Fast. Dynamic. Clinical. The US was in control of tonight’s World Cup qualifying match from the first whistle. The US players were bigger, faster, stronger and more technical than the Cubans. Other than a rather fluky Cuban goal there were only positives to take away from the win that clinched passage to the hexagonal, the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
The US began the match patiently maintaining possession, gently probing the Cuban defense. As the game progressed the US found it easier to exploit the inferior Cuban side. Clint Dempsey should have opened the scoring inside six minutes; Landon Donovan played him through but Dempsey’s shot from 10 yards was hit right at the goalkeeper. It wasn’t long before the US would strike. In the 11th minue Sacha Kljestan split the Cuban defense with a perfectly weighted ball to the onrushing DaMarcus Beasley who calmly struck a shot inside the far post. Kljestan was excellent all night. He and Michael Bradley combined to control the pace of the match. Kljestan was always available and always looking forward, playing positively. He was unfortunate to not get on the scoresheet after Brian Ching got the last touch on Kljestan’s header from a Beasley set piece that was goal bound. Beasley was also on; he scored a second goal in the first half after Donovan found him with a cross-field pass behind the Cuban defense. Donovan played more creatively tonight than I can ever remember. Because Cuba was sitting back so far he wan’t able to run at defenders or find spaces to use his best asset, his speed. Instead he checked back to the ball and played flicks and clever balls into the feet of more advanced players. He was consummately unselfish in his role orchestrating the attack. Almost immediately after Beasley’s second goal Cuba broke the US and Tim Howard’s nearly 600 minute scoreless streak with a toe-poke after an unfortunate deflection off of Bradley. If there was any doubt about the result it was erased when Cuba had a man sent off for a second caution for a late tackle on a streaking Donovan just before the half ended.
Dempsey was the only player tonight who disappointed. He lost possession too often and was 0 for 2 in clear scoring opportunities: the aforementioned shot early in the match and a clear header from six yards. There were a few good moments for Dempsey especially after he moved forward in the second half. With Dempsey forward the US attacked relentlessly. After a nice spell of possession the third goal came from Donovan. Ching played a ball wide to Heath Pearce who hit an excellent low, hard cross behind the Cuban defense that Donovan calmly tapped home. Dempsey had opened the space for Donovan by making a hard-charging, unselfish near post run (ESPN commentator Harkes twice incorrectly lauded Ching for making the run).
Manager Bob Bradley injected a trio of exciting players after the US went three goals to the good via Ching’s goal in the 63rd minute. The US shifted to a 3-5-2 when Jozy Altidore and José Torres came on for Pearce and Ching. Freddy Adu came on a few minutes later for Sacha Kljestan. With the appearance Torres earned his first cap which is particularly exciting because he was eligible for both the US and Mexico. Torres grew up in East Texas the son of Mexican parents; he moved to Mexico at age 16 after being signed by Pachuca, one of Mexico’s premier teams. Steven Goff of the Washington Post has some good quotes from Torres about his choice here. There was a great sign at RFK, the site of tonight’s match: Torres > Castillo. Edgar Castillo is a US-born player who decided to play for Mexico. Torres got an awesome ovation when he entered the match; it was a nice moment.
Altidore’s speed and strength caused problems for the tiring Cuban defense. He scored the fifth US goal on a nice display of strength and skill: Altidore received a good pass from Dempsey and played it forward to himself with his first touch then once inside the 18 cut inside the retreating defender and powered a low shot inside the near post. Late substitute Freddy Adu also impressed in his limited minutes. Presumably bored by a lack of work, defender Oguchi Onyewu found himself the recipient of a pinpoint Adu cross. Onyewu, who grew up in nearby Olney, powerfully headed home the cross in front of his hometown fans. Onyewu and his defensive partner Carlos Bocanegra were not called upon much but performed flawlessly. Steven Cherundolo, the right fullback, had a quiet, unspectacular night. He didn’t get forward too often and since the US had the vast majority of the possession it meant he wasn’t too involved in the play.
After four matches the US is sitting with a perfect 12 points and qualified. For the last two matches Bob Bradley will be able to get younger players valuable experience in matches that are meaningful to the US opponents. Trinidad and Tobago, Wednesday’s opponent, is tied with Guatemala for second place which is hugely important because only two teams from each group qualify for the next round. It won’t be until February 11 that the US plays its next meaningful match. Mission accomplished.