Let's try to sum up what a bummer the last three months have been for the U.S. national team since it qualified for the 2010 World Cup:
• Stars Charlie Davies, Oguchi Onyewu and Clint Dempsey are all in doubt to be ready in time for South Africa due to serious injuries.
• The team is now winless in four straight since clinching its berth at the Cup by beating Honduras in San Pedro Sula in October.
• The "B" team is totally unreliable, based on that humiliating 3-1 loss to what was more or less a "B" Honduras team at Saturday's friendly in Carson, Calif.
• To top it all off, Algeria -- one of the two teams that supposedly makes the U.S.' group this summer an assumed gimme -- is clearly for real after upsetting Ivory Coast, the best African team at the Cup of Nations, on Sunday.
These are truly dog days for Team USA. There's not much positive to take out of the loss to Honduras. And to be fair, this game really doesn't have much bearing on South Africa, as few of the players who appeared are real possibilities to make the World Cup squad. Sixteen players on the 30-man roster have five caps or fewer to their names. The two regulars who started -- Benny Feilhaber and Jonathan Bornstein -- probably won't start for the senior team. Most importantly, with the U.S. down a man after just 17 minutes, the entire complexion of the game changed. Once that happened, even coach Bob Bradley admitted there weren't many positives to take out of the match, which really was just another exercise in building depth for the U.S. pool.
But we have work to do here, as always, which is to evaluate those bubble players on the squad and determine who has played their way into or out of the picture. So here we go with our U.S. Stock Watch.
Center backs. With Onyewu's World Cup in question and Jay DeMerit's durability another question mark, this was Jimmy Conrad's and Chad Marshall's chance to prove they could provide cover in South Africa. And both failed miserably. Conrad's ejection in the 17th minute, obviously, changed everything. Regardless of some questionable refereeing, the Kansas City Wizards captain looked all of his 32 years and made some uncharacteristically dumb errors Saturday from which the U.S. never recovered. A very disappointing performance from one of the bubble veterans who actually has World Cup experience.
Marshall, meanwhile, showed little of the marking ability that has won him two straight MLS Defensive Player of the Year Awards. He was burned several times by Honduras' forwards and was a step late on the second and third goals scored by los Catrachos. Second-half sub Clarence Goodson showed some promise, and provided the U.S.' lone goal in the 70th minute from a header off a corner -- but with eight caps to his name, it's doubtful Bradley would give the Norwegian-leaguer the nod.
Forwards. In another spot up for grabs due to the U.S.' injury problems, Robbie Findley and Jeff Cunningham showed little to inspire any confidence. The former was mostly invisible and had few touches on the ball, especially after Conrad's ejection forced him into a lone striker role up top. Cunningham, meanwhile, despite being MLS' leading scorer last season at age 33, also showed little. In fact, he seemed to sit back more after getting called for some soft fouls early on, almost unwilling to stick his neck out after that. Second-half sub Conor Casey, who was the U.S. hero in October at Honduras, was forced to create his own chances, to disastrous effect. Casey is not a creator. This wasn't his night, either.
The analysts were wrong?
Robbie Rogers. Out of all the players in the starting lineup, the Columbus Crew winger probably had the most to gain out of this friendly. Rogers had played well as a sub in the U.S.' final qualifier against Costa Rica and in November's friendly at Slovakia and was slowly working his way into the World Cup picture. That wasn't the case Saturday night. Rogers was forced into more of a left wing back position after Conrad's position, and his touch looked way off. Twice he gave the ball away -- or worse, simply passed it out of bounds -- on cross-field switches. He lost the ball down the left flank on several occasions, too, killing off potential chances on goal. In the second half, his play picked up a bit. Had his 40-yard bomb not clanked off the post in the 49th minute, he might have turned around his entire game. But all in all, this was a forgettable performance.
Surprisingly, as Sports Illustrated's George Dohrmann writes, it was Bornstein who acquitted himself best in a game where no one really provided any confidence. The Chivas USA defender has had arguably the most up-and-down 12 months of any U.S. player. On Saturday, he was forced to move into Conrad's spot, and he played reasonably well there. That took away one of his best strengths, which is bombing forward from left back. But Jonny B did the job he was given, cutting off some passing lanes, clearing balls and even providing some good tackles. At this point, he's probably no longer a bubble player since the U.S. needs his experience at the position. It's doubtful he'll start, however. You'd have to figure, at least for now, Bradley will go with the veteran wiles of Steve Cherundolo.
