As Jozy Altidore and Jose Francisco Torres stood on the sideline Saturday night, preparing to enter the World Cup qualifier between the United States and Cuba, the crowd at RFK Stadium began to cheer loudly in anticipation. Altidore and Torres' entry into the match signaled the completion of the U.S. team's quest to qualify for the Hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying. It also heralded the beginning of the youngsters' chances to use the remainder of the qualifying round to strut their stuff.
U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley has been criticized for not integrating the likes of Altidore and Adu more quickly, but his long-term plan for this round of World Cup qualifying came into focus Sunday. Because the team has advanced to the final round of qualifying, Bradley can use the remaining games against Trinidad & Tobago and Guatemala to test his newcomers in difficult situations. Although the results of the matches won't impact the U.S. team, both Guatemala and Trinidad & Tobago are battling to reach the final qualifying round and will offer the type of tough matchups that is ideal for giving young players experience.
If Saturday's initial qualifying performances by Altidore, Torres and Adu are any indication, the next generation of U.S. talent is ready to take advantage of the opportunities. Torres impressed in his first U.S. national team cap on Saturday, displaying very good skill on the ball, a good work rate and deft passing touch. He played in a deep central role, getting forward at times, and showed a willingness to defend as well as attack that should help him as he battles for playing time.
"The first thing you see is, in terms of having a good soccer brain, seeing things and keeping the ball moving," Bradley said of Torres. "Those are good starting points. The rest we'll wait for and give a little more time."
|U.S. men's schedule|
|U.S. vs. Trinidad & Tobago
Hasely Crawford Stadium; Port of Spain, Trinidad
8 p.m. ET, ESPN
Altidore showed off the considerable talent that has so many U.S. fans already clamoring for him to earn a starting forward role. His size and speed combination and willingness to go right at defenders was on full display when he scored against Cuba. Those strengths will only improve with time, and Wednesday night's match on the road against a Trinidad & Tobago team desperate for a good result will provide valuable experience.
"There was a little bit of nerves with all the young guys, but it was a good sign," Altidore said of his appearance against Cuba. "It was a good stepping stone to come out in front of a great crowd and get some caps that we haven't gotten in a while.
"There's always room for improvement, but it's a good start."
Altidore also downplayed the fact that he hadn't been called into the team's previous World Cup qualifying matches.
"There's no frustration because it's a process and everybody has to go through it," Altidore said. "We have to trust in our coaching staff that they're making the right decisions, and they do. We're all very confident in them and trust them. They have a plan, we all have a plan on what to do for the World Cup, and I'm going to have a role to play."
Adu had his chance, albeit a brief one, to play the familiar role of attacking midfielder. At one point he lined up alongside Landon Donovan as the two playmakers in a 4-3-2-1 formation. Adu's perfect cross set up Oguchi Onyewu's header goal against Cuba, and he managed to offer a few glimpses of his attacking ability in limited duty.
Altidore, Torres and Adu all figure to play key roles Wednesday night, as Bradley is expected to use a very young squad that will be without regular starters Tim Howard, Onyewu, Carlos Bocanegra, Michael Bradley, Donovan and Brian Ching. The lineup Bob Bradley is likely to use Wednesday will be led by veterans DaMarcus Beasley, Frankie Hejduk and Pablo Mastroeni, and filled out by an army of youngsters including U.S. Olympic team members Robbie Rogers, Charlie Davies, Marvell Wynne, Maurice Edu and Sacha Kljestan, who was solid in his second straight national team start on Saturday.
One young player who didn't join the team for the Trinidad & Tobago match is FC Dallas striker Kenny Cooper, who turned down the call-up request, citing a virus and ankle injury. Cooper told the FC Dallas team blog that he wanted to recover in time for FC Dallas' upcoming match against Real Salt Lake.
Although few U.S. national team regulars will be in the lineup Wednesday, the team that starts against Trinidad & Tobago won't lack familiarity among the players. Because many members of the 18-man roster were on the same U.S. under-20 and U.S. Olympic teams, the lineups we are likely to see against Trinidad & Tobago and Guatemala should consist of players who have spent years playing together.
"It definitely helps on the field when you look around and it's a bunch of guys you've played with who are in your age group," Altidore said. "I think it helps in the confidence aspect and trust aspect as well."
Altidore & Co. will need all the confidence they can muster because the upcoming tests won't be easy ones. Those who thrive in the remaining qualifiers will receive strong consideration for larger roles in 2009. Those who struggle will fall behind in an increasingly competitive battle for playing time, a battle that now includes a very promising generation of talented attacking players who should start to make Bob Bradley's lineup decisions that much tougher when the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying begins in February.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.