When it comes to the U.S. attack, it long has been thought that Brian Ching was merely keeping the forward position warm for Jozy Altidore, especially given manager Bob Bradley's tendency to play with a single striker. But based on Wednesday's 3-0 dismantling of Trinidad and Tobago, which featured an Altidore hat trick, it's clear the Americans' offense functions a heck of lot better when both players are in the lineup.
Bradley's decision to go with a 4-4-2 alignment, as opposed to the 4-2-3-1 he had employed recently, had its roots in the El Salvador game, in which Altidore and Ching combined well during their time on the field together. The athleticism and power Trinidad and Tobago normally brings also made it imperative that the U.S match those attributes.
"The thinking was to have Ching and Altidore battling against their center-halves, who are big guys, and not let them have an easy night," reserve defender Jay DeMerit said via telephone. "To get three goals definitely shows that those guys were willing to battle and willing to fight and finish the chances when they got them."
The change had a positive, domino-like effect on the midfield as well. Landon Donovan, who was invisible for long stretches during the El Salvador game, was constantly involved in the offense and assisted on all three of Altidore's goals. Collectively, the U.S. had more numbers around the ball, which made it much easier to transition from defense to attack, something that was lacking against El Salvador.
In addition to the change in tactics, a change in attitude aided the Americans' cause. An aggressive approach allowed the U.S. to enjoy a dominant first half, one in which they should have led by more than one goal. The Yanks also were dangerous from a variety of areas and angles, and the width that so often was lacking against El Salvador was a near-constant threat, with DaMarcus Beasley and Frankie Hejduk both continually pushing forward from their outside back positions.
The early part of the second half saw the U.S. less effective in attack, although that was due in part to Trinidad and Tobago coach Francisco Maturana's decision to replace ineffective right back Anthony Wolfe with Makan Hislop. A bit more intensity on the part of the Soca Warriors also slowed the pace of the U.S. offense, and as the half progressed, the sense that the Americans might pay for not putting Trinidad and Tobago away when they had the chance began to gain some momentum.
But Altidore left no doubt as to the outcome. His goal in the 71st minute from Donovan's centering feed effectively sealed matters, and some unselfish play on the part of Donovan and Michael Bradley -- who basically had a two-on-nothing break before teeing up Altidore -- allowed the U.S. forward to complete his hat trick with one minute of normal time remaining.
"He's a player that, you know, we have known for a while is going to be a big part of our team going forward, but things need to be earned," Bradley told The Associated Press. "Things need to come at the right time."
The result amounted to a collective sigh of relief for the Americans. The Hexagonal is shaping up as a four-horse race for the three guaranteed qualifying spots, with the U.S., Mexico, Honduras and Costa Rica all in the mix. The fourth-place finisher will draw the unfortunate assignment of having to go to a playoff against the fifth-place finisher from South America, and the tie against El Salvador had created some concern that the U.S. would be sucked into the battle to avoid that position.
"I don't think there was too much pressure going into the game," DeMerit said. "I think it was more the pressure we were putting on ourselves. Sometimes that can backfire, but thankfully, everyone did their jobs, everyone stayed solid, and it was a great win."
With seven points now from three matches, the chances of the U.S. facing the playoff have lessened, although there still is plenty of work to be done. The Americans' schedule so far -- which has included games against arguably the two weakest teams in the Hexagonal -- has been easier than those of their rivals. The next two qualifiers -- June 3 in Costa Rica and June 6 at home against Honduras -- will be absolutely critical in determining whether the Americans' road to South Africa will be a beautiful, smooth highway or one full of potholes.
Whether Bradley will continue with the two-striker alignment isn't a slam dunk, although one would think on the basis of this game that it should be. Three months is an eternity, and who knows what kind of form Ching and Altidore will be in when the next round of qualifying rolls around.
But for one night at least, the switch worked to perfection.
Player ratings (scale of 1 to 10)
GK, Tim Howard, 5 -- Nearly conceded a howler early on with a poor clearance but was otherwise untroubled on the night.
D, DaMarcus Beasley, 5 -- A much better performance, and he added plenty to the attack. But he still allowed Carlos Edwards too much space out wide. Fortunately for the U.S., Edwards' crosses were poor. Overall, not bad for Beasley's first full game at left back.
D, Carlos Bocanegra, 6 -- Better on all fronts, and his long ball out of the back started the sequence that led to Altidore's first goal.
D, Oguchi Onyewu, 5 -- His defense was solid enough, but he wasn't as clean with his passing as he should have been. Also a bit foul prone.
D, Frankie Hejduk, 5 -- Was solid defensively and consistently got forward, but the quality of his crosses was lacking.
M, Clint Dempsey, 5 -- Initiated plenty of offense in the first half, whether it was springing Hejduk out wide or feeding the strikers. But he fell off the pace in the second half, making some curious decisions on the ball.
M, Michael Bradley, 6 -- Was a little too eager to commit defensively at times but did well in his distribution, especially in switching the point of attack.
M, Pablo Mastroeni, 6 -- Wasn't flashy but provided plenty of defensive security in the midfield.
M, Landon Donovan, 8 -- Night and day from the weekend. Was active and always around the ball. With a bit more luck, he might have had five assists.
F, Brian Ching, 6 -- Did all the dirty work, but with Altidore and Donovan nearby, he had a lot more help.
F, Jozy Altidore, 9 -- Took his goals well, although Clayton Ince should have saved the last one. That said, there really can be no complaints about his stellar performance, although he could have had four goals had he not missed an open goal in the first half.
M, Jose Francisco Torres, 6 -- Showed off his skill once again. The Gold Cup could be his coming out party.
M, Sacha Kljestan, NR -- Brief cameo for the Chivas USA 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.