After the Trinidad and Tobago-United States match was completed, Alexi Lalas was asked in post-game wrap-up about the poor play despite the win. He said, "Doesn't matter." That sums it up for me.
Obviously, the US did not play well. The first half in particular, it looked like T&T might actually be the better side. They were more cohesive in the midfield and strung passes together better than the Americans. They also would have taken the lead if not for wonderful play from Tim Howard and a chip that hit the crossbar. The second half was better if not overwhelming. But one terrific strike from Ricardo Clark, just as he was scheduled to head to the bench, made the difference. From that point the United States played out the victory, if not totally comfortably.
Any list of players that played well tonight has to start with Tim Howard. He made key stops and was terrific all night. Similiarly, Landon Donovan, who is on the verge of no longer being underappreciated, set up Clark's goal and was dangerous all night going forward. Even Bornstein, who ARF rightfully suggested sending to Sasha Kljestan purgatory, was acceptable tonight. The backline held up decently with Demerit's continued absence. Or at least, there were no clearances directly down the center of the pitch. It's not a high standard.
Any list of players that played poorly has to start with Dempsey, who was horrific. John Harkes openly called him out several times during the broadcast, speculated he was coasting on his one goal against El Salvador (out of three great chances) from last match, then wondered if he might be sick. That's a possible (though charitable with no evidence) explanation. Dempsey gave the ball away easily all night, was lazy defensively and generally created little. He was then moved up front, where at least he didn't have to defend, before finally coming off. If ARF was bold enough to say that perhaps Bradley should be an automatic in the starting eleven, which is an thought worth considering, my suggestion is that perhaps Dempsey shouldn't be so automatic if this is his current form. No matter where he plays his club football. Otherwise Davies was a touch off tonight as well, though given his previous play it's hard to hold one match against him.
It's job well done for the US this week, even if it wasn't really that well done. But they did get all six necessary points and now sit atop the table. Unfortunately they are still nowhere near secure in the race to avoid the playoff, despite getting some help from El Salvador tonight, who defeated Costa Rica at home. On the missed opportunity front, El Salvador must be kicking themselves for their lost World Cup chances. They've played decently against the rest of the group (beat Costa Rica and Mexico at home, draw with US), but managed only one point against Trinidad and Tobago, drawing at home and losing on the road. If they'd managed a home win, they'd have ten points and be in the mix. If they'd found all six points against the group's worst team, they'd be tied for third with Honduras. Anyway, the current table with two matches to play is:
United States: 16 points
Mexico: 15 points
Honduras: 13 points
Costa Rica: 12 points
However, things are not as rosy for the United States as they look, even though they just have to avoid finishing fourth. Costa Rica hosts T&T next, and Mexico hosts El Salvador; both teams will certainly expect to win. Meanwhile, the Americans must travel to Honduras, where no one in the group has won. A loss there and the table could look like this:
Mexico: 18 points
Honduras: 16 points
United States: 16 points
Costa Rica: 15 points
Honduras would actually qualify for South Africa with that win due to their goal difference advantage over both the US and Costa Rica. Mexico would also qualify. The US would then need a home draw against Costa Rica to avoid a potentially disasterous playoff with a South American side. Like against Argentina, who fell to Paraguay today and are now in the playoff spot in fifth place in CONMEBOL. But it could have been even worse without the six points this week; the Americans could have needed a home win, or with a truly awful week could have relegated themselves to the playoff in advance of that match. So mission accomplished for the moment. Now comes a difficult match against Honduras, with a win taking the drama out of the match with Costa Rica. A final match without drama sounds pretty good.