BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- For weeks, a nagging question surrounded the U.S. men's national team: Where are the goals? For one night at least, the Americans put that question to rest, earning a 3-0 World Cup qualifying victory over Trinidad and Tobago that put them firmly in control of CONCACAF's Group 1.
It was easily the Americans' most impressive performance in this semifinal round of qualifying, although it stopped short of complete domination. Certainly, head coach Bob Bradley could have few complaints about a first half that saw the U.S race out to a 2-0 lead inside of 18 minutes. The U.S. moved the ball with pace and purpose, with DaMarcus Beasley looking especially active.
"The start of the game was good for us," Bradley said. "We found a good rhythm, did a good job of moving the ball, finding the little seams in their defense, and in that regard, I think that set the tone of the game."
Granted, the U.S. team did benefit from a surprisingly cautious T&T side, one that dropped so deep inside their own half that center midfielder Michael Bradley was given plenty of time on the ball to pick out teammates and move the ball from wing to wing. But the younger Bradley was quick to point out that playing against a packed defense has its challenges as well.
"It certainly means that it's on me to get the ball more and start initiating things and get into a good rhythm," Bradley said. "But it's not easy because at the same time they're just sitting back and the seams are a little bit tighter."
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That made Bradley's opening goal -- when he touched home Landon Donovan's free kick after just nine minutes -- especially critical. The tally gave the U.S. a jolt of confidence and the self-belief to keep attacking the Soca Warriors from all angles and with plenty of interchanging of roles.
This was especially evident on Dempsey's 18th-minute strike. Beasley had tucked inside into the center of midfield, and after receiving a pass from Dempsey, Beasley slotted a return feed that opened up the T&T defense and allowed the Fulham attacker to deliver a composed finish.
"Their defenders weren't comfortable coming inside with [Dempsey and Beasley]," forward Landon Donovan said. "And if their defenders did come in, our outside backs did a good job of getting around them and making it difficult."
The only minor buzz-kill of an otherwise solid performance was the way the U.S. started the second half. With nothing to lose, T&T ratcheted up the midfield pressure, and the Americans didn't cope well -- a response that will no doubt be noted by their future opponents. The Soca Warriors nearly pulled a goal back when Anthony Wolfe's goal-bound header was cleared off the line by Steve Cherundolo, and T&T forward Cornell Glen began to get the ball in more dangerous positions.
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But with some doubt beginning to creep into the Americans' psyche, Brian Ching netted a fortuitous third goal in the 57th minute that came against the run of play and killed the game off. Oguchi Onyewu's header from a Beasley free kick was deflected up in the air by T&T keeper Marvin Phillip, but went straight to Ching, who simply nodded the ball into the empty net.
With nine points from three games, the U.S. has all but won top spot in its group. A win on Oct. 11 against Cuba should officially clinch matters, leaving Bradley the luxury of experimenting and bringing in some heretofore overlooked players.
But the U.S. will also want to do what it can to keep its attacking momentum going. For all the talk of "results are the only thing that matters," victories such as this one deliver a message that has a distinct psychological component, one that can give the U.S. an advantage before it even takes the field. It also raises the confidence level of the entire side, easing the pressure on a defense that has been solid up to this point. And of course, it also puts those nagging questions firmly in the background.
Player ratings (scale of 1-10)
GK, Tim Howard, 7 -- Commanded his box well on the rare occasions when he had to touch the ball. Delivered a sharp save in the second half from a Cornell Glen shot.
D, Heath Pearce, 6 -- Defended competently, but got caught in possession a couple of times. His game did get stronger as the match progressed -- an important development given the way T&T upped its game in the second half.
D, Carlos Bocanegra, 6 -- Solid, but a notch below some of his previous outings. That said, Bocanegra has been pretty consistent this year.
D, Oguchi Onyewu, 7 -- Dominating in the air, and kept Glen relatively quiet. Just needs more composure on his passes out of the back.
D, Steve Cherundolo, 7 -- Got forward to devastating effect, and linked up well with Donovan and Dempsey. He did get torched one time by Keon Daniel, but more than made up for it with a vital goal-line clearance of an Anthony Wolfe header early in the second half.
M, DaMarcus Beasley, 7 -- Made life miserable for T&T fullback Cyd Gray with his tenacious defense. His through ball in the 18th minute set the table for Dempsey's goal.
M, Michael Bradley, 6 -- Was dominant in the first half, in that he controlled the midfield tempo and took his goal with aplomb. He didn't fare nearly as well when T&T upped the pressure, and he had a near-catastrophic giveaway in the second half, but this was Bradley's best game in a while.
M, Sacha Kljestan, 5 -- A bit of a role reversal in that his defense was better than his attacking game. He did an especially good job of tracking back in the second half, although his passing left something to be desired.
M, Clint Dempsey, 7 -- Took his goal well, and was constantly around the ball. He tired a bit in the second half, but was still conscientious in defense.
F, Brian Ching, 5 -- His hold-up play was typically solid, and he deserves credit for being well-placed to score his goal. But for the most part, his play in the box was subpar, in that he either failed to convert some clear chances or wandered offside.
M/F, Landon Donovan, 6 -- Created some good opportunities with his passing, especially when he drifted out wide, but overall he could have been sharper. That said, he looked more comfortable when he took up positions alongside Ching.
M, Ricardo Clark, 5 -- His fresh legs were certainly needed, but his overall performance was erratic, as some sharp passes were mixed in with some careless giveaways.
F, Eddie Johnson, 4 -- Given Ching's struggles in front of net, Johnson had a golden opportunity to stake his claim for more playing time. He didn't take it, as he couldn't stay onside any better than Ching, and failed to convert from inside the box.
M, Eddie Lewis, 5 -- Came on for a clearly tiring Dempsey and delivered some telling crosses from the left wing.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.