(Wednesday, September 9, 2009) -- Getting a goal from an unlikely source, the United States men slipped past Trinidad and Tobago 1-0 tonight in a CONCACAF World Cup qualifier at Hasely Crawford Stadium in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, and thus moved three standings points closer to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
With two October matches remaining, the U.S climbed into first place in the region of North America, Central America and the Carribean at 5-2-1 with 16 points, ahead of Mexico (5-3-0, 15), Honduras (4-3-1, 13) and Coast Rica (4-4-0, 12). The top three finishers automatically qualify for the World Cup, while the fourth-place team faces South America's No. 5 in a playoff for a fourth berth.
A change in the lineup from the one that last faced El Salvador made a big difference tonight. Ricardo Clark started in the midfield in place of Benny Feilhaber and in the 61st minute he hit a dipping, slicing shot from 25 yards into the right side of the net for the decisive tally.
Clark was inserted to give the U.S. a somewhat more defensive look and because he was playing in front of family -- his father was born in Trinidad.
In the first half, the Americans looked like a tired bunch. If anything, they were outplayed by the Soca Warriors. Tim Howard had to be sharp in net or else the U.S. could well have found itself down by a goal or two by the interval. Except for one early misjudgment in which he was saved by his crossbar, he was up to the task and he ended up with four saves.
The U.S. showed very little offense over the first 45 minutes, at times looking like it thought victory could come while expending relatively little effort. The Americans had trouble holding the ball and made many careless passes. The second half was a different story with the U.S. coming out more determined and as time progressed, took the game to T&T. Perhaps a week of training at altitude in Utah last week, leading up to Saturday's 2-1 decision over El Salvador in the Salt Lake City suburbs, paid dividends.
"As the game wore on, our fitness was key," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. "When the game opened up, we were able to take advantage of some of the space. We did a better job in the second half of passing the ball and keeping the ball more."
Perhaps the most interesting moment in the match came when Clark scored. Feilhaber was standing on the sideline waiting to replace him as soon as play stopped. Quickly Bradley made a change, bringing striker Jozy Altidore off instead and leaving Clark for a more defensive posture. Bradley moved Clint Dempsey further up, as he did at times during the Confederations Cup, and the extra man in the midfield allowed the U.S. to pretty much control things down the stretch.
With central defender Jay DeMerit out for a second straight match with a groin strain, Bradley went with much the same defensive pairing he used on Saturday with the exception of Oguchi Onyewu, returning to the middle after his one match yellow-cards suspension.
The U.S. defense was sound all night, especially in the second half. After a scare or two in the first half, the U.S. gave Trinidad and Tobago no good opportunities after intermission and controlled the action. .
T&T's best chance came in the 29th minute when striker Cornell Glen spun away from two American defenders and caught Howard cheating off his goal-line. Glen chipped the ball over a helpless Howard, only to see it bounce off the woodwork. Eight minutes later, midfielder Trent Noel took a free kick from 25 yards out and curled it toward the near post, only to see Howard dive and punch it away.
In each half, TG&T took a long blast, including midfielder Carlos Edwards' attempt in the 64th minute, but both went down the center and were knocked safely away by Howard. While T&T did not have a sustained attack, Edwards and Glen gave the American defense difficulty and Noel was dangerous with his set pieces.
The U.S. went into the match with seven players having previous yellow cards, but for the second match in a row were not assessed a second yellow that would have brought a one-game suspension, so the Americans will have a full complement for its next qualifier, a difficult visit to Honduras on October 10.
In a way this match was like Saturday's against El Salvador. The U.S. really did not play well, but played well enough to pick up three points and it is on the cusp of qualifying for the World Cup.
"For us, it was a very important three points," Bradley said. "We felt that it was well earned because tonight was a difficult game. A lot of credit goes to Trinidad and Tobago. I felt they put a great effort out tonight and made it very hard. We spoke at halftime and we understood the game we were in. We felt we could raise the level in the second half and we're pleased with the win."