Success on the international soccer stage is all about taking care of business at home, and grinding out results on the road. The United States has long proved adept at the former, but with a 1-0 triumph in South Africa on Saturday, the Americans are beginning to show that the latter attribute is becoming a more consistent part of their arsenal.
It was a result that in many ways mirrored the 1-0 victory over Switzerland last month. Saturday's victory was based primarily on resolute defending, although a lack of ball possession, especially in the second half, was once again a problem. Yet the U.S. was dangerous enough in attack to carve out a few opportunities, and this time it was Steve Cherundolo, sprung by Maurice Edu's inch perfect pass, who converted the game's only goal in the 27th minute.
The win also saw U.S. head coach Bob Bradley give time to the younger members of his roster, and although some (Edu) showed better than others (Jozy Altidore), the expected payoff for all of these players will happen somewhere down the line, and Bradley deserves credit for continuing his youth movement while still getting results.
To be sure, there were some worrying developments. Once South Africa started pressuring higher up the field, the Americans' inability to play the ball out of the back became increasingly evident. Taking out Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo at halftime didn't help in this regard, and neither did the altitude, which clearly took its toll in the second half. But you can bet that South Africa's successful change in tactics will be noted by every CONCACAF side. Most of the region's teams lack the talent and fitness to pull it off, but it's one that sides like Costa Rica and Honduras will certainly apply when the time is right.
The other insomnia-inducing problem for Bradley is that a year into his tenure, there is still no clear successor to retired target man Brian McBride. Clint Dempsey attempted to fill the position on Saturday, and despite all of his positive qualities, the evidence shows that the Fulham man is ill-suited to the role, and likely always will be. Dempsey is just not effective with his back to goal, and the fact that his best moments came when he dropped deep into midfield only drove this truth home.
Of course, the hope is that Altidore will someday be able to assume some of these duties, but is someday going to occur next summer or two years from now? In the meantime, you can bet that Bradley is texting Brian Ching with a simple message: Heal up, and stay close to the phone.
But as the U.S. concludes its international schedule for 2007, what can't be denied is the team's improved mentality on the road. Victories outside the U.S. have long been a rarity for the Americans, and two consecutive wins over quality opponents bodes well for the team as World Cup qualifying approaches.
Player ratings (scale of 1-10)
Tim Howard, 6 -- Aside from one communication mix-up with Bocanegra in the first half, Howard didn't put a foot wrong. He was calm, composed, and made a key save from Nasief Morris in the first half.
Heath Pearce, 5 -- Seemed a half step slow at times, but made the plays he needed to make. Like many of his back-line cohorts, there was a bit too much reliance on long passes, most of which went straight to the South African defense.
Carlos Bocanegra, 6 -- Another good performance, and the inconsistencies of earlier this year seem a distant memory.
Oguchi Onyewu, 7 -- Yes, his distribution needs to be better, but with the Americans under increasing pressure in the second half, Onyewu was the guy holding things together, as he came up with some timely clearances. The American defender has eliminated the big mistakes that plagued his game earlier in the year.
Steve Cherundolo, 7 -- The Hannover fullback recorded just his second international goal, but given that his previous one came in a 4-1 loss to Germany, he'll probably savor this one a little more. Went off injured at halftime and the U.S. badly missed his composure on the ball.
DaMarcus Beasley, 5 -- Had some bright moments in the first half, but disappeared in the second. As one of the veteran players, Beasley needs to do a better job of leading his younger teammates through the inevitable rough stretches.
Maurice Edu, 6 -- Delivered the killer through ball that set up Cherundolo for his goal, and provided a strong presence in midfield. Edu has really established himself as one for the future.
Michael Bradley, 5 -- Decent performance, but Bradley still needs to refine the timing on his tackles, as a few of his all-out challenges missed everything. Like Beasley, Bradley needed to impose his will a bit more in the second half.
Benny Feilhaber, 4 -- Delivered some cultured passes in the first half, but then faded from the match completely. Unless Feilhaber finds some playing time at Derby, his spot in the lineup will be tenuous at best.
Freddy Adu, 5 -- Should have done better when put clean through in first-half stoppage time, although Adu did have several other positive moments. Adu hardly saw the ball in the second half, and when he did, he went straight for goal when what the U.S. really needed was possession.
Clint Dempsey, 4 -- Dempsey is clearly taking one for the team playing as a lone forward, which does not play to his strengths. Still, he needs to do better.
Brad Guzan, 6 -- Didn't do much, but was there when called upon.
Danny Califf, 4 -- Interesting how the U.S. defense looked shaky after Califf replaced Bocanegra at halftime. Looked slow, unsure of his footing, and conceded too many free kicks.
Jonathan Spector, 5 -- Had a nightmare start, as he was caught ball watching on Teko Modise's 54th-minute header. But Spector improved as the half went on, and did well to block some long-distance shots.
Jozy Altidore, 4 -- Completely starved of service, but if that's the case, he needs to move a bit more in order to get the ball. Altidore was just way too static when the U.S. had the ball in its half. He'll get more chances though.
Sacha Kljestan, Jonathan Bornstein, NR -- Brief cameos for both players.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.