If it's possible for a team to underwhelm its way to a World Cup qualifying berth, the U.S. men's national team might be the team to do it, with Saturday's 2-1 white-knuckle win over El Salvador just the latest in a line of shaky qualifying performances.
And three points (for a win) -- not one (for a tie) -- is exactly what the U.S. must take from this match. Mexico's 3-0 road pasting of Costa Rica on Saturday has created even more of a logjam in the standings. Goal difference is all that is separating Honduras and the U.S. at the top, while El Tri and the Ticos are just a point behind.
But how CONCACAF's gang of four does against the likes of El Salvador and T&T likely will determine which teams secure the three automatic qualifying slots, and which unlucky side lands in fourth place and thus will face a playoff date, possibly with (gulp) Argentina. Mexico's win last Saturday made up for its shocking loss to El Salvador earlier in qualifying, while the same result negated Costa Rica's away win against T&T. Honduras and the U.S. each has garnered one point on the road while remaining perfect at home. And with the U.S. closing out qualifying with matches at Honduras and at home to Costa Rica, the Americans must do everything they can to give themselves some breathing room.
"We have to continue to fight for every point," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said after Saturday's win.
|U.S. men's schedule|
U.S. vs. Trinidad and Tobago
Hasely Crawford Stadium, Port of Spain, Trinidad
6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic, ESPN360.com
Getting those points out of T&T could prove trickier than it might first appear. Much has happened to the Soca Warriors since the U.S. dispatched them 3-0 in Nashville back on April 1. Shortly thereafter, Francisco Maturana resigned as head coach, with T&T legend Russell Latapy taking over. The Soca Warriors' other star, Dwight Yorke, later announced his international retirement and joined Latapy's staff as an assistant, all with the intention of reinvigorating a team that many thought had strayed from its free-flowing style.
"I think the biggest change comes just from ... guys starting over, maybe some guys who have grown frustrated are getting chances again," said Bradley in a recent phone interview about T&T's new management team. "That's not so much any one thing as much as it's just a fresh start across the board."
|Don't miss a moment of the latest U.S. soccer and MLS coverage from around the world. Follow us on Twitter and stay informed. Join|
Yet Latapy's appointment hasn't immediately altered the team's fortunes on the field, with the Soca Warriors losing three of four matches since he took over. Even with Bolton Wanderers defender Jlloyd Samuel joining their ranks, the Soca Warriors were mauled 4-1 on Saturday by Honduras, making a return trip to the World Cup highly unlikely. It raises the question of just what T&T's mental state will be on Wednesday.
"I don't think anybody gives up, but obviously [the Honduras loss] is deflating for [T&T]," said goalkeeper Tim Howard after the El Salvador match. "It's still a home game and you wonder how their crowd will react to them. Will they get on their backs or will they give them a lift? It's tough to say. I think the best thing for us is to go down there with our focus and the right mindset."
|U.S. national team blog|
Get exclusive insight into the U.S. national team and its players as they aim for South Africa. National team blog
Helping the Americans in that regard will be the return from suspension of defender Oguchi Onyewu. Not only will Onyewu's physical presence help to contain hulking T&T striker Kenwyne Jones, but his return should allow Carlos Bocanegra to return to left back. At first glance, Bocanegra doesn't seem to be the ideal candidate to go up against pacy flank players like T&T's Carlos Edwards, but given Jonathan Bornstein's struggles on Saturday, Bocanegra's experience makes him the best option available.
A bigger concern, however, is the Americans' continued inability to dictate a game's tempo, especially when they have a lead. With the U.S. clinging to a one-goal advantage on Saturday, they couldn't curb their go-for-broke attacking instincts, and the match turned into a track meet. Only Landon Donovan showed the kind of situational awareness to try to maintain possession instead of constantly going for goal. As a result, the U.S. had to survive some nervy moments in the game's latter stages when a bit more composure would have killed the game off more easily.
"If we look at the game again, I think we'll be a little disappointed on the fact that the game was so open," said attacker Clint Dempsey.
To come away with a win on Wednesday, it's imperative that the U.S. learns this lesson. The Americans' road form has been decidedly subpar during the final round of qualifying, and to counter this trend, more will be needed from the midfield tandem of Michael Bradley and Benny Feilhaber. The Americans' central duo was solid on Saturday, but they'll need to impose more of their will against T&T. Some better hold-up play from forwards Jozy Altidore and Charlie Davies -- whose calf injury is not believed to be serious -- would help, as well.
|More World Cup coverage|
For more features, analysis, predictions and opinion about the World Cup, drop by our special U.S. index page.
"It's important to have the mentality to play on the road aggressively and play the game on your terms," said coach Bradley. "That is something that's important, and something we're trying to instill."
If the U.S. is successful in this regard on Wednesday, then another giant step towards South Africa will be taken, and all talk of aesthetics can wait for another day.
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.