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Even with an apparent World Cup berth, U.S. must keep improving

With two October games left in the CONCACAF qualifying tournament, the U.S. finds itself in first place with 16 points, followed by Mexico (15), Honduras (13) and tanking-faster-than-you-can-say-"choke" Costa Rica (12). The top three teams will get automatic berths to South Africa 2010, while the fourth-place team goes into a home-and-home playoff in November against the fifth-place team from South America.

The U.S. has a lot of control now over its own destiny. Even if the Yanks were to lose Oct. 10 at Honduras, they could clinch an automatic World Cup berth with a tie against Costa Rica in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 14. And even if that likely event didn't happen, the U.S. would still have one last shot in the November playoff.

Bottom line: That's great news for U.S. soccer fans.

Granted, when it comes to style points, the U.S. is slouching toward Pretoria, the site of its training base in 2010 should it qualify for the World Cup. Just as the Americans needed to come from behind to beat lowly El Salvador at home on Saturday, this victory over bottom-feeding T&T wasn't pretty, either. The home side had the game's three best chances in the first half, and when Cornell Glen lobbed U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard in the 30th minute, Howard thought it was going in for a 1-0 lead ...

... Until it clanged off the crossbar. "The sound of the crossbar is the best sound in the world, I'm telling you," Howard confessed afterward.

It wasn't until the 62nd minute that the U.S. broke the scoreless deadlock. Continuing his streak as the U.S. most consistent attacking threat, Landon Donovan threaded a run down the left side, then laid the ball off to midfielder Ricardo Clark. Not since Michael Bradley scored against Mexico from long range in February had the full U.S. team scored from outside the box in a game. But Clark wound up and shot a pill into the right side of the goal.

"As a central midfielder you're always running in late to the attack, so the cutback's always on," said Clark, whose only other U.S. goal came on a shot from outside the box in a 3-1 loss to Paraguay at the '07 Copa América. "I told Landon in the first half the cutback was on, and he spotted me that time and it was good timing. I just let it rip."

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The goal was even more special for Clark considering that his Trinidadian-born father, Lance, had flown in from the U.S. for the game. "He's been a big part of my life, a big part of my soccer career," said the younger Clark. "It's a blessing to score in front of him."

U.S. coach Bob Bradley had held Clark off of the 18-man roster for Saturday's El Salvador game, the better to have Clark rested for T&T after a busy recent MLS schedule -- and to make sure Clark was available at a time when nine U.S. players were one yellow card away from a one-game suspension for Wednesday night.

Aside from his goal, Clark didn't have a great game and the same could be said for several of the U.S. players, not the least Clint Dempsey, the Bronze Ball winner from the Confederations Cup who seemed out of synch with the rest of the U.S. offense on Wednesday.

"It was a little frustrating game," Dempsey said, "especially in the first half. The second half helped a little bit more, and we enjoyed a little more possession. Still, it was a little scary at times."

Why did the U.S. struggle in the first half so much? "It could be the quick turnaround, the [eight-hour] travel, but those seem like excuses, to be honest," said Howard. "We weren't as sharp as we probably could be, and I think we kind of figured it out in the second half. CONCACAF games are weird, man. They seem to be so wide open all the time. We finally found the rhythm of the game and it got a little better, but it was still difficult."

Still, the U.S. came away knowing that it won't be able to play this way in a difficult road game at Honduras next month and be able to win. As comforting as it may be to know that a home tie in the finale against Costa Rica is all the U.S. needs, the players would just as soon take care of business with a 'W' in San Pedro Sula.

"We're learning," Donovan said afterward. "You have to remember, we still have a relatively young and inexperienced team at this level playing games like this. So we want to make sure that we take something out of all the games, win or lose, and go back and look at it and learn a lot. Honduras in Honduras is going to be a lot different story than tonight was, so we've got to learn from it."

When it comes down to it, what matters is this: The U.S. is this close to the 2010 World Cup. But a lot needs to improve between now and the big kickoff in South Africa that's just 273 days away.