WASHINGTON -- While some young faces stepped onto the field and excited U.S. national team fans with skill and promise on Saturday night, it was the U.S. team's veterans who delivered the decisive performances in the Americans' 6-1 thrashing of Cuba at RFK Stadium.
DaMarcus Beasley enjoyed his best performance since returning from major knee surgery in May, Landon Donovan delivered a maestro-like performance in central midfield and Brian Ching provided a goal and assist to show why he has settled into the role as the U.S. team's go-to striker.
Their performances helped dismantle an overmatched Cuban squad that showed heart, but had little chance after losing a player to a red card late in the first half. Beasley, Donovan and Ching helped overwhelm the visitors from the Caribbean to help the United States join Costa Rica as the first two teams to book passage to the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying with two games left to play.
The Americans looked like they might be in a tough match when Cuba scored an unlikely goal in the 32nd minute, just two minutes after Beasley's second goal of the game. However, a needless second yellow card drawn by Cuban defender Yoel Colome helped make the U.S. team's task of breaking down the Cubans that much easier.
"When you're a man up, when the other team is starting to get tired, that's when you want to make them play, " U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. "That's the part we talked about at halftime, and actually before the game. We certainly know that any team is going to come here and be organized.
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"You can't expect that you're going to break them down immediately, but if you stick to doing the right things, if you keep moving, if you keep finding little seams, play the right balls, then you know that over the course of 90 minutes they won't be able to keep going."
The U.S. team controlled the action in the first half but couldn't open up its 2-1 lead before halftime. The second half was a far different story, with sharper passing leading to better chances and some better finishing from the U.S. team. The Americans made the score 3-1 just three minutes into the second half on a beautiful seven-pass sequence capped by perfect feeds from Ching and Heath Pearce, who set up Donovan for the goal on the play he started.
Beasley's performance was the most encouraging for the Americans, as he displayed his trademark speed and shiftiness, traits that had been slow in coming back since his return following ACL surgery 11 months ago. He finished off a perfect through pass from Sacha Kljestan for his first goal, then raced on to a Donovan long ball to give the Americans their second.
"It's been tough. Start-stop, start-stop, just with my knee injury and a couple of nicks I've picked up in the last couple of months," Beasley said. "Now, the last couple of months I've been feeling fit and just trying to get back on the pitch with Rangers."
With Donovan playing in a central midfield role instead of up top or on the right flank, he and Beasley combined far more often than they have in recent matches and the familiar chemistry they have provided several quality chances for the U.S. team.
"We know each other inside and out on the field," Beasley said of Donovan. "We've played a lot of games together. Won a lot and lost a lot. We understand each other a lot and the way we move and the way we play is somewhat similar. Us playing closer together is always great for us."
Donovan played his best match of the qualifying round, sitting behind Ching in a 4-2-3-1 formation that gave him the freedom to attack Cuba's defense from a variety of positions.
With qualification to the next round secured, Bradley will be able to turn his attention toward giving playing time to some younger players, like the trio of second-half subs (Jozy Altidore, Freddy Adu and Jose Francisco Torres) that impressed in mop-up duty Saturday. Torres, in particular, was very impressive in his U.S. national team debut just a week after making the decision to play for the Americans instead of Mexico.
The promise shown by Torres, Altidore (who notched a goal) and Adu, and the likelihood that all three will feature prominently in the remaining qualifiers against Trinidad & Tobago and Guatemala, will help make those matches very interesting to U.S. fans eager to see a window into the future of the national team. Having said that, on Saturday, the U.S. veterans showed that the national team's present is still in very good shape.
Player ratings (scale of 1-10):
GK, Tim Howard, 6 -- Didn't have much to do and had no chance on Cuba's goal.
D, Oguchi Onyewu, 7 -- Had little to do defensively, but squashed the few Cuban attacking forays that reached him. His headed goal was a nice finish.
D, Carlos Bocanegra, 7 -- Covered tons of ground, but didn't face many real threats.
D, Heath Pearce, 6 -- With Beasley dominating in front of him, Pearce wasn't that busy defensively. He provided the final pass on the sequence leading to Donovan's goal.
D, Steve Cherundolo, 6 -- Didn't have much to do and didn't get too involved in the attack.
M, DaMarcus Beasley, 8 -- When Beasley plays like this, he helps the U.S. attack reach another level. Quality finishes and glimpses of that speed are comforting, especially with the Hexagonal looming in 2009.
M, Landon Donovan, 8 -- Played the kind of game you want from an attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 formation. He went at defenders, found teammates with sharp passes and stayed involved throughout.
M, Michael Bradley, 5 -- Made some mistakes in the first half and missed a pair of good scoring chances, but settled down in the second half.
M, Sacha Kljestan, 7 -- Settling in nicely as a good central midfield option. His pass on Beasley's goal was exquisite, although he had a few turnovers.
M, Clint Dempsey, 7 -- Quiet for long stretches, but he did a lot of dirty work while also flashing his attacking qualities, like his pass on Altidore's goal.
F, Brian Ching, 7 -- Forced a turnover for one goal, helped set up a second goal and headed home another goal. A good night for the veteran striker.
M, Jose Francisco Torres, 6 -- Was very smooth on the ball and showed a good passing eye and confidence for a national team newcomer.
F, Jozy Altidore, 6 -- Showed off his trademark size and speed combination and finished off a nice goal after missing a pair of quality chances.
M, Freddy Adu, 5 -- Delivered a quality cross on Onyewu's goal and offered some good moments in 14 minutes of action.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.