So, are we satisfied with a 3-0 thumping of T&T and a stranglehold on our qualification group? Let's not muck about--to the talking points!
* Tactically, the approach didn't seem to be too much different--not a particularly surprising turn of events. Kljestan is a more creative player than Edu, but he and Bradley were still playing deeper than the wide midfielders, and he failed to make the sort of bursting runs through the middle that we saw in the Olympics. The fullbacks seemed to be a touch more adventurous going forward, but all in all, we came out looking to play much the same way we have in the previous two matches. So why the difference in results? Frankly, it was the opposition. Bob-ball (low-risk, short possession play with two deep lying central midfielders) works much better when the defense sits back and invites the team in possession to pick their passes, rather than harrying them into coughing up the ball either via a tackle or a misplayed pass owing to little time to make decisions. Bradley and Kljestan could hold the ball in relative comfort, giving the fullbacks a chance to get well forward, thus stringing 4-5 players across the defensive line and pulling seams open between the defenders. In the few stretches where T&T pressed higher and closed down the holding mids, the US wilted noticeably.
* Am I expecting too much out of Donovan? He's the most gifted player in the US side, but rather than stepping to the fore and imposing himself on games (as he sometimes does in MLS), he seems content to play a supporting role. I've no qualms with how well he does it--his work rate as a notional forward was astonishing as he tracked back defensively to cover attacking runs from DMB and Dempsey, and he generally ran his socks off. Heck, he even started to attack defenders on the dribble in the second half, something that I really wish he would do more of. Still, I'm left wondering if we're getting the most out of him as a player. One of the big problems that I see is that he's both the most visionary passer, and the most dangerous runner on the field for the US. If he could pass to himself, we'd be set, but as it is, we either need someone quick to make those darting runs or someone with the vision to set the table for him.
* On the flip side of the work rate coin is the picture of a supposedly Grown-Ass Man. I hope Bob takes a good look at EJ's lack of hustle and desire tonight and decides to stop calling him up for a while. There's no doubting the kid's physical gifts, but the head and the heart aren't there. I think it was telling that ESPN got a shot of a US staffer going over to notify EJ and Clark that they were going in. EJ's reaction? He got a "who me?" look on his face and then started jogging over. Even in a 3-0 match, I want to see a striker who licks his chops and gets a "hell yeah!" look on his face as he thinks about further shredding a defense that's already had its confidence shaken.
* I mentioned width before, and how pleased I was to see the fullbacks getting forward. Let's adjust that statement to read "fullback getting forward", because while Cherundolo was a constant threat bombing forward on the right, Pearce was doing very little raiding on the left. His touches always seemed to be slow and negative. Combine that with DMB's lack of sharpness, and the left never really seemed to create the danger that the right did. I wonder too if the tactic of having the wide mids pinch in while the fullbacks ran wide of them was dictated by T&T's dropping off of the men on the ball or was a continuation of the standard US pattern that seems to eschew midfield width for numbers in the middle and short passing sequences that often fizzle out. As it was, Bradley in particular was doing a good job of picking out players in the wide areas with lofted, middle-distance balls.
* A few more words about Junior. I said that Bradley's switching fields with middle-distance passing was quite good. And I'll give him credit for the opener as well (good thing he got a foot on that though, because if it gets through to Chinger, I think the big Hawaiian might have been flagged for offside). But when teams press and close him down quickly, I think his patience on the ball becomes a liability. He doesn't play quick enough, and either losses the passing angle, the ball, or both. I'm reminded particularly of the occasion when he was closed down by two T&T players in the defensive third and managed to cough up the ball leading to a squandered chance for the opposition. I wonder if that's symptomatic of playing in a more advanced midfield position at the club level? Whatever the case, here's hoping that stepping up a level from Eredivisie to Bundesliga speeds up his touch and his game.
* And we'll close with a nod to Brian Ching, who I thought had a good game and deserved his goal for all of the quality hold-up play and defensive work he put in. That said, I'm still not sold on him as the long-term solution at forward. When we need to play with a target, I'm sold. He can win balls in the air, absorb punishment, and has a decent touch and range of passing to boot--a deadly combination on the counter. Where I find limitations are in his speed, movement off the ball, and finishing. If only he was a little bit quicker and could burst through gaps in the back line or pull open seams for others! If only he was more lethal with the ball in finishing positions (wide open headers into empty nets don't count)! The system that we're playing would seem to demand a forward that is mobile, lethal, and can play with his back to goal. Not a package that presents itself every day, even in countries with vastly more talent to choose from.
So, that's about it for my first impressions. I've yet to have a look around the wide world of the futblogosphere to find out what others are saying, and I look forward to hearing some opinions from you, dear readers, in the comments below. Overall, we can't be in a better situation for qualifying than we are now, but then, I don't think that anybody expected us to struggle with this group. The worry is that, while we can handle what's set before us now, will we be able to step up our play in the Hex, and thinking a bit further ahead, the Confederations Cup and the ultimate goal, World Cup 2010? Bob now has a bit of freedom, given these early results, to tinker with players and formations in an attempt to settle on the best path to glory. Will he use that freedom effectively?