What did you think? Agree with my assessments? Did midfielders Sacha Kljestan and Kyle Beckerman work their way back into the mix with their so-so performances? Did anyone else who appeared make a case to be followed further? For instance, Brad Davis or Alejandro Bedoya? Who should get a look in next month's friendly vs. El Salvador in Tampa?
Claus Fisker/AFP/Getty Images
Two games against two World Cup-bound second-tier European teams, two losses by a combined 4-1 score line. It's mostly futile to try to draw conclusions from the U.S. national team's defeats to Slovakia and Denmark -- both were just friendlies, and both featured a slew of new players.
But if you're wondering what the U.S. would look like without key players like Landon Donovan, Oguchi Onyewu and Tim Howard, you have your answers: shaky in the back, lacking in ideas in the midfield and weak up front. And that's not a good feeling.
Still, we got to see some players we've been wanting to see in the U.S. lineup, and some shuffling by coach Bob Bradley. These were the last matches for the U.S. in 2009, and we'll learn more in the annual January camp in Carson, Calif., with another friendly (likely against another Scandinavian opponent) to follow. As is our task here, we take stock of the bubble players looking to make Bradley's squad next June in South Africa.
Buy and hold
Jeff Cunningham. If you're one of those fans who has been screaming to get the MLS Golden Boot winner back into a U.S. jersey, you've got to be fairly pleased with Cunningham's contributions over these games, his first caps in five years. He gives the U.S. something it really has never had: a classic poacher mixed with speed who can slip behind defenders and intelligently capitalize on opponents' mistakes, as he did in the lone goal against Denmark. And Cunningham is one of the few strikers in the U.S. pool with the wheels to replace Charlie Davies' role in the lineup (though we're waiting to see Real Salt Lake's Robbie Findley, who's in Seattle ahead of Sunday's MLS Cup, get another look). True, the FC Dallas sniper will be approaching 34 next summer, but with the way he takes care of himself, it's doubtful he'll lose a step by then, and there's no one craftier. He'll definitely get another look in the January camp.
The Mexican league duo. Edgar Castillo and José Francisco Torres both were added to the U.S. mix vs. Denmark, but Torres was excused for personal reasons. The big story is Castillo, the former Mexican national-teamer who got his first U.S. cap against the Danes as a sub and played well enough as a left-sided midfielder. Given that he was out of his normal left-back position and it was his first time meeting many of his teammates, the jury is still out on the New Mexico native. Hopefully he'll have more to offer. Torres, meanwhile, keeps getting called in, so it's hard to argue Bradley doesn't have a plan for him. Expect to see both in January camp.
Portfolio room for one
Stuart Holden or Robbie Rogers. Both wingers have shown promise in their appearances with the U.S., which is why Bradley keeps calling them in. Rogers provided the lone creative spark against Slovakia, while Holden had some decent possession against Denmark. Unfortunately, they're both competing for the same right-midfield position, and are similar players: both with speed, but while Rogers has the size, Holden has better technical ability. If it comes down to one or the other, Holden has more to offer.
Explore other options
Jonathan Bornstein. The left back's roller-coaster adventures continued in these friendlies. Honestly, Bornstein isn't an awful defender, but he has a tendency to make one or two crucial mistakes that often lead to an opposing goal. That happened again in both games. He's good moving forward, though, which has proven useful (i.e., his last-gasp equalizer against Costa Rica last month). But his inconsistency is working against him yet again.
Frankie Hejduk. We love the Dude, who offers veteran leadership, fitness and work ethic that's unparalleled in the U.S. pool. That said, he didn't play particularly well against Denmark, nearly giving up a goal in the opening minutes and then burned by Johan Absalonsen in the 47th. Still, this was the Columbus captain's first U.S. start since April, so we'll write this off to rust. Although he will be nearly 36 by the time the first ball is kicked in South Africa.
Time to sell
Conor Casey. There's really no middle ground with the Colorado target man: You either love him or hate him. His willingness to mix it up and his finishing abilities are his calling card; his lack of speed and heavy touch on the ball will make you crazy. He didn't play terribly against Slovakia, but those volcanic outbursts like the one he had against Honduras last month probably are just that: He'll lay dormant for years in between eruptions.
