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Critical game ahead for U.S. against El Salvador

Once again, Estadio Azteca is where U.S. soccer progress goes on holiday. The U.S. national team's latest failed assault on Mt. Azteca was surely a buzzkill for U.S. fans, even if it did provide spectacular theater, as always. For the American side, these tussles with El Tri south of the border are always like getting a bit of bad sushi: The results aren't pretty and the night doesn't turn out like you hoped, but you've learned something and the damage is hardly permanent. You'll live to fight another day. So now we're off to "another day," and in this case, it's a far, far more important day: Sept. 5, as the United States meets El Salvador. As drama and historical context go, U.S.-El Salvador might not immediately stir the same anticipatory delight as a Yank-Mexico mash-up. But know this: For the United States' ongoing qualification campaign, the little run south of the border was always something just this side of distraction. The coming match at spectacular Rio Tinto Stadium in Utah was always the circle on the calendar. Sure enough, Bob Bradley's men could scarcely find a way out of their half of the field at Azteca, so they couldn't escape Mexico City with a point. It gives us talking points to consider for now: Was the late Confederations Cup run a growth spurt of legitimacy for this U.S. version, or merely an aberration? Was the summer swell of confidence wiped away in a smudgy Mexico City afternoon? On a micro level, can Charlie Davies be a 90-minute guy? Is Jay DeMerit ready for his close-up, as we thought? Anyway, there's time to knock it all around. But in the bigger picture, in the qualification chase, here's the important thing to remember about Wednesday's loss at Fortress Azteca. Read it slowly: It. Doesn't. Matter.

U.S. men's schedule
Sept. 5
U.S. vs. El Salvador
Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy, Utah
7 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic

Sept. 9
U.S. vs. Trinidad & Tobago
Hasely Crawford Stadium; Port of Spain, Trinidad
7 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic

Sure, the disappointment hurts. But it'll scab over and be forgotten soon enough. With wiggle room created from good performances over the first half of final-stage qualifying, the quick-turn trip to Mexico City was always merely cosmetic for the United States. So now it's all about Sept. 5 at Rio Tinto in suburban Salt Lake City. Win there at the base of the Wasatch Mountains and the Bradley Bunch is flying anew, movin' and groovin' and hell-bent for South Africa 2010. Lose? Whew. Talk about serious squeaky bum time. With the subsequent U.S. match in Trinidad and Tobago, the Yanks would feel a vise-grip pressure squeeze that seemed unimaginable just a few days ago. So mark your calendars, kids. Yes, it seems odd that such a massive match will take place inside a stadium so thin in history, a park where the paint is barely dry. But PGE Park in Portland didn't have much national team history when Tab Ramos struck a massive, memorable goal 12 years ago, one that meant so much in seeing the U.S. safely through to France '98. This is how legacies are constructed. El Salvador is fading from relevance, and a bad night at Rio Tinto could be the tiny nation's World Cup waterloo. Realistically, they need three points in Utah to resuscitate the effort. Even a draw probably won't be enough, not with a match looming in Mexico City. Four nights after the U.S. set-to in Sandy, Bradley's Bunch visits Trinidad and Tobago. Then it's off to Honduras on Oct. 10. The Americans could win either of those, or they could just as easily lose both. That's why Sept. 5 is so vital. Anything less than three points at Rio Tinto and the entire qualification is reduced to a crapshoot. OK, that might be overstating the case. But not by much. Outside of Oguchi Onyewu and Tim Howard, nobody looked particularly heroic in Mexico. Davies did OK, with one fantastic moment and some dutiful running. (But what would we all be saying and writing today if he hadn't dipped his head a wee bit early on Stuart Holden's crackerjack second-half cross?) So will there be a U.S. hangover? Not likely. The U.S. camp was always sticky with awareness that beating Mexico would be a nice bonus, but that points are points and the logistics of their earning didn't matter a lick. You might disagree with Bradley's selections and tactics. You might not like him as a manager. That comes with the territory. But one thing Bradley has unarguably done is maintain the high level of steady professionalism within the U.S. camp, something created in Bruce Arena's days. Things always remain on a pretty even keel; drama, personality conflicts and budding distractions are reliably policed by a bunch of guys adept at getting on with business. That's exactly as it should be for the team that wants to wear the sheriff's badge in the region. Bradley and his players were quite believable earlier this week when they repeatedly referenced the sum of the qualification effort as the focus, not 24 intense hours in Mexico City. Getting to South Africa is the thing, they all sang in perfect harmony. They'll have to get it done without Onyewu, who imprudently waved at a ball in the midfield Wednesday and will miss the proceedings against El Salvador for an accumulation of bookings. That probably means a little more of DeMerit, who looked something less than comfortable versus El Tri, a pardonable sin at Azteca, to be fair.
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Otherwise, barring an injury pandemic, expect the United States to be in better shape collectively. Guys like Clint Dempsey, Carlos Bocanegra, Davies and the rest of the European troops were never going to be at full fitness Wednesday. Never mind the thin air and smog; they are heavy-legged from preseason, many without a competitive match since late June in South Africa. By Sept. 5, most will be well into their domestic campaigns, sharper, fitter and more confident as a result. It sets up well for the Americans, who will be heavily favored to clobber little El Salvador. On the other hand, upsets do happen, and a win for El Salvador would turn a four-team race into a spandex-tight five-teamer. Yikes. Bradley's men only have to finish ahead of two teams to grab that fourth-place spot in CONCACAF. The No. 4 secures a last-chance opportunity for World Cup passage in a home-and-away playoff against South America's No. 5. Argentina has been oddly meek in qualifying, currently only two points out of fifth place with Brazil up next. Anybody like the U.S.'s chances in a home-and-away against Argentina with a World Cup spot on the line? Thought not. Win at Rio Tinto and that probably won't be a worry. A big night awaits in Salt Lake City. Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Dailysoccerfix.com, and can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.

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