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Oct 6, 2008

U.S. defense proving hard to score on

The U.S. had World Cup qualifying victory No. 5 well in hand when Trinidad & Tobago scored an offside goal Sept. 10 in Bridgeview, Ill. Tim Howard, though, did not seem to realize the score was about to be invalidated as he banged the Toyota Park ground, and then rose to his feet, swinging his fists and shouting. Even disallowed goals with a 3-0 lead are not taken lightly by the U.S. And it is this attitude that has helped place the team in a position to advance to the final round of qualifying. The U.S. has not surrendered a goal in World Cup qualifying this year. Of teams that have played more than twice in the qualifying campaign, only Nigeria and the U.S. have unblemished defensive records. Offensively, the U.S. might not have established a free-flowing attack to set up DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan to rocket past defenders. But when it comes to defense, the U.S. has learned to clog the midfield and transition. The defenders are not only physically imposing, their sense of anticipation and positioning are improving. Not to mention Howard has become the best goalkeeper in the region. It is overly simplistic to say defense wins championships, but defense can definitely get you through World Cup qualifying. Once on the big stage, though, all those shutouts against Barbados, Cuba, Guatemala and the Soca Warriors will not do much good if your left back gets caught upfield and a freight train like Jan Koller is steaming in to finish a cross in the World Cup opener. Or take the example of Serbia at Germany '06. Knowing they had been scored on only once in qualifying was no consolation for the Serbs after they were crushed 6-0 by Argentina in the World Cup.

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

U.S. vs. Trinidad & Tobago
Oct. 15
Hasely Crawford Stadium, Port of Spain, Trinidad
8 p.m. ET, ESPN

But this version of the U.S. national team is setting a high standard for preventing goals. The most recent player to convert against the U.S. was Xavi Hernandez in the 79th minute of Spain's 1-0 victory in Santander on June 4. Argentina could not get a shot past Howard in a June 8 friendly, though Julio Cruz and Lionel Messi were on the doorstep several times. Even the best teams in the world have trouble penetrating the U.S. midfield. Michael Bradley and Maurice Edu are the latest examples of the country's propensity for producing defensive midfielders. But, unless the U.S. starts transitioning into offense quicker from the midfield or starts presenting more danger from both striker positions, opposing teams are going to be able to commit defenders to the attack. An experienced overlapping outside back or an advancing central defender such as Mexico's Rafa Marquez will change the dynamic and provide a different type of test for the U.S. A sixth successive clean sheet can be expected when the U.S. meets Cuba at RFK Stadium. Blanking Trinidad & Tobago in Port of Spain will not be as easy, especially if coach Francisco Maturana learns to be bolder than he was in Bridgeview. Plus, the Soca Warriors should be stronger this time, having called in Chris Birchall, Stern John and Dwight Yorke, plus Dennis Lawrence, an experienced defender who is dangerous on set pieces. No team has gone through qualifying without allowing a goal since England did it in advancing to the 1990 finals. In the next round, the U.S. will likely be traveling to Costa Rica and Mexico, and that's when the defense will truly be under pressure. Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.

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