Jimmy Conrad and Clarence Goodson. One's a veteran, one's a greenhorn. But both center backs were merely in camp to fill the numbers. With Onyewu, Jay DeMerit and Chad Marshall all injured, Bradley needed bodies to fill the position. It's doubtful they'll be needed in South Africa. Though the 27-year-old Goodson does have upside...
So what do you think? Does Cunningham deserve another shot in that front line? Curious to see what Castillo can do? Is it time to cut bait on Bornstein? Who else would you like to see in camp in January? And should we all just move on from hoping German convert Jermaine Jones will be healthy in time?
Jim WatsonAFP/Getty Images
Let's just say we all owe Jonathan Bornstein a beer. Had the much-maligned left back not scored that dramatic equalizing header in extra time Wednesday night, the U.S. would be staring at an extremely depressing home loss to Costa Rica.
The game was meaningless from a competitive standpoint, save for the "Hexagonal champion" bragging rights at stake (and the emotions involved, as Grant Wahl writes). But that performance, combined with the other plot twists, would have been a real downer on which to wrap up the Hexagonal. The dazed U.S. played a dreadful first half. Defenders didn't make that extra effort to stop Costa Rica's attackers, and it was breakdowns in the center of the back line that led to Bryan Ruiz's pair of goals that staked los Ticos to a two-goal lead.
To make matters worse, Oguchi Onyewu is out for three to four months with a torn patellar tendon, Charlie Davies is still in a hospital and the U.S. looked extremely rattled and vulnerable. Keeper Tim Howard was screaming his head off all game for a reason, and Bob Bradley's scowl as he walked off the field at halftime was no joke.
But enough of the negatives. With the World Cup already booked, the Americans battled back again and grabbed a point in an incredible show of courage and fight. They deserve all the credit in the world for their fifth comeback result of the Hexagonal, especially after going down to 10 men and playing with heavy hearts.
As is our task here, we'll take stock of the bubble players on the team in a game where, disturbingly, it was mostly the regulars who looked shaky. Qualifying is done, but there will be plenty of friendlies in which Bradley can evaluate and call in more players (and, sadly, fill in for the inevitable injury or two). Consider: In the U.S.' clinching qualifier in the last World Cup cycle, only 12 of the 18 players on that team were on the 23-man roster at Germany 2006. In the previous cycle, 13 of them were in the 23 at Japan/South Korea '02. You get the idea. In any case, let's start the South Africa 2010 hype machine now.
Bornstein. After some early mistakes, Jonny B settled down and turned in if not one of his better performances in a national-team jersey, certainly his most memorable since shutting down Mexico's Jared Borgetti nearly three years ago. The 24-year-old did a solid job on Costa Rica winger Pablo Herrera (especially on that ballsy hit-and-run steal in the 56th minute), made a handful of smart clearances and pushed forward in the attack often. And what more is there to say about that goal? Bornstein's performances haven't always been pretty or consistent, but Bradley has stuck by the kid he groomed himself when he coached Chivas USA. On Wednesday night, Bornstein showed the faith in him was well deserved.
Looking to take off
Robbie Rogers and José Francisco Torres. These were the two subs I most wanted to see and they were both a big factor in the Americans' change in energy and attitude late in the second half. Rogers was a threat down the right flank every touch, and Torres' calmness as he moved the ball upfield was impressive. These kids gave a big effort out there and earned closer looks.
Conor Casey. It's hard to ask Casey to give an encore of his two-goal performance in Honduras on Saturday, so it's not a surprise the target man didn't shine. But he didn't show the pretty first-touch adeptness of that game either, and squandered two good chances. He did, however, put himself in good positions (just ask Landon Donovan, who knew he should have passed it to Casey on his 37th-minute miss), moved well off the ball and got back well on defense.
Stuart Holden. Let's not forget this was only the Houston Dynamo youngster's second start with the "A" team, so it wasn't that surprising he wasn't able to duplicate the lightning in a bottle that made his recent play as a sub so exciting. But Holden didn't do much to cheer about, either. He had some decent crosses, but his play didn't stand out. Ironically, when he was taken out in the 69th minute, it was his replacement -- Rogers -- who put in the Holden-like late-game effort.
