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USA 3 Trinidad and Tobago 0, 2010 World Cup Qualifier

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On a beautiful spring night in Nashville the US dismantled Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) 3-0 on the strength of three Jozy Altidore goals in front of nearly 28,000 fans–the most ever to witness a soccer match in Tennessee.  The crowd was overwhelmingly pro-American and quite festive.  Though I prefer smaller venues–the atmosphere suffers when there are more empty seats than fans–I could not have asked for a better night and presentation than the one I witnessed at LP Field.

Manager Bob Bradley made four personnel changes and five positional changes to the team that underperformed Saturday in El Salvador.  It is difficult to draw conclusions about the changes because T&T conceded so much time and space.  At one point in the first half Michael Bradley received a pass in the center circle and had nobody within 25 yards of him: with that kind of time and space the US should dominate possession and create many scoring opportunities.  And it did.  But you can’t argue with a 3-0 win.

The first two personnel changes were expected: Tim Howard returned from suspension and Oguchi Onyewu returned from injury.  The other changes were a bit of a surprise.  Two-time World Cup veteran Pablo Mastroeni replaced Sacha Kljestan in the center of midfield while Heath Pearce was dropped from the team altogether, forcing the positional changes.  DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan dropped into deeper positions to make way for Altidore.  This game will be remembered for Altidore’s hat-trick and rightfully so; it is an excellent accomplishment.  Altidore is big, fast, strong, clever and committed.  His committed running earned him the first goal, his cleverness the second and a bit of luck got him the third.  Even with the three goals the gaps in his overall game were on display.  Altidore struggled to win first balls forward and was unable to consistently hold the ball and bring his teammates into the play, such a key skill in games against stronger opponents.  Conversely Altidore’s partner Brian Ching excelled in the details.  I was really impressed with his forceful presence against Mexico and again last night witnessed first-hand what a handful he is for defenses.

Landon Donovan was the provider of all three goals.  He and Michael Bradley were the best players on the field last night.  Two plays immediately come to mind.  First, the second goal.  With one quick turn Donovan completely unbalanced the T&T defense; he then played the perfectly weighted and placed pass to an on-rushing Altidore.  It was Altidore’s best goal as well.  He faked a shot with his left, cut inside and expertly finished into the far corner.  Second, after the second goal the US was pressing for a third; they lost possession and T&T was looking to break out on a counter-attack. Donovan sprinted back to beat two T&T midfielders to a 50-50 ball and defuse any threat.  With a more defensive-minded partner in the center of midfield Bradley was able to press forward more.  His decision-making and precision were excellent.  Bradley didn’t just make easy passes: he put Altidore in on goal with a flighted ball over the T&T defense; he changed the point of attack with sharp passes; and he played quick one- and two-touch passes in tight spaces.  Having the defensive cover of Mastroeni also allowed Bradley to burst forward more often.  He didn’t have his shooting boots on though he did test the ‘keeper once with a hard, low shot late in the game.  Mastroeni is similar to Frankie Hejduk in that you know what you’re going to get: 100% commitment.  He is a destroyer.  I’m not convinced we needed a destroyer agaisnt T&T but it is sure good to have him on the field against opponents like Italy and Mexico.

Clint Dempsey, the fourth midfielder in Bradley’s 4-4-2, had a solid if unspectacular night.  He played positively, rarely losing possession.  Most of the play went through Donovan at the expense of Dempsey.  Even so Dempsey tired around the 60th minute.  The travel and short turn-around time may have gotten to him.  Bradley needs to be quicker about recognizing tired players and substituting.  With quality options like Kljestan, Jose Francisco Torres and Maurice Edu on the bench there is no reason for tired players to remain on the field.

The US defense had little to do.  Tim Howard only needed to make one save.  Captain Carlos Bocanegra kept things organized and tidy.  He started the sequence that led to the first goal, playing an excellent long ball forward to Ching.  Onyewu was sloppy with his touch and distribution, but defended well.  His size and strength were good to have against the large T&T team.  The fullbacks were more involved in the game.   Hejduk brought the energy he is known for.  Before the game started Hejduk sprinted down the sideline waving his arms like a wild man, getting the crowd going.  He got in the seemingly required three wild, two-footed tackles.  On the offensive end, he struggled; his crosses were just awful.  Against a team with the size of T&T the flighted crosses should’ve been kept to a minimum, even on the set pieces.  Beasley was the opposite fullback.  He was a bit uncomfortable in his new role and was outplayed in the first half by T&T’s Carlos Edwards.  In the second half Edwards outran Beasley down the right side, something I’ve never seen before.  That said, Beasley may be the best option at left back.  He defends well, has good recovery speed and can serve a decent cross.

Bradley waited 81 minutes to make a substitution, an odd decision considering the game was over at the 71st minute and several important players would miss the next match with a yellow.  Torres entered in the 81st minute, Kljestan in the 84th.  Both did well to maintain possession in the offensive half.

With the win the US remains on top of the group with seven points.  Costa Rica is close behind with six points, and is the next US opponent.  The game is June 3 in Costa Rica, and is sure to be in a stadium with a hostile environment similar to the one faced in San Salvador.  The US will look to build on the momentum that began shifting in the end of the El Salvador match and continued on in last night’s romp.

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