U.S. looks to take advantage of home setting
Home may be where heart resides, but when the U.S. men's national team hosts Trinidad and Tobago on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2), the Yanks will be hoping it's where a few other things can be found as well. Like some goals, not to mention more consistency in attack, and, oh yeah, their third consecutive World Cup qualifying win in this semifinal round.
It's gotten to the point where every time the U.S. wins, the victory is immediately followed up by the statement "It wasn't pretty but they still won." Yet a quick look around the rest of the weekend's World Cup qualifying action reveals that road qualifying victories can't be taken for granted. Witness England's 2-0 win at Andorra (which was tied 0-0 at half), or Sweden's 0-0 draw in Albania, and you realize that there is some value -- check that, a lot of value -- in playing effective soccer, even if it is drab.
But just like Dorothy laying eyes on the man behind the curtain for the first time, such performances leave one asking, "Is that all there is? Is this all we can expect?" Certainly a difficult match in Guatemala was anticipated. But a 1-0 result against what was essentially a semiprofessional side in Cuba leaves plenty to ponder, namely whether this team possesses enough potency in attack to trouble the world's better teams.
"I think we're moving in the right direction, and the goals will eventually come," said midfielder Clint Dempsey, who scored the only goal against Cuba. "The goals are there, and that's not something we're really worried about as a team. I think people will see more goals in this Trinidad game. I'm really looking forward to getting forward and having more of an attacking presence."
Consistency has been a problem, with performance levels tending to rise and fall within a matter of minutes. Maurice Edu played some excellent balls out of midfield on Saturday, but also had some dreadful turnovers in bad spots. Brian Ching was the beneficiary of one of Edu's passes in the first half, one that put him in the clear behind the Cuban defense, yet a poor first touch killed the threat. Then again, the Hawaiian did have a strong game with his back to goal.
|U.S. men's schedule|
|U.S. vs. Trinidad & Tobago
Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Ill.
8 p.m. ET, ESPN2
The hope of course is that having some home cooking, not to mention some smooth playing surfaces and a reliable lighting system, will raise the Americans' game the requisite few percentage points needed to get the goals flowing.
"The last two qualifiers we've played it's been rainy and muddy, and the conditions of the field on [Wednesday] are going to be a lot better," said Dempsey. "I think the passing will be better and the speed of play will be quicker. When the game is played quick, and we do those type of things, we open up teams more."
Standing in the Americans' way is a T&T side that has undergone a fair amount of upheaval in the past year. When the team last visited the U.S. at the 2007 Gold Cup, it was a team in the middle of an ugly dispute over World Cup bonuses that robbed it of 16 players. The results were predictable, as the Soca Warriors were eliminated in the group stage having earned just a solitary point, and there was real concern over how much long-term damage had been done to the T&T program.
|Group 1 standings|
But a year later, it appears that all is not lost. The dispute was resolved in favor of the players, and several of those performers have been called in by head coach Francisco Maturana for qualifying. After defeating Cuba 3-1 in Havana in its opening semifinal match, T&T did suffer a minor setback on Saturday, coughing up a stoppage time equalizer against Guatemala, but the side is very much in the hunt for qualification for next year's final-round hexagonal.
Much of the credit for repairing the Soca Warriors' collective psyche goes to Maturana, who fans will recall presided over Colombia's devastating -- and ultimately tragic -- 2-1 defeat to the Americans at the 1994 World Cup, one that was followed two weeks later by the murder of defender Andres Escobar. With T&T, the Colombian has successfully brought back some of the previously banned players, while also blending in new talents like Keon Daniel, who has scored three goals in the team's last two qualifying matches.
But Maturana's road has been anything but smooth. He sensationally left out veteran striker Stern John for the semifinal round without bothering to give the Southampton forward so much as a phone call. Also excluded for Wednesday's match is midfielder Chris Birchall, who after suffering from food poisoning in the Cuba match, was informed by text message that his services wouldn't be needed.
Maturana also found himself on shaky footing during the preliminary round of World Cup qualifying, when T&T surprisingly lost at home 2-1 to Bermuda, although the Soca Warriors did rally to win the return leg 2-0, with John netting the game winner.
Yet since that match, Maturana has preferred the pace of former MLS veteran Cornell Glen to the finishing of John, while Sunderland striker Kenwyne Jones recovers from knee surgery. And Glen has certainly repaid Maturana's faith, scoring against Cuba and providing some overall solid play as the team's lone forward.
"The team are certainly playing with more confidence than they were a month and a half ago," said ESPN analyst and former T&T international goalkeeper Shaka Hislop. "Maturana has shown that he's willing to make big decisions, and the team are playing better for it."
Maturana had also given a lifeline to 36-year-old Dwight Yorke, who while lacking the pace of his earlier days, had helped T&T in an attacking midfield role, where his experience has been put to good use. But now it appears that a club versus country row will rob T&T of Yorke's services, dealing a heavy blow to the Soca Warriors chances.
"[T&T] have a lot of young players who are very creative, but who also play with a confidence that quite frankly is a little bit alarming," added Hislop. "What Dwight has is a certain quality, a certain composure at that highest level."
With Yorke now apparently unavailable, even more of the attacking onus will be on the Americans. It's a role that hasn't always suited them, but one in which they'll have to become more comfortable if they are to progress on the world stage.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at email@example.com.