Need to diversify
Center backs. With Onyewu out, Jay DeMerit, Chad Marshall and Jimmy Conrad all could get playing time in upcoming friendies. Objectively, that isn't a bad thing since the back line needs the help. It's a bigger problem, though, when you consider that Gooch and Carlos Bocanegra still need more time to work on their communication together.
American strikers. I can't express how saddened I am about Davies. He's one of my favorite interviews on the team, a great kid and has a promising future. For now, I'm simply hoping he'll be able to walk on his own. Replacing his speed and touch in the front is another matter. None of Bradley's other current options at forward -- Jozy Altidore, Brian Ching, Casey, Kenny Cooper -- has Davies' wheels (though Donovan or Clint Dempsey are possibilities up top). At this point, Jeff Cunningham or even Freddy Adu or Robbie Findley should stick close to their phones.
Over to you. Did you love seeing Torres and Rogers get their chances? Wishing they had more minutes? Scared stiff about the defensive situation, especially on those Ruiz goals? Who should get the call to fill in for Davies?
- 11:54 AM ET 10.14
The finish line is in sight. After nine months of slogging through an immensely difficult final round of qualifying, the U.S. plays its final match of the CONCACAF Hexagonal Wednesday night at Washington's RFK Stadium against Costa Rica (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2, Galavisión).
Ultimately, this game isn't important for the U.S. -- it clinched its berth at the 2010 World Cup with last Saturday's 3-2 win at Honduras. But expect the Americans to come out to play for a number of reasons: 1) to try to clinch a seed in South Africa (a fool's errand, as SI.com's Grant Wahl writes); 2) to avenge the disaster on Costa Rica's home turf in June; 3) to get their minds off the horrible accident that will keep Charlie Davies out of the World Cup.
This game isn't as straightforward as it seems. Here are three things the U.S. needs to watch for against Costa Rica:
1. One team needs this more. Put it this way: The already World Cup-bound U.S. wants to win this game for bragging rights in, as coach Bob Bradley says, "the ongoing competition to be the best team in CONCACAF." Costa Rica needs to win this game, period, or it may not get in at all. Los Ticos have been the best team in CONCACAF besides the U.S. and Mexico over the past 10 years, and they want a spot at the show badly.
It's amazing how quickly fortune changed for the Costa Ricans: Six games through the Hexagonal, they were in first place with a 4-0-2 record (including that 3-1 hammering of the U.S. in San José). They then dropped their next three straight to Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador by a combined score of 8-0 to fall into fourth place, outside of automatic qualification. That led to the ouster of coach Rodigo Kenton, who was replaced by veteran Renê Simões (who famously led Jamaica's Reggae Boyz at the 1998 World Cup).
Costa Rica responded to the shakeup and its new tough-love coach, hammering Trinidad and Tobago 4-0 last weekend in Port of Spain and leap-frogging Honduras into third place. The Ticos know they need a result at RFK or they could be out (Honduras hosts fifth-place El Salvador). It's essentially a win-or-go-home scenario for them; for the U.S., it's, "Hey, maybe we have an infinitesimally small chance at a seed next summer if we win." You do the math.
2. The old guard. Simões knew that when he took the job, he'd need to do something drastic to jump-start Costa Rica's campaign. So he dropped defender Gilberto Martínez for running afoul of team rules and brought in two other World Cup veterans: former captain Luis Marín and all-time leading scorer Rolando Fonseca. Both are long in the tooth at 35, but they have 233 caps between them and were happy to log minutes in Saturday's win at Trinidad.
Simões plans to use them as an example of professionalism, and the rest of the team should follow their lead. "I want winners," the Brazilian told FIFA.com, channeling his inner Mike Singletary, "thinking players who understand we must win now." This team is refocused, a threat to pick up the pieces and become the team it was just four months ago.
3. Heavy hearts. The Americans are playing this game for Davies, and the crowd will be behind them. There's a plan by fans to stand and cheer for the entirety of the ninth minute in tribute to the U.S.' No. 9. Maybe the team will be able to focus its despair into the game and just play. Then again, let's be honest: It's not that important a game and Davies' accident is a pretty depressing distraction (I'd be particularly worried about the state of Jozy Altidore, Davies' best friend on the team). Bradley likely won't let his troops be overcome by emotion. But they're human. If they don't win this game, no one will be on their backs for it.
What do you think? Do you want this game badly for all the reasons above? Should Bradley rest his regulars and give guys like José Francisco Torres, Kenny Cooper and Robbie Rogers major minutes? Give us your thoughts (and don't forget to check back tonight for postgame takes from Wahl, and check his Twitter feed for in-game commentary).
