Five things to note about the U.S. team
BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- Score some goals. That's all.
That brought us to Wednesday night. The Americans faced Trinidad & Tobago with a chance to make the type of statement fans have been waiting for. The type of statement worthy of the region's reigning champion. It wasn't a complete blowout, the type of perfect result some would have hoped for, but the U.S. team's 3-0 victory was dominant and impressive, and it gave fans plenty to cheer about and to think about as we head toward the second half of this qualifying round and beyond.
Here are five observations following the U.S. team's win on Wednesday and its 3-0 record to start the second stage of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying:
1. Michael Bradley is growing into a major role
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No player on the U.S. national team faces more criticism than Bradley, who has become a regular starter at the age of 21. Critics have questioned his play and whether he is really the best option in central midfield.
Bradley put those concerns to rest on Wednesday, not just with the well-taken goal he scored, but with his dominating effort in the middle of the pitch. Paired with Olympic central midfield partner Sacha Kljestan, Bradley provided a constant outlet for teammates and picked off numerous passes. He showed an ability to get more involved in the attack, but more importantly he showed that he can command the middle of the field.
The question should no longer be whether he deserves his starting job, but rather how important a role he'll be ready to take on in 2009 during the Hexagonal (that is, the final stage of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying). He is set to join Borussia Moenchengladbach in the German Bundesliga and should continue to improve as we get closer to the 2010 World Cup.
2. Landon Donovan needs to stay in the middle of the field.
After camping out on the right flank in previous qualifiers, Donovan was deployed behind Brian Ching in a 4-2-3-1 formation. The position gave him the freedom to roam, and that freedom paid off with Donovan being very active throughout the evening.
So why doesn't Donovan just stay in a central position? The problem is that there isn't a single natural right winger who is ready to handle a starter's role for the national team. Clint Dempsey has stated repeatedly that while he can play there, he is not a natural right winger. Against better teams with more threats on the flanks, you will see Donovan deployed on the flank, where his work rate and defensive ability can help control a flank.
Coach Bob Bradley could get away with Dempsey on the right and Donovan in the middle Wednesday night because Trinidad & Tobago had no threat coming from its left flank. Donovan just isn't as productive and dangerous offensively on the flank, so either Dempsey has to work at playing that position or the U.S. needs someone to emerge on the right wing.
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3. Brian Ching is still a useful national team player
The clamoring for younger forwards in the U.S. mix invariably winds up casting Ching as an older and ineffective player, but the truth is, he still makes a positive impact when he plays.
Is he a goal machine? No, but he has the ability to hold up the ball and deliver passes to teammates running off him as well as the willingness to put in the work defensively. This makes him a useful striker who can get the job done this qualifying round and who should still have a role even as the next generation of forwards develops.
4. Eddie Johnson is running out of time
He played only 23 minutes, but Eddie Johnson's first World Cup qualifying appearance still managed to be uninspiring and devoid of any evidence that he should stay in the national team mix. Yes, the game was 3-0 when he came in, but there was little in the way of hustle or energy from a player who seems to still be living off the accomplishments of four years ago.
It will be up to coach Bradley to decide whether Johnson will get another chance. With the remaining qualifiers looking like a prime chance to try some new faces, Bradley could be tempted to pass on Johnson, but he could very easily look to give Johnson a few more chances before moving on for good in 2009.
5. It is time to see some new faces
Jozy Altidore, Freddy Adu and Kenny Cooper. Fans were clamoring for all three after the 1-0 victories against Guatemala and Cuba left them worried about the state of the U.S. attack. There are still concerns despite Wednesday's win, and now Bradley will have at least two qualifiers (and a third if he tries out some young players against Cuba) to give those players a serious look.
Will those opportunities mean much? That is a resounding yes, because even if the U.S. team has already qualified for the Hexagonal, its opponents will be trying to qualify. So these will be heated contests and great settings for young players like Altidore, Adu and Cooper.
It isn't just attacking players who deserve looks. Brad Guzan should get a chance to start a few games, and MLS defenders such as Marvell Wynne and Chad Marshall could get a longer look, too.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.