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Mar 26, 2008

U.S. continues to improve on the road

In the run-up to the United States' friendly with Poland on Wednesday, U.S. men's national team manager Bob Bradley talked of how games in Europe reinforce the importance of doing the little things well. And if their 3-0 victory in Krakow is any indication, the Americans are becoming more adept at the subtleties needed to win international games on the road.

Case in point was Oguchi Onyewu's 35th-minute goal from a corner kick. The delivery from Landon Donovan, who has struggled mightily in this area in the past, was inch-perfect. Onyewu's run was perfectly timed. But perhaps the biggest key, one that was barely noticed on the television replay, was a forearm nudge by Clint Dempsey on Onyewu's marker, which allowed the U.S. defender to break free and nod home Donovan's corner kick uncontested.

It was by no means the only example either. The U.S. back line was composed and organized throughout, limiting the Poles to just a handful of chances. The same could be said for the U.S. midfield, where the central duo of Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark delivered a much improved performance over their chaotic display against Mexico.

"For us to win that battle in the middle of the field was very important," said Bradley. "I think that, combined with the strong play in the center of defense, those players formed an important backbone in our team tonight."

If there was one lingering disappointment on the evening it was the play of forwards Brian Ching and Eddie Johnson. It was a night where neither player had their shooting boots on, and in the case of Johnson, his slow and at times non-existent decision-making impeded the U.S. attack.

But the increased attention to detail by most of the players has resulted in a striking change in road form for the U.S. in the last six months. A 1-0 victory in Switzerland in October was followed by an identical result against South Africa a month later. And Wednesday's result was the team's third consecutive road triumph, a record for the U.S.

Only three times previously had the U.S. ever won so many as two road contests in succession, and those always included at least one CONCACAF foe. Now the U.S. has a three-game winning streak that includes two triumphs in Europe, which has never been much of a happy hunting ground for the Americans.

The Yanks' newfound road strength certainly bodes well for the start of World Cup qualifying in June, not that away games in CONCACAF have been overly troublesome in the recent past. During qualification for the 2006 World Cup the U.S. recorded a 4-2-3 record, losing only to Mexico and Costa Rica. And the recent road resilience not only bodes well for the Americans' qualifying campaign, but it at least gives an indication that the U.S. might be capable of bigger things when the stakes get higher and the venues become tougher.

"In the past we haven't been as good or as imposing as we would expect to be, and this past year we've been able to emerge as a threat to teams," said Onyewu. "In the past, people would have jumped to play us but I think each time here we're making a name for ourselves. We're learning how to win and this was a good milestone for us."

Skeptics will rightly point out the rather strange lineup choices of Poland head coach Leo Beenhakker, who opted not to introduce attacking players like Ebi Smolarek and Radoslaw Matusiak until the start of the second half, by which time the U.S. had already staked themselves to a 2-0 lead through goals by Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra. It allowed the U.S. to take a more conservative approach, and effectively clog the open spaces in which Smolarek excels.

But the fact that Beenhakker opted to do some experimenting will not trouble Bradley one bit. Instead he'll be dwelling on the continued solid play of Onyewu and Bocanegra, as well as the way his team effectively closed out the match, with Eddie Lewis' sublime free kick in the 73rd minute putting an exclamation mark on the victory.

He'll also be looking for his team to be a bit more dangerous from open play, although they did create a few chances. The fact that Landon Donovan looked more comfortable than he ever has in a wide role, finding a better balance between defense and attack, was a positive development.

Eyes will now be set on the Americans' May 28 matchup against England, which will no doubt be a step up in terms of intensity and atmosphere. That the U.S. might garner a victory in Wembley Stadium is on the one hand unthinkable. But if the U.S. continues to do the little things well, a positive result isn't out of the question.

Player ratings: (scale 1-10)

Tim Howard, 7 -- Did well to stop Dariusz Dudka's low drive in the 30th minute, and his handling was flawless.

Heath Pearce, 6 -- Got caught ball-watching a few times in the first half, and a shaky clearance led to Dudka's chance, but Pearce usually recovered well to block the cross or hold up his man. Also contributed to the attack, and drew the foul that led to the first goal.

Carlos Bocanegra, 8 -- Barely put a foot wrong, and scored the all-important first goal. Showed surprising sharpness given his lack of playing time at Fulham.

Oguchi Onyewu, 7 -- Had one scary moment in the second half when he was turned by Matusiak, but was otherwise solid in the back. His first-half goal allowed the U.S. to dictate the pace of the game.

Steve Cherundolo, 6 -- Solidified his hold on the right back slot by delivering another consistent performance.

Landon Donovan, 7 -- His set-piece delivery was outstanding, a surprise given the way he has struggled with this in the past. Nearly capped off his night with a goal, and although he missed on his 48th-minute breakaway attempt, showed good strength on the play.

Michael Bradley, 6 -- Started out playing like he did against Mexico, taking turns losing and then winning the ball. But he eventually settled into the match well, and effectively clogged the middle, while also delivering some sharp passes.

Ricardo Clark, 6 -- Played to his strengths, which are covering a lot of ground and winning the ball. He kept any glaring mistakes to a minimum.

Clint Dempsey, 6 -- His timely nudge on Onyewu's man allowed his teammate to score the second goal, and he was effective on the ball when he tucked in to the center of midfield.

Brian Ching, 4 -- He helped his team defend from the front, but needed to do better with the ball when he got it. His shooting was miles off.

Eddie Johnson, 4 -- The Fulham forward just seemed a second slow in recognizing situations and his decision-making suffered as a result. One can only hope that some more playing time with Fulham will cure this.

Subs:

Josh Wolff, 6 -- A free-kick earning machine when he came in, one of which was converted by Lewis. He also helped his team by just making the simple play. Makes you wonder what a Ching/Wolff partnership would look like.

Jay DeMerit, 6 -- Aside from a few minor communications mix-ups, the U.S. suffered little drop-off when DeMerit entered the match.

Eddie Lewis, 7 -- Scored the final U.S. goal with a gorgeous free kick, and provided solid play, whether in midfield or in defense. It seems unlikely that Lewis will be around for the 2010 World Cup, but a supporting role during qualifying isn't out of the question.

Jonathan Spector, 6 -- The busiest man in the U.S. player pool took over for Cherundolo late, and his sharp passing sparked several counterattacks.

Benny Feilhaber, NR -- A brief five minute stint earns Feilhaber his 16th cap.

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