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The U.S. just went from third place on goal differential to alone in first in World Cup qualifying in the span of two games -- how much does the wild, wild frontier of the CONCACAF Hexagonal rock? Still, if you're feeling uneasy about the Americans' form these days, you're not alone. If they play like that in nine months, it's going to be a short World Cup. Back to the task at hand, here's a look at how the U.S. bubble players performed after the 1-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago on Wednesday:
Making their case to stick
Ricardo Clark. Let's not forget: We're talking about players who are making their case in Bob Bradley's eyes, not ours. The holding midfielder had a sub-par first half and a less forgettable second half. Yet his rocket in the 62nd minute was the difference-maker against T&T. And in Bradley's world, that's enough to stay a regular on the team (Clark has delivered similarly before). Funny, because I can't remember a single touch that stood out the rest of the game. He was on his way to being subbed before hitting that goal. To me, yes, Rico is still a bubble player. The sooner Maurice Edu gets healthy and the closer Jermaine Jones gets to making his U.S. debut, the more in jeopardy Clark's place is.
Stuart Holden. Does this kid want to play or what? That's three straight qualifiers in which the Houston Dynamo youngster has come off the bench and immediately injected the U.S. attack with life. It's also three straight games in which the midfielder has created legit scoring chances the Americans couldn't bury. The more Holden steps on the field, the more I want him in the picture. Too bad Landon Donovan couldn't convert that pretty cross from him Wednesday night. Holden's purposeful performance stood out even more when you consider who he replaced in the 82nd minute: seriously lackluster Clint Dempsey.
Eyeing a rally
Jonathan Bornstein. This might be simply because of how poorly he played against El Salvador. But Jonny B made a solid recovery in Port of Spain, making several key defensive plays and crucial tackles on a number of dangerous players, ranging from menacing winger Carlos Edwards to goal-hungry Cornell Glen. Was that good enough to keep him in the picture? Unclear. But it's a pretty safe bet Edgar Castillo will be in camp before the trip to Honduras next month.
Chad Marshall. After playing reasonably well against El Salvador, Marshall rode the pine in Trinidad with Oguchi Onyewu back in the lineup. Hard to know where the Columbus Crew stalwart fits until Bradley figures out whether he prefers Carlos Bocanegra in the middle or at left back.
On the verge of a crash
José Francisco Torres. Another match goes by where the 21-year-old Pachuca star can't get in the game. Take that for what it is.
Where are Jonathan Spector and Benny Feilhaber? At this point, I don't think they're bubble players -- they're on the roster in red ink. But you may disagree. You have the floor: Who impressed and who disappointed?
Scott Bales/YCJ/Icon SMI
For the U.S., there are no excuses on Wednesday. It faces a Trinidad and Tobago team (7 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic, TeleFutura) that has just five points through seven games in the final Hexagonal round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. The Americans should waltz into Port of Spain's Hasely Crawford Stadium and punch the Soca Warriors right in the gut, escaping with the full three points. But it's not that simple, is it? Here are three things the U.S. needs to watch for against T&T:
1. The heat is on, and it is hot. This may be the Americans' best chance to bag a road win in this Hexagonal, but let's not forget, they don't have much luck in doing so. The U.S. has just three wins in its last 18 away games in these final rounds of World Cup qualifying. The pressure to reverse that trend is immediate and urgent. If the U.S. doesn't get all three points here, it'll lose ground in the CONCACAF standings, especially with red-hot Mexico taking on Honduras at, yep, Estadio Azteca. If results work against the Americans, they could plunge from tied for first all the way to a fourth-place tie, with a terrifying trip to Honduras on the horizon next month.
"We need to win this game," Landon Donovan told SI.com's Grant Wahl. "Our last two are very difficult games. This is a team that is not mathematically out but likely out of it, and a team that we need to beat, clearly."
2. All isn't well in-house. The U.S.' last few games have exposed some of their holes: lack of depth on the back line and an inability to play possession in the midfield. Some of that was more prevalent against Mexico last month, some was just hinted at last weekend against El Salvador.
All of a sudden, the glaring lack of a clear starter at left back is a problem -- Carlos Bocanegra may slide back over there Wednesday night, and Chad Marshall again will slot in at center back, pairing with Oguchi Onyewu, who will return from suspension. (Or Bob Bradley could try another lineup, as Wahl reports.) But for as good defensively as Boca is, he's not fast enough to keep up with speedy wingers. That forces Donovan, who has been lining up in a modified left-wing role, to pick up the slack. As versatile as Landon is, the U.S. needs him creating and not worrying about unmarked attackers.
In central midfield, Bradley still hasn't settled on an ideal pairing, relying instead on a duo he feels is best suited for the opponent. And that's fine -- when it works. The three most often used -- Michael Bradley, Benny Feilhaber and Ricardo Clark -- each has shown flashes of confidence and competence. Then again, all three also have shown they're horribly overmatched at times and the result is that the U.S. can't keep possession. The Trinidadians may be able to take advantage of some of these problems, and they may not. Either way, these are issues the U.S. needs to fix, and soon.
