What was supposed to be the U.S. team's routine drive to its sixth straight World Cup hit a big road bump in San José, Costa Rica, on June 3. A motivated and well-prepared Costa Rican team shocked the Americans with a goal in the second minute and finished them off 3--1. Costa Rica also leapfrogged the U.S. to the top of the standings in the final round of North and Central American qualifying.
That made the U.S.'s next qualifier, against Honduras last Saturday in Chicago, a must-win game. And the team responded, rallying for a 2--1 victory after conceding another early goal. Halfway through the 10-game final round, the U.S. is in second place with a 3-1-1 record and back on track for South Africa 2010.
But Bob Bradley's honeymoon as national team coach is over. In his third year in charge Bradley has come under fire from fans, columnists and bloggers for, among other things, relying on players such as DaMarcus Beasley and Jozy Altidore, who have been benched by their European clubs. Bradley was also criticized for using a 4-3-3 formation against Costa Rica, sacrificing defense for speed and starting players such as Beasley in unaccustomed positions.
On the plus side, Bradley is committed to giving young players valuable experience in the big time. Against Costa Rica one of the few positives was the play of 21-year-old midfielder José Francisco Torres. The native Texan made his second start for the U.S. and showed nifty footwork and possession skills before being inexplicably lifted at halftime. Against Honduras, meanwhile, central midfielder Benny Feilhaber, 24, made the U.S. more dangerous the moment he entered at the start of the second half. With the ball at his feet, the offense ran through the middle of the pitch. Feilhaber kept the team moving forward and sent balls to attackers all over the final third of the field.
Unlike most U.S. players, Torres and Feilhaber are comfortable on the dribble, keeping the ball close and changing direction on a dime. These skills are more common in Latino players, and that's no coincidence. Torres, whose father is Mexican, plays club ball for Mexican power Pachuca. Feilhaber was born in Brazil and moved with his family to the States when he was six.
That's not to say either player will be handed the keys to the U.S. team. Torres is still a defensive liability. Feilhaber is physically and mentally fragile, recovering from left knee surgery and a drop in confidence as a result of bouncing from club to club in Europe over the past two years. Still, both players are young, and they allow the U.S. to attack with flair in the middle of the field, the way Spain and Argentina do.
Feilhaber and Torres have been named to the U.S. roster for the Confederations Cup, a two-week World Cup tune-up in South Africa that begins next Sunday. That means they will test their mettle against the likes of Italy and Brazil. For two players who aspire to the skills of the best players in the world, the stakes couldn't be higher.
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Not All That
Wasn't Freddy Adu supposed to be the American Pelé? The most highly touted player in U.S. soccer history is now 20, but he has been in and out of the U.S. lineup and hasn't made a mark on either of the two European clubs (Benfica and AS Monaco) on which he's played since he left MLS two years ago. Adu is still maturing, of course, but according to a source close to U.S. Soccer, he may never have the skills or attitude for long-term success. "He's a defensive liability, and he hasn't shown that he's all that good at scoring and assisting," says the source. "It just isn't possible [for him] to play up to the level where people think he should [be]. It's grossly unfair, and he's still dealing with those demons."
JOHN DORTON/ISIPHOTOS.COM (FEILHABER)
U.S. MARSHAL Feilhaber (near left) led the national team past Honduras after the loss to Costa Rica.
DOUG PENSINGER/GETTY IMAGES (ADU)