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Mar 30, 2009

U.S. looks to restore order against the Soca Warriors

All it took was one shaky performance, one thoroughly disappointing 70 minutes of soccer to show that the U.S. national team would not be bulldozing its way through CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. Now, instead of being seen as an unstoppable force that should cruise to a place in the 2010 World Cup, the United States looks more like a flawed power with some problems that need correcting before a seemingly easy stroll through qualifying turns into an increasingly difficult one.

That's what one subpar performance will do, and there is no other way to describe the United States' showing against El Salvador on Saturday. Yes, the Americans showed great heart and determination to erase a two-goal deficit and escape San Salvador with a point in a 2-2 draw on Saturday, but that stirring comeback did not erase the memory of an otherwise uninspiring effort.

Does this mean there is cause for concern heading into Wednesday's World Cup qualifier against Trinidad & Tobago in Nashville? There should be. The fact is that while the United States is in first place in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying and managed a road point despite missing goalkeeper Tim Howard and defender Oguchi Onyewu, Saturday's draw suddenly means that a slipup against T&T could drop the Americans from the top of the Hexagonal to the middle of the pack with several tough road games to come.

Why should the Americans be worried when they have won nine straight home World Cup qualifiers and haven't dropped points at home in qualifying since a 1-1 tie versus Jamaica on Nov. 17, 2004? They need to be worried because several starters have fallen into ruts that leave you wondering if it is time for coach Bob Bradley to look elsewhere for starting options.

Heading that list is Sacha Kljestan, who followed up his less-than-impressive showing versus Mexico with a disappointing effort against El Salvador. He offered little in the way of creativity and often looked lost on his defensive assignments, lapses that will probably be the final straw that makes Bradley consider other options to start versus Trinidad & Tobago.

Who will replace Kljestan in the lineup? Jose Francisco Torres is the easy choice after stepping in as a second-half substitute versus El Salvador and providing a steadying and skillful presence in a midfield that had been otherwise outplayed by the inspired and tenacious Salvadorans. Bradley could turn to veteran Pablo Mastroeni, but Torres' attacking qualities cannot be ignored, and it has become clear that the U.S. attack needs the type of boost that Torres could provide.

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. versus Trinidad & Tobago
Wednesday
LP Field, Nashville, Tenn.
7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360

Another player who thoroughly disappointed on Saturday and should be losing his grip on a starting job is left back Heath Pearce, who has failed to deliver a truly inspiring performance in almost a year. Pearce was repeatedly beaten on Saturday and offered little in the way of a threat going forward, and his defensive inadequacies were only magnified by a disappointing showing by left winger DaMarcus Beasley, who usually can be counted on to cover the defensive weakness of the left back spot.

Who will replace Pearce? From a long-term standpoint, Bradley needs to figure this out because a tough schedule looms this summer and Pearce will only continue to serve as the weak link opponents go after. In the short term, and as far as Wednesday night's match, Bradley should consider the possibility of starting Jonathan Spector, who is healthy and adept at playing the position. With T&T boasting speeding winger Carlos Edwards, who got the better of Pearce when Trinidad & Tobago defeated a short-handed U.S. team in the last round of World Cup qualifying, Bradley may have no choice but to go with Spector.

There is also the possibility of using Beasley at left back, which is something that has been worth considering in the past given his speed and defensive qualities. At least that was before Beasley's performance on Saturday, when he looked a step or two slower than usual and his touch was terrible. Evidence of his lack of playing time at Glasgow Rangers was there for all to see, which is cause for alarm because there are even fewer options for left midfield in the U.S. pool than for left back.

One player who has provided some more evidence that he should be considered for a starting role is Jozy Altidore, who scored the first of two U.S. goals in Saturday's comeback. It is tough to deny that Altidore makes things happen when he gets playing time, and while he is still young and learning the game, it might be time to give him a look on Wednesday. Veteran Brian Ching didn't play poorly on Saturday -- his beautiful lay-off pass to Frankie Hejduk helped set up Altidore's goal -- but Ching's lack of goal production has to be causing some concern.

One option could be to use Ching and Altidore together, and push Donovan into a midfield role. It is something worth considering, especially after watching Donovan struggle to get involved because the U.S. midfield was overrun and outplayed by El Salvador for much of Saturday's match. Donovan is best running at defenders, so starting him out in midfield, potentially on the left wing with DaMarcus Beasley playing as a left back behind him, could be a way to get Donovan going offensively.

Defensively, The U.S. team will gladly welcome the return of Howard and Onyewu, who were both sorely missed on Saturday. While Brad Guzan wasn't terrible in Howard's place, the drop-off at the position was easy to see on Saturday. Onyewu's absence was even more glaring because of the latest poor performance from defender Dan Califf, who did little to show that he deserves any more chances to start for the national team.

Having Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra together again will be key against a Trinidad & Tobago side that boasts the highly dangerous Kenwyne Jones, who played just 30 minutes in T&T's 1-1 tie versus Honduras. Jones was injured and didn't play in either of these team's meetings in the last round of qualifying, but he is healthy now and was rested versus Honduras with the United States match in mind. His combination of size, speed and finishing ability will certainly create problems for a U.S. defense that looked extremely shaky on Saturday.

In fact, Jones is just one of a handful of attacking players capable of burning the U.S. back line. Jones, Edwards and free-kick specialist Keon Daniel are all as good or better than anybody on El Salvador and are capable of pouncing if the U.S. comes out flat for a second straight game.

What remains to be seen is where the scoring chances will come from for the Americans. Trinidad & Tobago isn't exactly known for stingy defense these days, so opportunities should come, but the United States will have to step its game up considerably from Saturday's subpar effort if the U.S. team is going score goals and secure the three points necessary to restore some of the confidence lost on Saturday.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN Soccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.

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