Team USA on easy street
Now exactly midway through the final round of World Cup qualifying, it's no longer a case of 'if' the U.S. national team will punch its ticket for Germany next summer, but rather a case of 'when?'
One can get away making such a claim simply because Bruce Arena's side owns a 4-1 record and 12 points out of a possible 15 after downing Panama 3-0 on Wednesday night. There's math involved, and the numbers are stacked on their side. However, it's far more than that. It's not as much about the results the Americans are getting, but how they are getting them.
In qualifying for the 2002 World Cup, the U.S. won three of their five final-round matches by a single goal, which included two victories that came via game-winning strikes during the final 10 minutes of the match.
That's hardly the case for Arena's latest group. Not only are they winning their qualifiers by multiple-goal margins -- their last three victories have come from 3-0, 3-0 and 2-0 results -- but they are putting teams away early. In the 2-0 victory over Guatemala down in Birmingham, Alabama, the U.S. got the crowd into it early by way of an Eddie Johnson strike in the 11th minute. Last Saturday against Costa Rica, Landon Donovan got his side on the board in the 6th minute.
And once again on Wednesday night against Panama, the U.S. drew first blood behind a Carlos Bocanegra strike off a Donovan corner kick.
Scoring early and either a) working the home crowd into a frenzy to maximize home-field advantage or b) taking the home crowd out of the match on the road, is practically as much of an important formula when it comes to World Cup qualifying as is the standard win-at-home, tie-on-the-road mantra.
Having to walk into Estadio Rommel Fernandez as the visiting side -- never mind one from one of the favorites in the group -- is not an easy task.
It's not going to ever be mistaken for Estadio Azteca, but it has its own intimidating factors such as its intimate environment, the bad lighting, and enough red shirts sprayed around the stadium to think you're in Lincoln, Nebraska, on a Saturday afternoon in the fall.
The Canaleros feed off the energy of their supporters, which made it quite the uphill climb when Bocanegra scored in the early going. When Landon Donovan headed home a cross from Steve Ralston in the 20th minute, it was clear to see that the U.S. was not going to need a well-placed puddle inside the 18-yard box to pull out a result this time around. It didn't matter that Panama was winless over the four matches they have played during this round of qualifying.
Winning on the road after a 7-hour travel day less than two days before kickoff is quite an accomplishment, no matter which region of the world you're talking about.
'We are the first team in this cycle to beat Panama at home,' said Arena immediately after the game. 'As critical as we are sometimes of our performances, getting a result like that is exceptional.'
To get the job done, Arena saw many of the same culprits who were most responsible for the victory over the weekend against the Ticos come through for him again.
Donovan continued to sparkle in a U.S. jersey with his goal and assist, which now gives him seven goals and eight assists during the 13 qualifiers his team has played in since embarking on their quest to play in Germany in 2006 over a year ago in Columbus against Grenada.
Kasey Keller didn't have to bail out his team in front of him on a continuous basis as he did against Costa Rica, but his three quick saves during a first-half flurry in front of the goal off a Panamanian free kick was mystifying.
|“||Getting a result like that is exceptional. ”|
|— Bruce Arena|
After making a diving save back to his left to somehow knock away striker Roberto Brown's header off Julio Medina's free kick in the 26th minute when the match was still at 2-0, the 35-year-old turned away Felipe Baloy from point-blank range. When it looked like his luck would run out since his deflection popped up to Brown, Keller once again came through by scrambling to his feet to snatch the third shot in mere seconds.
'Those three saves were tremendous,' said Arena.
On a night when the U.S. employed a 4-3-2-1 formation -- the ol' 'Christmas Tree' -- with Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley playing as attacking midfielders behind Brian McBride, there weren't several strong performances, but rather steady ones.
Beasley wasn't as dangerous on the attack as he usually is, thus showing the effects of the knee injury that held him out of action for nearly six weeks. The PSV Eindhoven winger came off in the 63rd minute, which never would happen when he's fully healthy since Beasley is one of the fittest players on the team and, as Arena has said recently, arguably his best player.
Holding midfielder Kerry Zavagnin didn't play as well as he did against Costa Rica. The 30-year-old Kansas City Wizards veteran failed to break up plays in the fashion that the injured Pablo Mastroeni usually does and didn't get the ball out quickly to start counterattacks on a few occasions, particularly in the first 60 or so minutes of the match before the U.S. started lying back a bit more during the final third of the game.
The area that Arena had to be pleased with most was his defense. The back four of Frankie Hejduk on the left, Bocanegra and Eddie Pope in the middle, and Steve Cherundolo on the left was effective in stopping Brown and his running mate Jose Garces.
Keeping a high line, this unit forced 11 offsides calls, which absolutely killed a side that was hoping to use its collective speed to sneak in behind the U.S. backline.
Pope was strong once again in his marking, as he spent the majority of the evening on the equally powerful Brown. He was up to the challenge enough so that Brown elbowed him in the nose, seemingly out of frustration, in the waning stages of the match, and forced Pope's early exit in the 87th minute in favor of Gregg Berhalter.
Since the U.S. had a commanding 2-0 lead just 20 minutes into the match, as well as the fact that they were playing with their flank midfielders wider than usual since there were five players in the midfield, both Cherundolo and Hejduk stayed home more than usual.
Both players were solid in the back, particularly the Columbus Crew defender, who didn't look uncomfortable on the left side even when he got forward and needed to serve a ball with his weaker foot.
The back four that Arena used against Panama will not be the same one that gets the nod for the team's next qualifying match against Trinidad & Tobago since Pope will have to sit out due to yellow card accumulation.
Even though the U.S. is well on its way to qualifying for the 2006 World Cup, the last thing they wanted to do was lose someone like Pope when having to face a striker pairing of Stern John and Dwight Yorke.
Then again, with 12 points already, and two physical centerbacks like Cory Gibbs and Oguchi Onyewu ready to step in, there's not too much for the U.S. to worry about these days. It's just about continuing to hold serve both at home by collecting three points with a win, and by stealing points here and there on the road.
'It is good that we've put some wins together now,' said McBride, who scored the third goal for the U.S. and now has 28 goals in his international career (second behind former striker Eric Wynalda's 34). 'We got three points and we just need to continue to do that. Two wins from now, we'll be OK, but until then, we'll just think about the next game.'
Even if that 'if' is quickly becoming a 'when.'
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.