the "Rojas" in the 1-1 tie down in Panama City last September, it was important for the U.S. to see Pope bounce back and play well.

In the back of Arena's mind, he has to wonder what might have happened down in Mexico City had Pope not been injured since he matches up well physically with striker Jared Borgetti. It'll likely be important for the U.S. to have Pope get these next two matches in and continue to get fully healthy for that all-important showdown with Mexico come September 3.

Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: marc@oakwoodsoccer.com.