U.S. Takes Lesson From Tie Into Trinidad and Tobago Qualifier

Frankie Hejduk, right, celebrates a goal that helped the U.S. rally to tie Christian Castillo, left, and El Salvador on Saturday in the second of 10 World Cup qualifiers.
Frankie Hejduk, right, celebrates a goal that helped the U.S. rally to tie Christian Castillo, left, and El Salvador on Saturday in the second of 10 World Cup qualifiers. (By Edgar Romero -- Associated Press)
By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 1, 2009

NASHVILLE, March 31 -- By the second week in September, when eight of its 10 qualifying matches are complete, the U.S. men's national soccer team will most likely have secured passage to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

After all, the Americans have participated in the past five tournaments, inched ahead of Mexico as the regional bully, and their global zone known as CONCACAF has never been confused with one of Europe's super groups. The degree of difficulty is not particularly high in a six-team final round that will send three to the 32-nation tournament and another to a playoff in the fall.

But over the weekend in El Salvador, where nationalism engulfed Cuscatlán Stadium and the most hardened supporters gathered in a sideline section known as "Vietnam," the Americans were again reminded that, despite their heavily favored status in this part of the planet, the path to the World Cup is wrought with peril and pitfalls.

They fell behind by two goals to a team that hasn't qualified since 1982 and is ranked 89 slots behind the No. 17 United States. But they responded with two late goals -- and nearly a game-winner -- to sneak away with a valuable point in the standings and ease the pressure heading into Wednesday's match against Trinidad and Tobago at LP Field.

"When you have a tough day, when things don't come easy, it's a reminder that, 'Listen, you have to earn it every game,'" U.S. Coach Bob Bradley said Tuesday. "There are a lot of lessons in there."

The Americans (1-0-1) are atop the group and on course to seal a berth well before the final game Oct. 14 against Costa Rica at RFK Stadium. But the El Salvador trip demonstrated the difficulty of playing on the road and the narrow margin of error in critical matches.

Mexico, the Americans' arch nemesis, has already suffered a loss (on the road to the United States). Honduras and Costa Rica, expected to battle for third place, have fallen once apiece. El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago have each settled for a pair of ties.

"We realized we weren't good enough on Saturday and we are pretty motivated," forward Landon Donovan said. "It's just a wake-up call, and it's better to get a wake-up call when you tie than when you lose."

With eight games remaining, the Americans are, by no means, in a must-win situation Wednesday. But with a trip in June to Costa Rica, where they've never won, and a home game three days later against Honduras -- the last visiting CONCACAF team to beat them, in 2001 -- they need to proceed with caution.

History weighs heavily in the U.S. team's favor, for it has not lost at home to a Caribbean nation in nearly 40 years. The Americans are also 13-0-1 in their past 14 home qualifiers with a 37-4 scoring advantage.

"Everyone always says that, for the U.S., it is easy to qualify for the World Cup, but it's not easy for anybody," said defender Oguchi Onyewu, who sat out the El Salvador match with a sore knee but indicated he is ready to rejoin the starting lineup.

Goalkeeper Tim Howard will return after serving a yellow card suspension, but other changes are possible as well. While the physical demands of playing twice in five days is a factor, Bradley has also had to reflect on sub-par individual performances in San Salvador. Midfielders DaMarcus Beasley and Sacha Kljestan might be dropped in favor of José Francisco Torres and Pablo Mastroeni.

"You make decisions sometimes about whether or not you still feel that a player who hasn't had his best day is going to recognize it and respond well," Bradley said. "Sometimes you show faith in a player and other times you feel like it's time to make a change."

Trinidad and Tobago, which scored a late equalizer Saturday to earn a 1-1 tie with visiting Honduras, will pose a challenge with Kenwyn Jones, a forward from English club Sunderland who was unavailable for the previous two meetings with the United States because of injuries. It will also have midfielder Russell Latapy, 40, who has been involved in qualifying since the 1990 cycle.

Absent, however, is veteran forward Dwight Yorke, serving the second game of a two-match suspension. Goalkeeper Clayton Ince and midfielder Chris Birchall are eligible after sitting out Saturday.

"You are playing against the number one contender in the group," Trinidad and Tobago Coach Francisco Maturana said through an interpreter. "So anything successful tomorrow will have very significant value for us."

Soccer Notes: With Howard returning, Marcus Hahnemann was dropped from the roster and Brad Guzan, who started in El Salvador, will be the reserve goalie. Defender Jonathan Bornstein replaced Hahnemann on the roster. . . . Former U.S. defender Gregg Berhalter, who has spent his entire 15-year pro career in Europe and was on two World Cup squads, is in the process of negotiating a release from German second-division club 1860 Munich and signing with MLS, sources said. Los Angeles is his most likely destination.

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