3. T&T will come to play. Trinidad's qualifying campaign is, for all intents and purposes, dead. But mathematically, the Soca Warriors are still alive, and they'll play like their survival depends on it. Player-turned-coach Russell Latapy will throw the book at the Americans and will rely on his own World Cup qualifying experience to exploit their weaknesses. Expect Trinidad to come out aggressive and fired up, taking the game straight to their opponents in front of a home crowd that will be completely behind them. Don't forget, Latapy was an integral part of the miracle Trinidad team that defied the odds and qualified for its first-ever Cup in 2006. Unfortunately, he has stated categorically that he won't be suiting up for this match. Too bad -- they could use him.
Stay tuned for more after the game from Grant Wahl, live and in your face in Port of Spain.
- 12:29 PM ET 09.06
SALT LAKE CITY -- We're going to try a new experiment here with SI.com's coverage of the U.S. national team. With nine months until South Africa 2010, we'll attempt to size up the bubble players after every remaining U.S. qualifier and friendly based on their performances. Bob Bradley is going to have to make some tough decisions before settling on his final World Cup roster, and there's still a lot of time for players to impress or force their way off his radar.
So, fresh off the Americans' 2-1 win over El Salvador on Saturday night at Rio Tinto Stadium, here's the latest U.S. stock watch:
Making their case to stick
Charlie Davies. The 23-year-old really has come into his own of late, and remained dangerous all throughout the game despite not registering a goal. Among his best highlights were a pretty ground-ball cross to Clint Dempsey in the 28th minute, and a dangerous run into the box in the 40th off a pass from Jozy Altidore. Davies and Altidore have developed a great partnership up top -- no surprise, since they're tight off the field -- and are making a great case to be the top-choice strike pair. Based on Altidore's strength in front of goal and Davies' explosiveness, I'm calling them "Thunder & Lightning" from this point forward. (For the record, Davies loved that idea when I suggested it Saturday night.)
Stuart Holden. The one standout from the CONCACAF Gold Cup team who continues to show he can stick with the "A" team, Holden made his minutes count after coming on as a 73rd-minute sub. The Houston Dynamo star hit a pretty cross in the 89th minute that José Francisco Torres headed on goal, only to be thwarted by a spectacular Miguel Montes save.
Chad Marshall. If for nothing else than by default, the 6-foot-3 center back may be climbing the ladder now that it's clear the U.S.' depth at that position is thin. With Oguchi Onyewu out due to yellow-card accumulation, and Jay DeMerit out with a groin strain, the Columbus Crew defender got his first start in World Cup qualifying and played well enough to get another look.
On the outs
Jonathan Bornstein. Poor Bornstein had perhaps his worst game in a national-team jersey. He lost the ball on multiple occasions, got burned badly by El Salvador's Arturo Alvarez and, of course, made the key mistake that led to the Salvadorans' lone goal. The 24-year-old left back had made a lot of progress over the past couple years, but this performance may be the one that knocks him out of the picture, much as his Chivas USA teammate Sacha Kljestan has disappeared from Bradley's depth chart. The timing's even worse now that ex-Mexico left back Edgar Castillo's switch back to U.S. eligibility has been approved by FIFA.
Kyle Beckerman. It was a nice moment when the Real Salt Lake star entered the game as an 80th-minute sub -- the home fans in Utah love their dreadlocked midfielder. And his inclusion in this camp was fair: He was locally accessible and played well enough at the Gold Cup to merit a look. But Beckerman's touch was off the few times he saw the ball. With the limited minutes he's likely to get, and as crowded as the U.S. central midfield picture is, he's got to impress more than that.
José Francisco Torres. The 21-year-old Texan is a cult hero for U.S. fans because of the natural ball skills he can showcase. But he still hasn't found a natural spot in Bradley's set-up. Still, Torres is good enough that he keeps getting called in. Saturday were his first minutes since that awful 3-1 loss in Costa Rica in June. If Torres had buried that header late in the game, this would be a bigger debate. But for now, until he finds his niche on this team, I'm not sure he'll fit on a World Cup roster.
OK, you've got the floor: Which bubble players impressed you? Who's clearly not fit for this level? Thoughts on Benny Feilhaber's mixed performance?
- 03:30 PM ET 09.04
Brenda Santos/AFP/Getty Images
The U.S. is in a tight four-team dogfight for one of three automatic CONCACAF berths at next summer's World Cup. Only three points separate the leaders: Costa Rica (12 points), Honduras (10), the U.S. (10) and Mexico (nine). With back-to-back winnable games over the next five days, the Americans will never have a better chance to get some breathing room. That starts on Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, against El Salvador. An easy win? Not so fast. Here are three things the U.S. needs to watch for against los Cuscatlecos:
1. Lockdown tactics from a desperate opponent. The Salvadorans have never been closer to reaching their first World Cup since 1982, but even they know their campaign is on life support. El Salvador is currently in fifth place in the six-team Hexagonal with only five points from six games and desperately needs a win, or at least a tie, against the U.S. to survive.