Scott Bales/YCJ/Icon SMI
It's pretty simple: If the U.S. beats Honduras in San Pedro Sula on Saturday, it clinches a spot at the 2010 World Cup. But that's a tall order. Honduras is undefeated at home through its last eight games, boasts a stacked squad and has stifling heat on its side. Not to mention the added bonus of this game being fútbol-mad Honduras' biggest distraction from the presidential coup going on 142 miles away in Tegucigalpa.
The stakes are monstrous for both teams, and that's why we're in for, as SI.com's Grant Wahl writes, "a barn-burner of a game, the kind of back-and-forth, high-scoring shootout that we'd be talking about for years." Here are three things the U.S. needs to watch for against Honduras:
1. The Honduran central midfield. The U.S. is facing what is probably the best Honduras team in its history. Their roster is loaded with strong, experienced players who suit up for English and Italian clubs, as well as a handful of players with experience in Major League Soccer who know the American game quite well.
But the most trouble will come from the center of the park. Tottenham Hotspur stud Wilson Palacios is, in particular, of worry for the U.S. It'll be his job to disrupt the American attack, which he did beautifully when los Catrachos lost a tight one to the U.S. in Chicago back in June. He'll be paired with Hendry Thomas, who does similar cleanup work for England's Wigan Athletic. Both players are wide, fast and strong, and playing in the one of the world's top leagues has made them battle-tested. If they're on their game, they can abuse their U.S. counterparts, Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark.
2. More shuffling of the deck. You never want to deal with injury problems this late in qualifying, but that's inevitable. For the first time in the U.S.' campaign, the Americans will be without the mercurial Clint Dempsey, who is suffering from a shoulder sprain. Depending on your feelings on the Texan, that may or may not be a good thing. When Dempsey is on, he can be unstoppable and deliver goals few on the team can. When he's off, he looks unmotivated, lost and lazy, and makes fans throw things at their TVs.
This could open the door on the right wing for Stuart Holden, who has been very impressive in his appearances as a sub for the U.S. as well as in his starting role at the CONCACAF Gold Cup. But the Houston Dynamo star has yet to feel the pressure of starting for the senior team in a game of this magnitude. And as any player will tell you, that's a whole other ball game.
Meanwhile, the American back line is still unset. Captain Carlos Bocanegra has been moving back and forth between center back and left back depending on the needs of the team, but Bob Bradley has yet to decide on a permanent solution. Saturday will be no different. With Jay DeMerit out injured, Boca will stay in his usual left center-back spot, and Jonathan Bornstein and Steve Cherundolo likely will occupy the wings, which is another invitation to pick apart their effectiveness (or lack thereof). Honduras coach Reinaldo Rueda surely is paying close attention.
3. Destino Hondureño (that's "Honduran destiny," gringos). The best Honduran team ever. A country inches from its first World Cup in 28 years. A nation glued to the game to lift its spirits during a time of political discord.
"The entire country is going to be behind them,'' Bocanegra told reporters. "Not to get on the political side of things, but obviously it will be something that brings everyone together."
Put it this way, the U.S. could be in the way of a locomotive of karma. This is the biggest sporting event to happen in Honduras in more than 20 years, and you can bet the Catrachos are going to feel like they've got an entire nation on their backs. They'll play this game like it's their last one.
Said Kansas City Wizards midfielder Roger Espinoza and Honduran national-teamer to The New York Times: "The soccer team is the soul of the country. When it wins, the whole country is happy, no matter what is going on with the president. If we don't win, you don't want to be there as a player. Soccer is life there."
What do you think? Does the U.S. have a good shot of logging a road win on Saturday and punching a ticket to South Africa? Still worried about the Americans' fortunes? And how angry are you about the TV situation? Are you even bending over backwards to watch the game? Give us your thoughts (and don't forget to check back on Saturday for postgame takes from Wahl, and check his Twitter feed for in-game commentary).
- U.S. stock watch after ugly Honduras loss
- U.S. stock watch after European warm-ups
- U.S. stock watch at the Hexagonal finish line
- Three warning signs for the U.S. against Costa Rica
- Three warning signs for the U.S. against Honduras
- U.S. stock watch after Trinidad and Tobago win