It was another slow start, but the U.S. national team saw another lackluster effort salvaged by a moment of brilliance from a player in the midst of an otherwise forgettable performance.
The Americans probably won't spend much time thinking about the negatives from their 1-0 victory against Trinidad & Tobago on Wednesday night, not when the three points for the win helped them move into first place in the skin-tight CONCACAF qualifying standings. However, at some point they need to look at the match and think about why they struggled yet again to dispose of one of the weaker teams in the qualifying group.
Perhaps it was fitting that Ricardo Clark was just seconds from being replaced by a substitute when he stepped up and delivered a curling 30-yard shot. Clark's goal took a ton of pressure off a U.S. team that had struggled to control an inspired Trinidad & Tobago team. Prior to his strike, Clark hadn't done much to put his stamp on the match. However, the Dynamo midfielder ran onto a Landon Donovan pass and struck a goal that kept him on the field and edged the United States even closer to the World Cup.
What the goal didn't do was ease concerns over a lengthening run of mediocre form in qualifying. In fact, not since the U.S. team's 3-0 victory over Trinidad & Tobago in April (in Nashville, Tenn.) have the Americans walked off the field looking like a team worthy of the label of regional power. During the current stretch of five less-than-stellar qualifiers, the U.S. team has gone 3-2. It's a respectable record that has helped the United States reach the top of the CONCACAF standings, but it hasn't created any truly comfortable breathing room.
That could become a problem now with two matches to go and no more pushovers on the schedule. Honduras is playing some of the best soccer in its history, a tough 1-0 loss to Mexico in Estadio Azteca on Wednesday notwithstanding. Any thoughts of the U.S. team's sleepwalking through the first half of its visit to San Pedro Sula on Oct. 10 and still escaping with points should be put to rest. If the Americans start slow against Honduras, they will be punished.
But those concerns are a month away. For now, the Americans leave Trinidad with a hard-earned shutout courtesy of Tim Howard's latest heroics and a surprisingly steady performance from Jonathan Bornstein, who rebounded from a poor outing versus El Salvador by containing T&T playmaker Hayden Tinto. Oguchi Onyewu's solid effort in central defense came as no surprise, but Bornstein's ability to deal with Tinto, and reward coach Bob Bradley's faith in him, turned into one of the pleasant surprises of the night (though Bornstein nearly ruined the script with a near own-goal in the dying moments).
Jonathan Spector also rebounded from a less-than-ideal showing versus El Salvador by holding his own against Carlos Edwards, who was threatening all night but who never broke through for a clean look until late in the match on a play away from Spector. While Spector didn't provide any of his pinpoint crosses, he still played a key role in the shutout.
Clint Dempsey had minimal impact in midfield, with a disappointing work rate and little impact on the offense. He showed much more energy after being moved up top following Clark's goal. However, his overall showing looked far too much like so many other games he's played for the national team over the past few months (with the big difference in some of those matches being that he found a way to score in the midst of otherwise disappointing displays).
The Americans' central midfield didn't dazzle on Wednesday night either, which was surprising since Trinidad & Tobago rarely played through the middle and failed to put much pressure on the tandem of Clark and Michael Bradley. In the first half, Bradley stayed busy and was one of the few Americans who kept the ball moving, while Clark looked shaky at times. In the second half, Clark remained largely invisible while Bradley began committing the type of turnovers that have plagued his recent performances.
Things changed with Clark's goal. The goal gave the U.S. sorely needed energy, as did the inclusions of Benny Feilhaber and Stuart Holden in midfield, but the second goal never came despite improved buildup play. In the end, the U.S. sweated out another one-goal lead, and had to count on goalkeeper Tim Howard to salvage another result.
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Truth be told, the U.S. won't care about the way it fashioned three points on Wednesday night, because nobody remembers how you get to the World Cup. What needs to be realized, though, is that the work of qualifying is still not done, with tricky qualifiers against Honduras and Costa Rica to come. The U.S. needs to play better, and play like the team it is expected to be, if it's to finally punch its ticket to South Africa.
Player ratings (scale of 1-10)
GK, Tim Howard, 7 -- Clutch save on a dangerous free kick was the game-changer on a night when Howard met every challenge.
D, Jonathan Spector, 5.5 -- Struggled to cope with Edwards' speed early, but eventually settled down and never let Edwards get past him.
D, Carlos Bocanegra, 5.5 -- His return to central defense wasn't dominant, and he made several mistakes that could have proved costly for the U.S.
D, Oguchi Onyewu, 6 -- Had his hands full with Kenwyne Jones, giving up some dangerous free kicks, but won everything in the air and stepped up when needed.
D, Jonathan Bornstein, 6 -- Avoided blunders and won every major challenge versus Tinto. A late mistake nearly became an own goal, but he was otherwise steady.
M, Michael Bradley, 5 -- A good, active first half was followed up by a less-productive second half when he had some needless turnovers.
M, Ricardo Clark, 6 -- Didn't break up nearly enough attacks and looked a bit unsteady in the first half, and there wasn't much difference in the second half before his beautiful game-winning goal.
M, Clint Dempsey, 5 -- Looked sluggish and almost disinterested in the first half, laying off weak passes and failing to threaten. Was better in the final 29 minutes after being moved up top, and he did play a part in the goal sequence.
M, Landon Donovan, 6 -- He set up Clark's goal and nearly added his own goal on two other occasions; displayed his trademark high work rate. Could have done better on his set-piece delivery.
F, Jozy Altidore, 5.5 -- Was confident and active all night as he tried to deal with Trinidad & Tobago's big back line.
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F, Charlie Davies, 5 -- Whether the calf injury from Saturday slowed him down or not, Davies looked a bit off. He drew some corner kicks, but didn't have any really dangerous chances.
M, Benny Feilhaber, 5 -- Came in and looked sharp, showing bite on the tackle and his usual deft touch.
F, Brian Ching, 4 -- Involved in some good late sequences, he also had some miscues and delivered a bad back-pass that nearly turned into a goal for the Soca Warriors.
M, Stuart Holden, 4.5 -- Call him the energizer bunny. Every time he comes in he brings a boost.
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Ives Galarcep covers the U.S. national team and MLS for ESPN Soccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.