U.S. offense remains a work in progress
CHICAGO -- There's no telling where the offense is going to come from with the U.S. soccer team these days. Or when.
Gone are the days of the Americans counting on Brian McBride, of Landon Donovan being good for a few points, and Eddie Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley contributing their fair share.
Now? The Americans are eking out 1-0 victories. And the list of goal scorers is almost as varied as the roster itself.
"Something that gets overlooked is the goal is to win the game," Donovan said Tuesday. "The goal is not to win the game 3-0 or 4-0, the goal is to win the game. Once you score a goal and if you're winning in qualifying, the job then is to make sure the other team doesn't score.
"It's not always as simple as, `Go attack, go attack, go attack," he added. "The goal is to win the game."
That the Americans are doing.
On a four-game winning streak -- the last three of which came on the road -- the United States goes into Wednesday night's contest with Trinidad and Tobago atop Group One in World Cup qualifying from the North and Central American and Caribbean region semifinals. A victory over the Soca Warriors would all but assure the Americans of a spot in next year's six-nation finals.
The Americans are 24-1-7 in home qualifiers since May 1985, their only defeat a 3-2 loss to Honduras in September 2001. They've never lost to T&T in qualifying, either, winning eight of the previous 10 meetings.
"Saying that it's a home game, we know it's not going to be easy," U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra said. "We need to do the same thing (as in the road wins), one way or another."
That the Americans are still trying to find themselves offensively shouldn't come as much of a surprise. After the United States was bounced out in the group stage of the 2006 World Cup, McBride, Claudio Reyna, Eddie Pope -- guys who'd been around for what seemed like forever -- retired.
Sure, Donovan and Beasley and Bocanegra were veterans. But there's a big difference between being part of the gang and stepping up to show everyone else how it's done.
"It was no longer a case of where they could come into camps and let others set the tone. Now it was a responsibility that they had to assume, and a lot goes into that," said coach Bob Bradley, hired in December 2006. "Together we tried to make this into one strong group. ...
"As much as we feel like we had some good games in 2007, the last couple of games, with the pressure and the environment, have still helped us. I feel good about the way we handled those experiences and continue to push forward."
The evolving offense is part of that.
With McBride, the Americans had a luxury few teams have. Tenacious, physical and gifted in the air, he could create goals where most other players couldn't. He had 30 in his 12 years on the national team, including an American-record 10 in World Cup qualifying.
Replacing that is going to take time and, likely, more than one person.
Donovan is perhaps the most purely talented player the United States has ever produced but, for several years, struggled with being the go-to guy. He's become more comfortable being a leader -- on and off the field -- but it is a role to which he is still adjusting.
In the first four qualifiers, he has one goal.
"For all of us that have been through this and now are here again, we realize that the makeup of this team has changed a lot," Donovan said. "It's a natural progression to try and take on more, especially if you have the experiences that some of us have had."
And some of the other Americans are doing just that. Clint Dempsey, the only American to score at the 2006 World Cup, has three goals in qualifying. Dempsey's goal in the 40th minute Saturday gave the United States the win in its first game in Cuba in 61 years.
Bocanegra, Eddie Johnson and Eddie Lewis have one each.
"It's a good thing when we have a number of players capable of creating good chances and scoring goals," Bradley said. "Given the preparation that goes on around the world in World Cup qualifying and games at the highest level, it's important that teams have different ways to attack, that the responsibility isn't solely on one player's shoulders."
That said, though, Donovan, Dempsey and Beasley are still the Americans' main threats, Bradley said. The stats may not show it, but games now will help the Americans find the best way to use them when it really matters: in South Africa in 2010.
"We think this is a very important game," Bradley said, "an opportunity for us to make a statement again about our ability to play well and win important games."