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Sep 17, 2008

U.S. offense needs to develop more sophistication

Five successive victories and a 14-0 goal differential. Next stop, the 2010 World Cup finals. Yes, there is still the small matter of the United States officially clinching advancement to the final round of regional qualifying, which will be a step up in competition among CONCACAF's final six. This U.S. team is steamrolling foes right now. But wiping out Barbados and defeating Guatemala, Cuba and Trinidad & Tobago is not a good measure of the team's progress. This U.S. group is focused and organized, relying on the individual enterprise of DaMarcus Beasley, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan to create offense. Add in some strong long-ball play and set-piece finishing and you have an effective formula for mowing down CONCACAF teams. But the U.S. will have to develop other attacking dimensions in order to succeed against the heavyweights of Europe and South America. Unfortunately, CONCACAF is not the real world of soccer, and very few teams in the region provide the type of test the U.S. needs. And this is an eternal conundrum not only for the U.S. but also for Mexico. Both countries must do all of their planning around CONCACAF qualifying, yet those very games do little to get them ready for the level of play in the World Cup.

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Cuba
Oct. 11
RFK Stadium, Washington, D.C.
7 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic

U.S. vs. Trinidad & Tobago
Oct. 15
TBA
8 p.m. ET, ESPN

The Mexicans dominated the region for decades but have almost always faltered on the big stage. Mexican administrators realized there was not much they could do about the problem, unless the U.S. emerged as a soccer force, providing some of the competition necessary for both teams to improve. But Mexico and U.S. national team coaches know they must seek greater challenges. Costa Rica, now establishing itself as the region's No. 3 team, is heeding the call of coach Rodrigo Kenton to schedule more games against European opposition. The U.S., though, does not have an easy route to solving the problem of constructive competition. The U.S. prepared for World Cup qualifying with matches against England, Spain and Argentina. After 270 scoreless minutes in London, Santander and East Rutherford, the U.S. seemed to be running in place. But the effect of those matches was to wind up the U.S. team for the qualifying opener against Barbados at The Home Depot Center on June 15. Dempsey scored the first goal in qualifying, finishing a long ball from Carlos Bocanegra in the opening seconds of an 8-0 victory over Barbados. This was just the type of weapon which can be effective in CONCACAF but is absolutely worthless elsewhere. Those set pieces, along with the long throw-ins for Oguchi Onyewu to head, which are so threatening against Mexico and others, simply cannot be relied on against sophisticated opponents. Trinidad & Tobago should have provided a tougher test for the U.S. on Wednesday in Bridgeview, Ill. But the Soca Warriors simply laid back and allowed the U.S. to slash through the midfield. So, even when the U.S. meets a team with World Cup experience, it does not have to raise its game or modify its tactics to win. The U.S. should be playing the ball quickly out of the back, with the midfielders creating off short passing combinations and the forwards taking on defenders and scoring after a coherent buildup. But you can't force tactics on a match. If Barbados and Cuba are inviting the U.S. to go over the top, Bocanegra-to-Dempsey or Onyewu-to-Brian Ching-to-Dempsey is what you are going to get. If T&T is backing off in midfield, Beasley, Dempsey and Donovan are going to run right at the defense, power and speed preferred to finesse. And if the Soca Warriors are going to leave 6-foot-7-inch defender Dennis Lawrence on the bench, the U.S. is going to thrive on dead-ball situations. Even Mexico seemed to be playing for set pieces in a 3-0 win over Jamaica on Sept. 6. Knowing the Reggae Boyz were going to tackle aggressively, the Mexicans were willing to absorb fouls, then score on free kicks. And this illustrates the unevenness of the region. In the same week, Jamaica plays too aggressively in Mexico City and Trinidad & Tobago performs passively in Bridgeview. Maybe Kenny Cooper would help the attack. Of the 21 goals scored by the U.S. this year, nine have been converted by forwards. And four of those were converted by Dempsey, who is more of an attacking midfielder than a pure forward. But, again, you can't force tactics onto a situation. Many of the top national teams are playing with one striker. And that striker is not expected to carry the scoring load. The last two U.S. opponents before qualifying were Spain, which won the final at Euro 2008 using Fernando Torres as a solo striker, and Argentina. Torres scored two goals in the Euro tournament. Argentina's leading scorer in qualifying is midfielder Juan Roman Riquelme, and the only pure striker to score for the Celeste has been Diego Milito with one goal. The U.S. used a two-striker setup -- Eddie Johnson and Taylor Twellman -- in Copa America, and that only confirmed the need to have offensive players who click. Ching and Donovan developed an understanding during their San Jose days. Beasley and Dempsey are reading each other better and better. And those four are going to be the U.S. attack in the run of play, with occasional contributions from the holding midfielders. The U.S. offense might evolve a little by the next round. Don't expect the goal differential to be so great, but the wins should continue. Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.

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