Take one look at the box score from the United States' 2-0 win over Guatemala on Wednesday, and it's tempting to let the coronation of the team's young pups commence. The U.S. received goals from Kenny Cooper and Freddy Adu, with the former tally coming courtesy of an inch-perfect pass from Jozy Altidore. And although fans have been salivating over the prospect of viewing such performances for a couple of years now, it's important to keep this latest result in perspective. This World Cup qualifying triumph was a building block, and nothing more. Hailing Cooper, Adu, and Altidore as international royalty will have to wait for tougher, more meaningful games.
That's not to say there weren't some positive signs in Wednesday's match. At a minimum, manager Bob Bradley will have instilled a smidgen more confidence in the younger members of his side, while also realizing he has perhaps a few more options in certain parts of the field than he might have thought previously. This was especially true on defense, where the central tandem of Michael Parkhurst and Clarence Goodson was solid and John Thorrington gave a pretty reasonable impersonation of a right back.
But Bradley might find himself a touch disappointed that Guatemala didn't pose more of a challenge to his side. Los Chapines were supposed to be fighting for their World Cup lives, needing a win, as well as a Cuba upset of Trinidad & Tobago, to snatch the final qualifying spot in CONCACAF's Group 1.
What was on view instead was an oddly tepid Guatemala team that seemed capable of threatening the American goal only once the game was out of hand. Until then, the visitors' attacking game plan consisted primarily of lumping the ball forward to 39-year-old striker Mario Acevedo, who was stifled by Goodson and Parkhurst. Guatemala midfielder Carlos Figueroa did unsettle opposite number Jonathan Bornstein a few times, but Parkhurst was always there to pick up the slack.
As for the U.S. attack, it certainly looked sharper than in its previous outing last month against T&T, although, as Bradley pointed out at halftime, its tempo needed to be kicked up a notch or two. That didn't stop the U.S. from creating several clear chances, with both Sacha Kljestan and Ricardo Clark repeatedly setting the table for the front-runners. Unfortunately, Cooper's timing with his teammates was a touch off, preventing him from cashing in.
And in an ironic twist, Altidore's finishing on the night was reminiscent of that of his much-maligned rivals. His most glaring miss came early in the second half when, after chesting down a pass from Bornstein, he skied his attempt way over the bar. He was also too unselfish early in the match, opting to pass instead of shoot when given a clear look at goal.
But in a sign of just how varied Altidore's game can be, he then assumed the role of provider. It was his perfect cross to Cooper in the 54th minute, after some nifty footwork on the left wing, that allowed the FC Dallas forward to volley home from close range.
Adu also had a game in which he blew hot and cold. The Monaco attacker threatened the Guatemala goal several times from distance, and was also dangerous when he tucked inside from his spot on the right side of midfield. But his attempts to take defenders on revealed a shaky touch that often saw Adu kick the ball too far out in front of him, making him easy pickings for opposition defenders. Yet, like most of his teammates, Adu looked sharper as the game went on, and his sublime free kick in the 69th minute put the game away.
So how close is any one of these players to securing a starting role? Altidore would appear to be the closest, although as with Cooper, there are times when he could put his considerable size to better use. Perhaps it's a matter of expectations, but neither player seems to win as many physical battles as he should.
Altidore's offensive game certainly offers more than that of Brian Ching, but the Hawaiian's ability to hold the ball up and defend from the top retains plenty of value. Heading into the next round of qualifying, expect Ching to still start -- for the moment, at least -- with Altidore in the role of the first substitute forward. Cooper is in much the same position, although he seems behind Altidore in the U.S. forward pecking order. This might strike some as heresy, but it's important to remember that opponents in the next round will offer up the kind of physical battles in which Ching excels.
As for Adu, his preferred spot as an advanced attacker playing behind a lone striker is the domain of Landon Donovan or Clint Dempsey. And it's not clear that his defense is to the level that he can be trusted with a spot on the outside of midfield. As with Altidore and Cooper, a starting spot still seems a ways off.
Still, having building blocks such as these isn't a bad position to be in.
Player ratings (scale of 1-10)
GK, Brad Guzan, 6 -- Was competent with his handling, and delivered a sharp save on a Pando Ramirez shot in the 85th minute, but struggled at times with his distribution.
D, Jonathan Bornstein, 4 -- Was clearly the weakest link in the U.S. defense, as he didn't look secure when going up against Figueroa. Got forward well, but his crossing was subpar.
D, Michael Parkhurst, 7 -- Had one of his typical, don't-notice-him-much performances. He did have some key clearances on crosses into the box, and his passing out of the back was sharp, as well.
D, Clarence Goodson, 7 -- Delivered some composed play, in terms of his defending and his distribution out of the back. Guatemala forward Acevedo didn't get a sniff.
D, John Thorrington, 6 -- Considering he's not really a right back, Thorrington held up well, and he made some good contributions into the attack. Looked to have won a penalty early on, but referee Benito Archundia wanted no part of it.
M, Freddy Adu, 6 -- Took turns making scintillating and then pedestrian plays. Stung the palms of Ricardo Jerez with an 18th-minute drive, but poor touches stopped some his runs before they could begin. His free-kick goal in the 69th minute was pure class, though.
M, Pablo Mastroeni, 6 -- Played calm and simple when on the ball and bottled up the middle effectively. Picked up a needless yellow card with the game already decided.
M. Ricardo Clark, 6 -- Contributed to the attack and showed much greater range on his passing than in previous performances, while displaying his usual bite while defending.
M, Sacha Kljestan, 7 -- Worked tirelessly up and down the left flank, but also was effective when tucking inside and released the strikers with some clever passes.
F, Kenny Cooper, 6 -- Looked out of sync in the first half, often straying into offside positions. Raised his game in the second, and took his goal well. He still looks as if he could make better use of his size.
F, Jozy Altidore, 6 -- On a night when his finishing was below his best, Altidore unlocked the game with an inch-perfect cross to Cooper. Also had more success in the second half when he took players on.
F, Brian Ching, 5 -- His ability to use his size and strength is still markedly higher than that of Cooper or Altidore.
F, Conor Casey, 6 -- Looked clean on the ball in his 15-minute stint.
M, Davy Arnaud, NR -- A nice end-of-season reward for the Kansas City midfielder.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.