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Aug 18, 2005

Lack of finishing doesn't hurt yet

If you're Bruce Arena, there is plenty that is right with the world on Thursday morning. After Wednesday night's 1-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago, your U.S. National Team is a mortal lock to qualify for the World Cup finals next summer in Germany. The patchwork defense, which saw Eddie Lewis do a pretty fair impersonation of a left back, performed solidly. And despite fading a bit in the second half, the U.S. midfield controlled much of the match.

So what is there to be worried about? Plenty. As has been their habit lately, the Americans showed an alarming lack of killer instinct in disposing of the Soca Warriors. True, U.S. forward Taylor Twellman was robbed of a perfectly legitimate goal in the 86th minute by a phantom offside call, and Trinidad and Tobago goalkeeper Kelvin Jack made a handful of outstanding saves to keep the visitors in the match. But the lack of aggression has caused the Americans to struggle against lesser competition, continuing a trend that began during the Gold Cup.

I'm sure there are those willing to dismiss the Gold Cup results as an aberration, given the number of fresh faces brought in by Arena, as well as the sadistic schedule. And with the number of changes that Arena was forced to make for this match, a similar excuse could be offered. But the fact remains that the U.S. should not be struggling against the likes of Cuba and Panama, at least on home soil. Nor should the Americans be left to fret away the final minutes against T&T, especially when they did enough to kill off the match five times over.

It's not as though the starting 11 Arena sent out there were refugees from a Sunday pub team. Outside of Lewis at left back, if Wednesday's lineup were to be replicated for the Yanks' first game next summer, it wouldn't raise too many eyebrows.

Still, the Americans' lack of incisiveness in front of the goal isn't likely to hurt them too much in the cozy world of CONCACAF. The Americans' athleticism, depth, and experience were enough in the Gold Cup and should carry them through the rest of qualifying. But it's something that will need to be ironed out before next summer if the Americans are to rescale the lofty heights they reached in 2002. Those European countries that qualify will be playing close to home, and their players will be more rested. This puts a premium on the U.S. side finding a ruthless streak some time before next June.

It certainly wasn't evident Wednesday, as witnessed by the gift squandered by Landon Donovan in the 43rd minute. Jack's attempted clearance went straight to the foot of the U.S. forward at the top of the penalty area. Presented with the simplest of opportunities, Donovan shot straight into the T&T keeper's legs.

It raises again the age-old question of what is Donovan's best position, at least at the international level. Wednesday, his best moments came in more of a playmaking role. When presented with chances in front of the goal, Donovan either wasted them or was reluctant to pull the trigger. Given his scoring streak earlier in qualifying, there is a temptation to look at Wednesday night's game as a mere hiccup, but it should be noted that Donovan's hot streak came with him playing as an attacking midfielder.

Arena must also figure out how to keep John O'Brien on the field. Arena and his fellow coaches will be relieved that O'Brien's latest ailment -- a hip pointer incurred early in the match -- is in no way connected to the hamstring and Achilles injures that have plagued him over the years. But after watching O'Brien's defense-splitting pass release Bobby Convey in the buildup to Brian McBride's goal, Arena must be calling on God, Allah, Yahweh and Vishnu to look after the former Ajax man. He could be just that important to the U.S. team's chances of advancing past the group stages next summer.

The Yanks' profligate finishing aside, there was still plenty to admire in their performance, especially on defense. Oguchi Onyewu continued his transformation from young upstart to mainstay with a commanding display. Gregg Berhalter was nearly as impeccable. And Lewis showed plenty of versatility with his performance in the back, providing yet another reason why the Leeds United midfielder will be included in the squad that heads to Germany next summer.

A win against Mexico Sept. 3 could clinch qualification, which would allow Arena the luxury of tinkering with his lineup through the remainder of qualifying. Maybe that will allow his side to find that killer instinct.

Player ratings

Kasey Keller, 6 -- The only thing missing from the veteran's game was a lawn chair and a drink with an umbrella in it. Keller still showed plenty of sharpness late, especially in snagging a corner kick with just minutes remaining.

Chris Albright, 5 -- Got forward well, but a couple of bad giveaways late in the match got the blood pressure rising.

Oguchi Onyewu, 8 -- Commanding in the air and didn't put a foot wrong on the ground. Onyewu's deflection of a Dwight Yorke centering pass snuffed out one of the few T&T attacks.

Gregg Berhalter, 7 -- His tackle on Kenwyne Jones' run was the defensive play of the game. His aerial game also was sharp.

Eddie Lewis, 6 -- Was able to join the attack, and used his speed well against T&T winger Christopher Birchall.

Steve Ralston, 4 -- Never got untracked. Was a bit more dangerous in the second half when he took up more central positions, but his crossing was never evident.

John O'Brien, 5 -- Killer pass to Convey helped set up the first goal, but faded from the game as the half went on. Hip pointer caused him to be subbed at halftime.

Claudio Reyna, 7 -- Dominant in the first half, faded a bit in the second. Showed why the U.S. is better with him in the lineup.

Bobby Convey, 5 -- A mixed bag. Was active all night, but on those occasions when his finishing didn't let him down, Jack was there to deny him. Marred an otherwise solid performance with a deserved second yellow card that might have earned red by itself on another day.

Landon Donovan, 5 -- Another Jekyll and Hyde performance. Had some classy passes, but his finishing was miles off.

Brian McBride, 5 -- Took his goal well, but then went long stretches without being heard from. Still, on a night when goals were hard to come by, his was the one that made the difference.

Subs:

Chris Armas, 6 -- Came in and did his job, as always. Tracked back to cut out a dangerous through ball from Dwight Yorke midway through the second half.

Taylor Twellman, 6 -- Disallowed goal continues his run of bad luck at the international level. His late-game cage match with club teammate Avery John should provide for some interesting locker room talk later this week.

Santino Quaranta, 5 -- Provided some valuable width late in the game. Assisted on Twellman's disallowed goal.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com