For U.S., qualifying just the start
At a press conference prior to the Hexagonal finale against Costa Rica in Washington, U.S. Soccer press officer
To get through such a daunting schedule of competitive games, coach
Only in the Hexagonal -- the six-team, 10-game final round of qualifying -- did the Americans play road games in hostile conditions, where nerves and heart and skill can be severely tested, and very different squads were selected for the CONCACAF Gold Cup and Confederations Cup, which are short bursts of intensity that follow somewhat the World Cup format and cycle.
Projecting how the U.S. will do in the World Cup based on its Hexagonal finish isn't feasible. There's no real correlation between the two; the U.S. has finished atop the Hexagonal and sputtered in the World Cup, and it has finished mid-pack regionally and gone on to great things globally.
The exhausting grind of 10 Hexagonal matches provide a baseline of the team's current state and a starting point for comparisons to past teams. Assessing strong and weak points at this point provides insight into where changes and improvement may be needed.
Their solid performances individually and in tandem this year had virtually secured starting spots up top for
But Davies was seriously injured in a car accident on the eve of the U.S.' final match against Costa Rica. If he recovers to resume his promising career, it will be after next summer's World Cup. That there is not another forward blessed with Davies' strength, pace, tenacity and nose for goal presents a great challenge for Bradley.
Altidore's youth is a concern. A 20-year-old with limited pro experience is very vulnerable to the harsh treatment and excruciating pressure endured by goal scorers in the cauldron of a World Cup. He will need a partner of poise and savvy as well as pace and range, qualities that rugged yet limited
In the Hexagonal finale against Costa Rica, Bradley paired Altidore with Casey. Though neither scored, both earned and set up good scoring chances. Altidore floated outside at times, as he did in his final season with the MetroStars when he played some games wide, and thus stretched the back line to create space that Casey and Donovan exploited.
Casey nodded in a header and tucked away a Donovan through ball in the historic 3-2 road win at Honduras that secured qualification and broke his scoring duck as a national-teamer after 14 scoreless games.
But Casey scuffed a few good chances against Costa Rica, including a wide-open chance from close range set up by Altidore that he hooked well wide of the top corner. Casey's been banging in goals regularly for the past season-and-a-half in MLS, and could be hard to leave off the World Cup roster, though his touch and pace aren't truly up to international standards. He may be best utilized as an alternative to Altidore rather than a partner.
And if consistent scoring MLS gets you noticed, where does that leave the league's leading goal-scorer,
No doubt Bradley will tinker with formations and systems and combinations of attackers, but as the team stands, with Davies out, sending out the U.S. in a 4-4-2 formation against a good team would practically require Dempsey to play one of the forward slots, assuming a wide spot in midfield can be filled by Holden or somebody else. Another option is Donovan.
Central midfield is also short on experience. Unless
Friendlies and the Confederations Cup have steeled
Feilhaber started and struggled against Costa Rica, and also worked hard but lost his bearings earlier in the Hexagonal against El Salvador. Steady playing time in Denmark for Aarhus will move him along, and his busyness and energy as well as vision and good feet are obvious attributes.
Torres is even better on the ball, a very calm, composed customer under pressure, and though there are concerns about the physical side of his game, he's got a lot of it. Against Costa Rica, he seemed better attuned to the differences of playing in the middle for the national team, and out wider for Pachuca in a three-man midfield it often uses.
Much of the U.S. success at the '02 World Cup stemmed from an ideal meshing of personalities and abilities in central midfielders
Germany overran the U.S. in the first game. Sampson dropped the 3-6-1 and made five changes for the second game against Iran, but again the U.S. floundered in midfield and it never regained the cohesion and chemistry that had steered it through qualifying.
"That was diabolical," says Harkes, who obviously has a personal axe to grind with Sampson but still addresses team issues. "You can't get to the point you're at playing one way with this set of players, and then just change so much of it going into a World Cup. The teams are too good and the stakes are too high.
"Sometimes you see a new coach comes in before the World Cup and he changes things and makes it better, but that certainly wasn't the case with our team. We weren't a great team, but we were good enough to qualify, with a game to spare I believe, playing a certain way, and that should count for something."
Referencing the team qualifying in the penultimate game, which it has done in three of the last four Hexagonals, emphasizes the discrepancy between regional play and the big dance. In '05, the U.S. thumped Mexico 2-0 in the seventh of 10 games on its way to finishing tied with Mexico on top of the group, yet it garnered only one point in three '06 World Cup matches.
Injuries knocked out former international
"You're always trying to make sure you're improving, and the hardest part of it are the injuries," says former international
"Those are the unfortunate situations that you have to overcome, and why the coaches and we as players always have to be working to improve. The World Cup presents challenges you don't see anywhere else. The Hexagonal is just the start."
More often than not, it seems, the U.S. ends the Hexagonal unsettled in several positions and once again, there's a big question mark at left back, where
Bornstein's atrocious clearance that led straight to a Salvadoran goal in a game the U.S. rallied to win 2-1 in September didn't deter Bradley from starting him in the final three games. He got caught ball-watching when
The good news is that Bornstein is left-sided, has pace, works hard, runs fast and, as a former attacker, can get forward to hit crosses, take the occasional shot and even head home a stoppage-time equalizer off a corner kick, as he did at RFK.
Pearce did enough this year to stay in contention but a move to MLS (currently at FC Dallas) may not raise his stock between now and June. When and if
The U.S. will play a pair of friendlies in the next week, against Slovakia in Bratislava on Saturday and vs. Denmark in Aarhus on Nov. 18, the second date of the last double-fixture window of '09. There is only one international fixture date in 2010, on March 1; other games will likely be played on short preparation, at least until league schedules are completed in the spring.
There may not be many chances for Schalke and former German international midfielder
As per late additions of the past, the overhaul of '98 also introduced left back
At the '02 World Cup,
When Bradley called Hejduk to the team earlier this year, he set up a goal and scored the equalizer in a 2-2 comeback tie with El Salvador. But with veteran
Aside from a January training camp and perhaps one or two games in that time frame, the opportunities for players to impress the coaches in matches will be few. Predecessor
Come June, who knows? "Every Hexagonal is its own adventure," says Hejduk, "and they all end up pretty crazily. This one was intense and I personally thought it would come down to the last game, and I think everyone did. It was an incredible relief to get that result down in Honduras. This one was an intense one, I'll put it that way. You never know when you'll get called in, but that's why you always have to be ready."