At the conclusion of Saturday's 6-1 rout by the United States against an overmatched and demoralized Cuba side, head coach Bob Bradley had every reason to smile. His team had just clinched its passage to the second round, and done so with a perfect 4-0-0 record. But that wasn't the only scoreline from Saturday that pleased the U.S. coach. Trinidad and Tobago's gritty 0-0 draw in Guatemala City -- achieved with the Soca Warriors playing with 10 men for more than half the match -- no doubt put a spring in his step as well.
Had either T&T or Guatemala walked away with a win, they would have all but locked up second place behind the U.S. in CONCACAF's Group 1, and with it a spot in next year's hexagonal. As it stands now, the Soca Warriors are level on points with Guatemala, although Los Chapines currently hold the edge in goal difference.
For Bradley this means that with two games remaining in this round, and with qualification assured, he not only can experiment with some of his young talent, but he'll do so in games that will mean everything to the Americans' opponents, beginning with Wednesday's tilt against T&T in Port of Spain.
Bradley will certainly learn more about his young charges than he did Saturday. As positive as the performances of Jose Torres, Jozy Altidore and Freddy Adu were, entering the match up three goals and a man hardly qualifies as an arduous trial. And while there are tougher venues in CONCACAF than T&T's Hasely Crawford Stadium, the intensity is bound to be an order of magnitude higher than Saturday's encounter.
Adding to the challenge is the fact that the U.S. will be facing a Soca Warriors side that will look very different from the one the Americans took apart 3-0 on Sept. 10. On that occasion, not only did T&T head coach Francisco Maturana come out with an overly cautious game plan that gave the U.S. acres of space in midfield, but his starting lineup was missing some of his more battle-tested players.
|U.S. men's schedule|
|U.S. vs. Trinidad & Tobago
Hasely Crawford Stadium; Port of Spain, Trinidad
8 p.m. ET, ESPN
Since then, it appears that Maturana has had an epiphany of sorts. Not only did he recall the likes of Chris Birchall, Avery John and Dennis Lawrence against Guatemala, but 40-year-old Russell Latapy was brought in as well. With Dwight Yorke released from international purgatory by Sunderland manager Roy Keane, the Soca Warriors won't lack for experience, although defender Cyd Gray and midfielder Anthony Wolfe are both suspended.
T&T's breadth of experience partially explains Bradley's decision to include veterans like Frankie Hejduk and DaMarcus Beasley on the squad. Those players will no doubt be needed to help the American youngsters adapt to their most difficult World Cup qualifier yet. Beasley's improved form of late with the U.S. should be especially valuable, although his inclusion raises the question of his present value to club side Rangers, where lately he's been on the fringes of the first team.
For the rest of the squad, acquiring more experience is what Wednesday's match is all about. While Bradley certainly has plenty of options, he'll likely begin with a central defensive pairing of Danny Califf and Michael Orozco. In Califf's case, it's an opportunity to put at least a smidgen of pressure on incumbents Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu, although it seems that only an injury would be enough to displace one of those two performers.
For Orozco, the stakes are a bit higher. After spending the Olympics playing at left back, Wednesday's match is a chance to shine in his preferred role in the middle. But more importantly, it's the latest opportunity for Orozco to increase the distance from the silly red card he took just three minutes into the Americans' Olympic finale against Nigeria.
But the most intriguing aspects for the U.S. will be on the attacking side of the ball, where Adu, Altidore and Torres figure to have prominent roles. Yet questions surround each performer. Can Adu provide the kind of consistent impact on the game that will demand his inclusion during the hex? He showed some flashes of brilliance during the Olympics, especially against Holland, but was also ineffective for long stretches in the first match against Japan. What will also be worth noting is his decision-making. In the past, Adu has tended to err on the side of dribbling too much, rather than finding the right balance between dribbling and passing. That will be especially true if he takes up more of a central role Wednesday.
For Altidore, the challenge is a bit more subtle. His finishing and athleticism are known quantities at this point, but can he provide the hold-up play and passing that has made Brian Ching a key part of the U.S. attack? There is also the question of how he handles what will undoubtedly be some physical play from the likes of John and Lawrence. There have been times in the past when Altidore has responded to such an approach by drifting out to the left wing. If Bradley sticks with the 4-2-3-1 formation that has been used recently, Altidore will need to provide more of a central outlet for his midfield teammates, no matter how much abuse is dished out.
Torres' decision to pledge his international future to the U.S. comes at a valuable time, and not just because the U.S.'s gain is also Mexico's loss (although El Tri seems to produce such players at will). While Torres' technical strengths are obvious, the challenge for Bradley is to find the Pachuca man's best spot on the field. Beasley's injury problems in the past year, along with Bobby Convey's struggles for playing time at Reading mean that Torres could provide valuable cover on the left side of midfield. The past two games notwithstanding, the inconsistent midfield play could see Torres perform in a more central role.
Certainly his young legs, as well as those of Sacha Kljestan, who has come on of late, could be a huge factor Wednesday given the advanced age of players like Yorke and Latapy. And if the Americans can secure a result, such experience should pay off handsomely once the final round of qualifying begins.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at email@example.com.