They'll stick with what has been working for them: a tight, defensive set built to absorb pressure. The Salvadorans have been fantastic defensively on the road in the Hexagonal -- they've allowed only three goals in three games, the best road mark of all the teams in the final round of qualifying.
But given that they need a result, they'll probably look to take a few chances going forward, especially on the counterattack. If the U.S. is looking for El Salvador's danger men, it's this speedy trio: Eliseo Quintanilla, Christian Castillo and Arturo Alvarez. The first two scored El Salvador's goals in its near-defeat of the U.S. back in March. Alvarez, of course, is the former U.S. youth-teamer brought in by El Salvador specifically for his lethal left foot and one-on-one skills.
2. Carlos de los Cobos. El Salvador's coach is the wild card. He may be Mexican, but he has his overachieving team's confidence sky high -- newcomer Alvarez already has been blown away by his "insane" Knute Rockne-esque pregame motivational speeches. The players believe in de los Cobos because no previous coach has gotten them this far. He inspires them to play their best, yet, as Alvarez says, to "have fun and don't be afraid to play your game." It's a guarantee that El Salvador will know all it needs, as San Salvador daily El Diario del Hoy puts it, Cómo vencer al monstruo ("how to overcome the monster").
3. Complacency. Not to take anything away from the Salvadorans, but against this opponent, on American soil, the U.S. is its own worst enemy. The Americans need a victory right now to reestablish themselves in CONCACAF qualifying and to start feeling better after getting demoralized last month in Mexico.
"We can't just think that because we're the U.S. and we're at home, we can just show up and win a game," U.S. striker Charlie Davies told SI.com last week. "We have to be ready. We have to want to win the game and attack early. If we do that, everything should be fine. If we give them hope, we'll have some problems."
It's been said elsewhere, and by many smarter men than myself, but if the U.S. can't beat El Salvador -- the No. 85-ranked team in the world, according to FIFA -- at home, it doesn't deserve to go to South Africa. (Speaking of those smarter men, stay tuned for more from SI.com's Grant Wahl and me in Utah on Saturday.)
What do you think? Should the U.S. be worried about the plucky Salvadorans? Is this the most crucial week of qualifying yet for the Americans?
MEXICO CITY -- The U.S., fresh off an encouraging summer of great results and milestone accomplishments, may never have a better time than now to break its jinx at Estadio Azteca. With a confident first-team squad on hand, the Americans feel very strongly that Wednesday is their chance to break their 0-18-1 run in the 105,000-plus capacity stadium that dates back to 1937.
But Mexico is ready, too. El Tri may not have the star power or momentum of years past, but they'll still be dangerous. Here are three things the U.S. needs to take into account in El Gran Partido:
1. Andrés Guardado. Simply put, there is no player more dangerous on Mexico's roster for this game. The 22-year-old winger can be a nightmare from the left side -- he's fast, great on the ball, tricky and can pass just as well as he can rocket a shot on goal. The U.S. knows this well: Guardado scored Mexico's only goal in the 2007 Gold Cup final before the Americans rallied.
If Bob Bradley throws out the same lineup on Wednesday that he did in the win over Spain in the Confederations Cup semis, that leaves right back Jonathan Spector the job of trying to contain Guardado. If Guardado cuts inside, a holding midfielder like Ricardo Clark may have to pick him up. Anytime Guardado can get inside the box, he's a force to be reckoned with. That fact that he was sidelined with a stress fracture in his left leg during Mexico's last clash with the U.S. -- a 2-0 loss to the Yanks in Columbus this past February -- will make him even more motivated to have an impact in this game. (He's already brazenly predicting a 3-0 Mexico win.)
2. The First 10 Minutes. Win or lose, good or bad, Mexico historically has had a tendency for fast starts in clashes with its archrivals to the north. El Tri had its best chances on goal in that game at Crew Stadium in February, coming out of the gates quickly until the momentum shifted the other way. It was a similar story at the '07 Gold Cup final, as well as in a friendly in Glendale, Ariz., earlier that year. If the U.S. can dictate the pace of the game from the get-go, it'll have a better chance of keeping Mexico in check until the final whistle. If the Americans can get on the board early, that's even better.
3. The Elements. Playing in Azteca is about as harrowing an experience as there is in soccer anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. The high altitude is literally breathtaking for Americans, none of whom play anywhere near the elevation of Mexico City. At 7,200 feet above sea level, it's like playing soccer in the thin mountain air of Aspen, Colo.
That affects the on-field action, too, says Landon Donovan, a veteran of two U.S.-Mexico games here. "For one, the flight of the ball is different," he told reporters Tuesday night. "A ball that you might think you're going to get your head on a lot of times goes over your head."
Add in some of the worst air quality in the world. Then, for the trifecta, as many as 110,000 screaming fans in the steep Azteca stands raining down boos, obscenities and, often, foreign objects on the U.S. players. Regardless of how good or bad Mexico plays, any of those factors is enough on its own to slow down the Americans; all three at once makes Azteca a cauldron of terror.
Can the U.S. overcome all of these factors? What will it take for it to win? Give us your thoughts.
- 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