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Sep 6, 2009

U.S. performance not quite according to plan

SANDY, Utah -- The plan all week for the U.S. soccer team ahead of its World Cup qualifier was simple: Play an attacking lineup, grab an early lead, then wear out El Salvador by possessing the ball in the midfield.

One out of three ain't bad. In fact, it was good enough for a 2-1 victory and three points, keeping the U.S. on track for a berth at next year's World Cup in South Africa.

U.S. coach Bob Bradley started an offensive-minded lineup, with Jozy Altidore and Charlie Davies at forward, and the creative Benny Feilhaber alongside attack-minded Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan in the midfield. Meanwhile, left back Jonathan Bornstein made several overlapping runs up the field, and right back Jonathan Spector attacked with long balls to the forwards.

Yet despite creating scoring chances early, the U.S. found a way to fall behind, on Christian Castillo's header off a Rodolfo Zelaya assist in the 32nd minute.

"I was angry," Donovan said. "We started the game pretty well and put them under a lot of pressure. We should have found a way to get a goal and then we make one mistake and they capitalize. It was frustrating."

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To the Yanks' credit, they didn't panic and continued their assault, getting the results in the last 10 minutes of the half that they wanted in the first 10. Davies and Dempsey both had near misses before Donovan took control of the match with two beautiful crosses, setting up Dempsey and Altidore for the tying and go-ahead goals late in the first half.

The Americans didn't score first, but they had their lead.

Now it was time for the possession part. Again, things didn't go as planned. Feilhaber, Michael Bradley and Donovan opened the half in complete control, taking their time and working the ball around patiently. For about five minutes.

Then El Salvador's defense grew increasingly ragged, all but inviting the Americans to spread out and attack. The U.S. took the Salvadorans up on their offer. Spector launched a pair of threatening crosses, and Davies picked off a Salvador pass to set up Bradley for a blast that airmailed the goal.

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The U.S. seemed to seal it in the 58th minute, when Altidore put the ball into the net after a spectacular sliding feed from Dempsey. Except it wasn't a goal. Referee Jose Pineda ruled a foul of some sort, apparently on Altidore, possibly on Dempsey, though nobody was quite sure. "It couldn't have been on me," Dempsey said. "I don't see how it could have been a foul on me when I passed the ball. At the same time I don't know how it could have been a foul on Jozy. You'd have to ask the referee, and if he did call a foul on me, I don't know what game he was watching."

Altidore did ask Pineda after the match. He got no answer.

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In any case, from that point on, the match deteriorated, with the two sides exchanging end-to-end runs, and the Americans holding on by their fingernails. "We controlled a lot of the second half," said U.S. goalie Tim Howard, "but it ended up being like a track meet back and forth."

That was because El Salvador's defense was so open. "Inside we're saying, 'What do we do? Well, when we win the ball back, we have to break,'" Howard said. "But then we'd lose it and it comes back at us. It ends up being a tricky type of game."

Added Dempsey: "If you look at the game again, I think we'll probably be a bit disappointed that it was so open. But in spurts, we did keep the ball well, but we pushed so much forward to put the game away we left ourselves a little bit exposed."

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Michael Bradley agreed the team did a good job at times with possession, but added, "It can always be better. In an ideal world you get the third goal and then the fourth goal and it's done. That's not the way it went today."

He's not complaining, though. "Good teams have to know how to win by a goal," Bradley said. "You get to this point in qualifying, and it's not about how it looks. One team gets three points at the end of the game. And it better be you."

Luke Cyphers is a senior writer for ESPN The Mag.

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