In tonight’s World Cup qualifying match in Chicago there was never a doubt that the US would win against a Trinidad & Tobago (T&T) team that was lacking in confidence, effort, commitment and organization. Michael Bradley deftly flicked in a Landon Donovan set piece inside of 10 minutes and the US never looked back. From the first minute the US midfielders had time and space to play because T&T sat back so deep. ESPN commentator Shaka Hislop defended the low pressure, zone style defense by saying that it relieved the T&T players from having to track runs from the fast US midfielders from deep in the midfield. If the aim was to limit goals, to an extent the tactic worked as only one of the three goals came from the run of play. If the aim was to win, it failed miserably as T&T had severely limited possession and only generated one decent chance which came from a corner kick while it surrendered a bucketload of chances to the US. There were many factors that led to the US dominance, one being a flat, wide, well-lighted field–a luxury the US did not enjoy in its first two matches in less than ideal conditions in Guatemala and Cuba.
After the first goal, T&T did not come out of its shell. Always on the horizon, the nicely orchestrated second goal came before halftime. Oguchi Onyewu won a ball that was played forward by the T&T defense. Clint Dempsey controlled the ball, played it to DaMarcus Beasley and then received a return pass as he sprinted into the area. After taking a touch, Dempsey slotted the ball low into the far corner of the goal. The US was more aggressive with its forward runs tonight as compared to its first two away qualifiers: it was not uncommon to see three players making runs inside the box while a midfielder or fullback mulled his options. The problem with games like these is that they can foster bad habits. The ability to play fast is so important against decent opposition. Tonight there was no need to; on several occasions Bradley or Dempsey could have taken a touch, had a sandwich, and then played forward. I’ve seen more pressure applied at the end of Saturday morning pick-up games. You’ll never face this kind of tactic in a World Cup. Though I would have liked to see more up-tempo play and more goals from the run of play, it is difficult to remain dissatisfied with a 3-0 scoreline in a World Cup qualifier.
Dempsey was interviewed after the match. Never one to mince words he said his opponent, the T&T left back, was an inexperienced weak link who gave him too much space. He also pointed out that the pace and passing ability of Beasley and Landon Donovan unbalanced the Trinidadians which gave him more opportunity to exploit the gaps. The varying attack of the US also was effective in keeping T&T uncomfortable.
The US played the now familiar 4-2-3-1. The central defensive midfield duo of Bradley and Sacha Kljestan kept the field open by smartly mixing short passes, switches and long diagonal balls. It took Kljestan a few minutes to find his feet and he didn’t have the most effective night, but he did improve as the game wore on. Kljestan had an outstanding Olympics and is enjoying a best XI season with Chivas. I was glad to see him in the first eleven tonight. Bradley’s passing wasn’t as sharp as it should have been, but overall he played well, making good decisions with regard to when to push and when to slow. He controlled the first half of the match. Beasley was better than he was against Cuba but still not particularly effective in his attacking play. Donovan was good. He played quickly and decisively. His runs were committed and intelligent and his touches were sure. Aside from the assist from the set piece Donovan does not have much to show for his effort, but he did have a large impact on the game.
Steve Cherundolo, back from his one-game suspension for the red card he received in Guatemala, moved forward from his right back position and freely roamed the right side providing support to Dempsey. He combined well and served some nice balls without ever getting exposed. Conversely his left-sided compatriot Heath Pearce again looked like the weakest US link, not looking particularly comfortable defending or passing. Playing at home with a lead, tonight would have been a good opportunity for Pearce to cement his status as the US left back. I am still unconvinced. Against an opponent the quality of Mexico or better I’d prefer to see Frankie Hedjuk. Between the fullbacks were the steady tandem of Onyewu and captain Carlos Bocanegra. Both again played flawlessly. The US has not allowed a goal in its first five qualifiers in large part due to their solid defending as well as the timely goalkeeping of Tim Howard. Howard was not called on tonight, but he must be given some credit for the organization of the players in front of him. The defenders also proved dangerous on set pieces again, as they did against Guatemala. The third goal was the result of Onyewu strongly challenging for a header; the challenge caused the T&T goalkeeper to be out of position and the goal open. Brian Ching took advantage by calmly heading the ball in to effectively end the match. Ching was not as solid tonight as he was against Cuba. He struggled a bit with the physical treatment from the T&T defenders. Ching also botched a clear opportunity that was provided by a brilliant Donovan run and cross. Caught in two minds or perhaps no mind at all Ching thigh trapped a shot directly to the T&T ‘keeper from inside 10 yards. All that said, it was not a night when a lone forward was going to find any space to operate in.
Now it is back to the club teams for a month before the next match October 11 against Cuba in DC. Bradley is headed to Germany to compete in the Bundesliga for Borussia Mönchengladbach after a last minute transfer was agreed upon with his former Dutch side, Heereneven. Cherundolo is also based in Germany with Hannover 96. Beasley and Maurice Edu are off to Scotland to play for Rangers. Howard and Dempsey will rejoin their English clubs, Everton and Fulham while Onyewu and Bocanegra return to Belgium and France, respectively. Donovan, Kljestan and Ching will stay stateside for the time being but if I was a betting man I’d wager that Donovan and Kljestan will be heading to Europe when the transer window opens again in December.
Three is a magic number. Three matches, three shutouts, three wins, three goals tonight, three matches remain. Who could ask for more?