In a press conference leading up to last night’s World Cup Qualifying match against El Salvador in Utah a reporter asked manager Bob Bradley when it becomes about style rather than just points; Bradley said, “It’s always about points.” Though I agree it sure would have been nice to see a neater performance from a makeshift US side that needed the full three points to remain in one of the three top spots in the table that guarantee a spot in South Africa next year.
Similar to the Honduras match, the US went down 1-0 in the first half. El Salvador’s two best players on the night, Zelaya and Castillo, combined to beat five US players with a cutback, cross and an innocuous header that Tim Howard badly misplayed. Zelaya collected a “clearance” from Jonathan Bornstein that landed at the top of the 18. Ridiculous. Bornstein had the worst game of the US players, defending with panic and consistently turning the ball over when trying to possess. Too often with the ball and without an idea, Bornstein would simply lump it forward. His chance for continued playing time took a severe blow when it was announced that Mexican-American Edgar Castillo is now eligible to play for the US, after FIFA accepted his transfer request from Mexico. Last night I was hoping to see Jonathan Spector on the left side of defense with Steve Cherundolo on the right, something we’ll likely see Wednesday against Trinidad & Tobago. Spector was beat on the goal, but put enough pressure on Castillo to force a weak, savable header. The rest of the night he was solid defending and composed in possession. He delivered a wonderful cross to Clint Dempsey, but Dempsey bungled it. It is hard to imagine a fully healthy US side without Spector.
With Oguchi Onyewu suspended and Jay DeMerit injured, Bradley elected to slide captain Carlos Bocanegra to the middle of defense and partner him with Chad Marshall. Marshall was the MLS player of the month in August. He was called for several fouls early before settling in and playing solidly. His forward passing was impressive as well. I still rate him behind Onyewu and DeMerit, but Marshall proved capable. Bocanegra did everything that was required of him. In the post-match conference Bradley singled him out as a player who had a large, positive influence on the match in terms of organizing an untested backline.
Only minutes after flubbing two great chances, Dempsey headed home a sublime Landon Donovan set piece. El Salvador tried to pull the U12 offside trap and was left with huevos on its collective face. Dempsey was very active all night; in his determination to score he put himself in dangerous positions and played fearlessly. It was one of his better performances of the year. Donovan played another wonderful match. He was the best player on the field yet again, tirelessly buzzing about like a man with three lungs. Donovan provided the service on the second goal as well, a header by Jozy Altidore. He led by example, tracking back when needed and always looked to impose his will.
Altidore got the goal that won the game and was robbed of a second by a dubious call by the Honduran referee Jose Pineda. Dubious is an understatement: the US was cheated. In a lightning-quick counterattack Dempsey sprung Altidore with a sliding pass and then Altidore took a couple touches before finishing. Celebration quickly turned to confusion when the rejoicing players turned around and saw El Salvador was moving forward with the ball; no explanation was granted, but replays indicate that Pineda called a foul on Dempsey for his follow-through, an absolute travesty of a call–if anything Dempsey was fouled. It wasn’t the only mistake of the night by the referee. He started the match calling several phantom calls, nearly exclusively against the US. He stopped play for an off-side infraction against El Salvador when the US was launching a promising counter-attack. It is an embarrassment to CONCACAF, FIFA and indeed the beautiful game itself to continue to staff these hugely important matches with incompetent buffoons at best, cheaters at worst.
For me Altidore still has some work to do. I love his brazenness and the fact that he scores goals and I want to continue to see him play meaningful minutes, but…for a man his size he gets pushed around too much; he doesn’t hold the ball that well; he too often will pull up in his runs rather than making the first hard run to the near post; it sometimes looks like he wears bricks for boots. That said you can’t argue with production. He scored three goals against Trinidad & Tobago, two last night though only one counted and one against El Salvador earlier in qualifying. It was fun to watch him partner our hottest forward Charlie Davies. Davies was a handful for the Salvadorans. I love his direct style and his appetite for goal. Last night he didn’t get on the scoresheet, though he came close on a couple of occasions. He is the kind of player that makes room for Altidore and deep runs from Donovan, Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Benny Feilhaber and others by instilling fear in the hearts of the opposing defenders. As long as he stays healthy and in-form the US will have a weapon against any team in the world.
Feilhaber and Bradley partnered in the middle for the US. Both put in solid performances. Most of the play was on the wide parts of the field so they didn’t get as many touches as normal. El Salvador did not maintain any possession, nor did it generate any chances through the midfield so the dropping of more defensively minded Ricardo Clark did not cause problems. Feilhaber added a creativity and calmness to the midfield. He had a few standout moments, sombreroing a Salvadoran on one occasion, lulling another to sleep before blowing past and delivering a cross that Dempsey should have finished on another. Bradley picked some good moments to move forward but apparently did not wear his shooting boots because his attempts at goal never challenged the goalkeeper. A few times Bradley slowed the attack by taking an extra touch when one would have sufficed.
Bradley waited until the 73rd minute to make a substitution, before exhausting all three with Stuart Holden, Kyle Beckerman and Jose Torres entering for Davies, Altidore and Feilhaber. Holden was an instant spark. He delivered a cross to Torres that was saved nicely by the Salvadoran goalie. Beckerman, playing in his first qualifier, looked nervous. With more time I am sure he will settle in.
It will be interesting to see what changes Bradley will make to the lineup for Wednesday’s qualifier against all but eliminated Trinidad and Tobago. With Mexico winning in Costa Rica last night and Honduras beating Trinidad and Tobago, the US sits tied for first on points with Honduras, a point ahead of Mexico and two ahead of Costa Rica. There’s such a logjam at the top that Costa Rica went from first to fourth in one matchday. So let’s not fret about style Wednesday: just win, baby.