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Oct 12, 2009

Qualification assured, but it only gets harder for the U.S.

This World Cup qualification process often was more emotional than first love, as rickety as an old amusement park ride. The United States nailed down another World Cup berth, with a match to spare, no less. And yet, the process was weighed down with angst and consternation, even while ferrying the Americans where they always expected to be.

The U.S. claimed passage to a sixth consecutive World Cup but did so behind a manager who enjoys tepid fan support and has a roster stocked with a small percentage of truly world-class talent. The team will be plotting a course in the summer of 2010 in South Africa against a backdrop of poor odds.

Still, South Africa, here come the Yanks! Whether it's the version that sometimes wandered through qualifying lacking authority or whether it's the version that roared temporarily in the Confederations Cup, who really can say?

It certainly has been a mercurial march.

"A least for a day, maybe for the next few weeks, we can celebrate the achievement," said ESPN analyst Alexi Lalas, a member of the U.S. World Cup teams in 1994 and 1998. "But we do it with some perspective of what we've seen over the last few rounds. Because we know it only gets harder from here."

How appropriate that the punctuation mark on such a difficult-to-define dash was added by ... wait for it ... Conor Casey! Talk about unlikely heroes. The man who provided two huge goals Saturday to push the Yanks the last mile is one whose very presence in the starting lineup shocked most U.S. fans.

U.S. men's schedule
Wednesday
U.S. vs. Costa Rica
RFK Stadium, Washington, D.C.
8 p.m. ET
ESPN2, ESPN360.com

And how ironic that this long and winding 17-month qualification process would finish for most U.S. supporters in such an unfamiliar place on the TV map, the irritating and slightly shady closed-circuit neighborhood?

Now the U.S. will be one of six nations to participate in six consecutive World Cups (including next summer's), joining Brazil, Germany, Italy, Spain and Korea Republic. That's a pretty decent list to hook up with, no?

Dissecting the dicey prospects for next summer can wait; we've got all winter for that. No matter what anybody thinks about an imperfect and frequently unlovely process, and how it all unfolded, Bob Bradley's U.S. team had enough stuff to get there, slaloming through this improving CONCACAF field.

Did the U.S look good in its mission? Not particularly. On the other hand, take a gander around the globe at the teams that would love to be sitting so pretty at the moment.

"It's not our divine right" to qualify, goalkeeper Tim Howard told ESPN after Saturday's match. "We still had to work hard for it."

There's no arguing it. Howard is correct, and credit certainly is in order.

On the other hand, the U.S. has equaled or surpassed Mexico as the big kid on the CONCACAF block, so qualification now is more of a starting point than a finish line. Bradley and this version of the national team will be judged not by gathering what now is viewed, rightly or wrongly, as low-hanging fruit. The true assessment starts and finishes next summer in South Africa.

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"The team at times looked good, and at times it didn't," Lalas said. "But what you can't take away is that it went down to Honduras and got a very good result in a very difficult environment. So you look at it and you say, 'This team has something.' But you also recognize that qualifying is just qualifying and what really matters ultimately is what happens at the World Cup. That's what Bob and this team will be judged on, whether that is fair or not."

Did Bradley's choices on tactics and personnel provide delicious fodder for discussion all along the way? Sure. Short of a Spain-like parade of knockout punches, managerial maneuvers always will be sliced and diced like so much Kobe at the local hibachi grill.

But Bradley's choice to attack the fortress at San Pedro Sula with a no-nonsense sledgehammer (Casey) instead of a more surgical chisel (Jozy Altidore) proved utterly prescient. Even the legion of Bradley bashers should lay down its cudgels for a temporary round of applause for this one. Bradley correctly judged that Casey's scrappy, stubborn ways were needed to balance an intimidating Honduran night, one thick with weapons-grade passion.

The kindest among the ever-growing legion of all-knowing supporters propose Casey is merely a blunt object, a good Major League Soccer soldier with little to contribute at the international level. The less kind snobbishly dismiss Casey and MLS as wholly pedestrian and not worth the socks they are wearing -- never mind that half the players who started Saturday's big win play in MLS.

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And Bradley was accurate on exactly what Saturday's match required: smart and patient management of the early, inevitable Honduran onslaught.

Will it be enough to sate the critics? Unlikely. So part of the conversation going forward surely will revolve around the managerial post and whether U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati should upgrade with a sexier name. For the record, Gulati has said that won't happen, that Bradley is his man -- but don't think for a second that will stop a number of supporters from advocating a spin of the global managerial wheel.

And there will be personnel matters aplenty to discus in the seven-month World Cup run-up. Is bringing in Edgar Castillo or Jermaine Jones worth the risk of damaging locker room accord? Is a left back out there? Is there a winning combination in that mishmash of attacking options?

More World Cup coverage

For more features, analysis, predictions and opinion about the World Cup, drop by our special U.S. index page.

Even choices that once seemed solid might be in play. Oguchi Onyewu is still the first-choice center back, which seems unlikely to change. But his lack of playing time at AC Milan certainly will be considered when fans discus his giveaway and foul Saturday on Carlos Pavon just outside the penalty area, which presented the home team an opportunity and the game's first goal.

One thing can't be debated: Landon Donovan's value. This will be his third World Cup, assuming he remains healthy before next summer. And the U.S. had better hope that he does, because Donovan has been nothing less than heroic through final-stage qualifying. Where would U.S. Soccer be today without his passing, his dangerous set-piece deliveries, his ability to keep defenses honest with his speed, and his drive to get up and down the flank?

Officially, the season for debate on the best 23 for South Africa begins Wednesday, when Bradley's bunch plays out the qualifier string in Washington, D.C., against Costa Rica. The real date to watch is Dec. 4, when groups are drawn in Cape Town, and South Africa 2010 fates and fortunes begin to be written.

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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