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Oct 15, 2008

U.S. youngsters show inexperience against T&T

As the final whistle blew at the Hasely Crawford Stadium in Port-of-Spain, the scoreboard showed the reality of Trinidad and Tobago's 2-1 World Cup qualifying win over the United States. But perhaps a more revealing score line would have read Veterans 2, Neophytes 1, as the combination of some veteran savvy by the home side and some rookie mistakes by the visitors allowed T&T to walk away with a priceless result.

Sharing the role of hero were 40-year-old Russell Latapy and his 36-year-old sidekick Dwight Yorke, who each scored a goal in the second half and got the better of their U.S. counterparts when it mattered most. Combined with Guatemala's shocking 2-1 loss to Cuba, the Soca Warriors are now all but assured of progressing to next year's Hexagonal (the final round of CONCACAF Olympic qualifying; the U.S. has already secured a spot).

In the process, this young American team, shorn of all but three players who started Saturday against Cuba, showed that while they are indeed talented, they'll need considerably more seasoning before being trusted with say, a road match in either Mexico City's Estadio Azteca or the Estadio Ricardo Saprissa in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Of course, acquiring more experience was exactly why U.S. coach Bob Bradley fielded such a lineup to begin with, and Wednesday's match certainly delivered some hard lessons that will serve this crop of young players well down the road. But I get the sense that performers such as Jozy Altidore, Jose Torres and Maurice Edu are a bit further away from playing major roles in the Hex than I might have thought, at least when it kicks off early next year.

This development was borne out by Altidore's ridiculous tug on T&T defender Makan Hislop's jersey -- in full view of the referee -- that led to Yorke's 79th-minute penalty-kick goal. Such a brain cramp simply can't happen in the cauldron that will be the final round of qualifying. And in the context of Wednesday's game, it served to nullify all that was good about Altidore's performance, which included an assist on Charlie Davies' 75th-minute equalizer.

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Guatemala
Nov. 19
Dick's Sporting Goods Park; Commerce City, Colo.
6 p.m. MT, ESPN2

As for Edu, he took a massive step backward in this game due to some wayward passes that had to be seen to be believed. Even his involvement in the buildup to Davies' goal had an element of luck about it. His terrible first touch nearly killed the attack, although he did recover to slip Altidore behind the T&T defense.

Sadly, Altidore and the rest of his young teammates were aided and abetted by some of the squad's more veteran elements. Defender Frankie Hejduk spent much of the second half passing the ball to anything but a white jersey, and his 61st-minute giveaway at the halfway line launched the attack from which the Soca Warriors scored their first goal.

Other players, like Sacha Kljestan, showed little sharpness in their passing. DaMarcus Beasley was hardly involved at all, and when he did get the ball, he seemed to be operating a few gears slower than he has in his two previous matches.

So who impressed? Freddy Adu probably showed more composure on the ball than any other U.S. player on the field. He was by no means perfect, but he showed vision and an ability to deliver the ball to a teammate.

Charlie Davies continued his climb up the U.S. forward ladder with a well-taken goal, some strong play with his back to goal, and an ability to make on overall nuisance of himself in the box. Other than these two performers, there was little else to get excited about.

Some of this is because of the performance of the Soca Warriors, who played a cagey tactical game that saw them throw few numbers into attack during a tepid first half. But given the Americans' slack marking on set pieces and loose passing in midfield, the home side no doubt figured that the chances would come, and when Latapy's 61st-minute volley caromed off the back of goalkeeper Brad Guzan and into the goal, the T&T players probably thought they had done enough.

To the Americans' credit, they did fight back vis Altidore's bull rush through the T&T defense and subsequent centering feed to Davies, only for Altidore to throw it all away just four minutes later.

The group that took the field on Wednesday will have a shot at some redemption on Nov. 19, when what figures to be a very demoralized Guatemala squad travels to Colorado for the group finale. This match could be a formality for Guatemala -- if T&T wins its home match with Cuba, Guatemala will be eliminated before the U.S. game -- yet it is another chance for the Altidores and Edus of the world to gain an additional dose of experience.

It is worth remembering, however, that the place where the real seasoning takes place is at the club level, and it's imperative that this group of players begins to find more playing time. Yes, it's a bit early to be hitting the panic button just yet, especially for players like Edu and Altidore who have barely had a chance to introduce themselves to their new teammates (at Rangers and Villarreal, respectively). But that will need to change at some point; otherwise, the rookie mistakes that were on display Wednesday will happen again.

Player ratings (scale of 1-10)

GK, Brad Guzan, 4 -- Didn't look secure in his handling, and a poor punch in the first half nearly gifted T&T a goal. Couldn't be blamed for either goal, however.

D, Heath Pearce, 5 -- Covered for his teammates well for most of the match, but lost more of his duels with T&T's Carlos Edwards as the game progressed. Posed more of a threat going forward in the second half, but didn't do much with his crosses.

D, Danny Califf, 5 -- Dealt well with the physical play of Jason Scotland, but lost Keyeno Thomas on a corner kick that should have been punished with a goal. The jobs of Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu are still safe.

D, Michael Orozco, 5 -- Stepped to the ball well for much of the game, but at times gave Latapy too much room to maneuver.

D, Frankie Hejduk, 3 -- Defended competently enough early on, but was shocking with his distribution. It was his giveaway that sparked T&T's first goal.

M, DaMarcus Beasley, 5 -- Couldn't muster a sustained impact, although this was due in part to some subpar performances elsewhere in midfield.

M, Maurice Edu, 3 -- Far too careless with the ball; he constantly tried to force passes when a safe possession approach would have served him better. He improved in the second half and contributed to the goal, but performances like this will not secure him a starting spot.

M, Francisco Torres, 5 -- Looked tidy on the ball, but lost some physical battles that lead me to believe his international future lies out wide. He had Latapy covered in the run-up to the first T&T goal, but then let him go.

M, Sacha Kljestan, 4 -- Showed a willingness to jump into the attack, but struggled mightily with his distribution.

M, Freddy Adu, 6 -- One of the few attacking players to show any composure on the ball, and while he didn't always connect with his passes, he showed good vision. I was bit surprised he was taken off.

F, Jozy Altidore, 4 -- Took turns playing hero and goat. Began to link up better with teammates as the game progressed and provided a stellar assist on Davies' goal, but his shirt tug for T&T's penalty was inexcusable.

Subs:

F, Charlie Davies, 7 -- Brought good energy, showed good strength and scored the team's only goal. Another step in the right direction.

M, Danny Szetela, 6 -- Provided a valuable option out wide, and his teammates should have done more with his low cross late in the match.

F, Chris Rolfe, NR -- Brief cameo for the Chicago forward.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

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