(AFP/Bertrand de Peaza)
With two matchdays remaining, the United States is back on top of the CONCACAF table after it posted a rare away victory against Trinidad and Tobago. In the 24 matches played in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, the away team has only won three times (the US and Costa Rica at T&T, and Mexico at Costa Rica). In the other two CONCACAF matches last night the home team won 1-0: Mexico over Honduras and El Salvador over the suddenly pedestrian Costa Rica. The US also won 1-0 on the strength of a wonderstrike by midfielder Ricardo Clark, who particularly relished scoring while his Trinidadian father was in attendance in the Port of Spain.
The performance of the US is not something to remember: looking tired and unmotivated, it was only the woodwork that kept Cornell Glen and T&T off the scoreboard in the first half. The US was unable to possess the ball or close down T&T quickly which can often lead to exciting open matches. On this night, however, it led to sloppy play that just left me scratching my head. Is this the team that beat Spain 2-0? Excuses abound: you play down to the level of your opponent; eight plus hours of travel from Salt Lake City to Port of Spain, just seven miles off the coast of Venezuela, took its toll; it was hot; the pitch was bumpy; T&T was playing without pressure; the stadium lacked atmosphere as the stands were only half-full. As a family friend used to say, “Excuses are like b-holes; everyone has one.” So it was good to see an improved performance in the second half and a grind-it-out victory that teams with greater histories are known for.
Three performances stood out to me. 1-Jonathan Bornstein: I ripped into Bornstein after he had a howler against El Salvador on the weekend. Bob Bradley kept faith in Bornstein, and Bornstein responded well. He was less panicked, defending and in possession. T&T attacked him for the first 30 minutes of the match and then seemed to surrender. Well done Johnny B. 2-Landon Donovan: in a post-game interview Clark said Donovan is a big-time player doing big-time things. Not the most eloquent quote, but he gets the point across. Donovan passed well and made several unsettling runs at the heart of the T&T defense. He picked up yet another assist to add to his record as the US player with the most points. 3-Ricardo Clark: his goal was all that was needed. The ability of the deep midfielder to hit a bomb like that is invaluable, not just for goals but for opening up defenses. His pressure in the midfield in the second half helped the US start to defend with urgency and purpose.
The end of qualifying is just a month away, with another double fixture in the second week of October. The US will play at Honduras on the weekend and then at home against Costa Rica midweek. With the logjam at the top of the table, there are a number of circumstances in which the US will qualify. The easiest to remember is that one win and the US is in. There is still a lot of room for improvement in terms of playing composedly and possessing the ball better, but at this point the value is in getting points. A perfect six points from this round is what was required and it is what was achieved.