Near the end of Wednesday's press conference following his team's 2-0 win over Mexico, you could almost see the inner conflict brewing inside of U.S. coach Bob Bradley. On the one hand, the U.S. manager was content to invoke what he calls The Nowak Rule, that of keeping any immediate critiques to himself and allowing his players to enjoy what was a significant victory. On the other, one could sense -- and hear -- that Bradley was not about to let himself or his players get too caught up in the moment, no matter how satisfying the win was.
"We've played one game in the group," said Bradley. "We're excited to start the right way. We never get ahead of ourselves."
One wouldn't blame them if they did. Yes, a 2-0 American victory was the trendy pick heading into Wednesday's encounter, but count me among those who thought the match had "trap game" written all over it. While pressure is Mexico's constant companion, some reduced expectations had put El Tri in the unfamiliar role of clear underdog, easing the tension just a bit. The role reversal also tended to increase the intensity and scrutiny on the Americans. While failing to win at home against Mexico would have been far from catastrophic for the U.S., it would have at least planted a few seeds of doubt as it pertained to their World Cup qualifying campaign.
Yet from the moment that Giovani Dos Santos squandered a clear chance after just three minutes, it was obvious that Mexico had yet to exorcise the demons that now permeate their rivalry with the U.S., at least when they venture north of the Rio Grande. In the meantime, the Yanks did what they always do against Mexico: Find a way to win regardless of personnel, tactics or weather.
So what does this mean for the U.S. going forward? In many ways, my feeling about this result is similar to when the Yanks kicked off the semifinal round of CONCACAF qualifying by beating Guatemala on the road. While some rugged trials remain, the U.S. has passed a major test, and they'll receive an immense jolt of confidence as a result. The Americans were always heavy favorites to reach the World Cup in South Africa, and Wednesday's victory has only served to shorten those odds.
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The play of the midfield against Mexico provides an additional reason for encouragement. One of Bradley's biggest challenges since taking over the U.S. program in late 2006 was to revamp the center of midfield, a difficult task given the retirement of players like Claudio Reyna and John O'Brien. Yet as recently as last summer, that project appeared to be going sideways. Benny Feilhaber, thought to be one of the keys to the team's reconstruction, was waylaid by injury and poor form. Losses to England and Spain revealed a U.S. team that was still struggling to keep the ball against top-level opponents, and with the form of every central midfielder at a low ebb, there was little reason to think things would improve.
But improve they did. Michael Bradley has continued his development, emerging as a potent two-way force. And Sacha Kljestan has improved his defense to the point that when he endures a so-so offensive performance, as he did on Wednesday, he can still find ways of helping the team with his positioning and tackling.
That said, the midfield is still very much a work in progress. Developing quality depth is still a necessity, and the hope is that Maurice Edu will eventually work his way into the lineup at Rangers and push the likes of Bradley and Kljestan. Sustaining an aggressive mindset within a game is still an issue for the U.S., as well -- evidenced by the failure to put the collective foot to the throat of Mexico after the sending off of defender Rafa Marquez in the 65th minute. A better team -- or perhaps a luckier one -- would have made the U.S. pay for its lapse in concentration, although the elder Bradley could have mitigated this development by pulling the trigger earlier on some substitutions.
The U.S. is scheduled to play March 28 on the road versus El Salvador, a side that by most measures does not qualify as "a better team." But the Estadio Cuscatlán will be a more hostile environment, and the extent to which the U.S. can apply the same kind of midfield pressure that was evident against Mexico will be interesting to see. The match will also reveal whether Wednesday's hot-and-cold performance by the back line was an aberration or an item of greater concern going forward.
Of course, as the last World Cup showed, there is an inherent danger in inferring too much from success against CONCACAF foes, especially with so many of the Americans' foreign legion riding the bench for their clubs. That's why this summer's Confederations Cup will be a better barometer of how this team is shaping up ahead of 2010.
The U.S. is in a notoriously difficult group that includes Brazil, Italy and Egypt. But if the Americans can fashion a few unexpected results, while making progress toward World Cup qualification, then perhaps Bradley can invoke The Nowak Rule without hesitation.
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.