Promising signs from DC

By Dimitri Islam

Caught the U.S. vs. El Salvador game this past Sunday. The U.S. put on a pretty good show and won handily, 2-0. Firstly, hats off to Bruce Arena, who won his 12th match of the year—a record for U.S. coaches. The U.S. fielded a team full of young, MLS-based players. Of course, El Salvador hardly brought their “A” squad-they mostly had their U-21’s playing. Nevertheless, it was a good result for the Americans, and a satisfying way to finish off the 2002 schedule.

Unfortunately, while many have written about the current crop of young players getting their first chances to break into the National Team during this friendly, the field conditions really inhibited play. With pouring rain and a palpable chill in the air, every touch couldn’t exactly be precise or calculated. The field was sloppy and slick. Players slid for miles, and possession changed often.

Despite these conditions, the U.S. clearly established their dominance on the field. El Salvador had one clear-cut chance, but U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard was in form, rushing out of his net to close the angle on the opposition’s forward. The U.S. really created all other chances in the match, and El Salvador spent large chunks of the game simply ball-chasing. Credit goes all the way to the U.S.’s back line-the defenders did a good job playing accurate balls through to the midfielders. Moreover, the U.S. defense looked reasonably organized. El Salvador never made many purposeful runs at the U.S. net.

So, the field was wet, the play was pretty rough, and the game didn’t mean a whole lot to either team. Sure, in many cases, this could just be a marginal way to end the season. The U.S. plays a subpar team, ends on a good note, and gears up for the upcoming World Cup qualification stages that beckon in the not-so-distant future.

Given the roster for this friendly, however, most critics can find some more concrete facts to take away from this match. First, the U.S. World Cup vets are veterans for a reason. Clint Mathis and Landon Donovan often looked like two of the more poised and dangerous players on the pitch. Mathis set up Sasha Victorine’s winning goal on a great through ball, and Donovan just looks like the most dangerous U.S. attacking player, period.

Toward the end of the match, when both teams seemed pretty content to let the game roll to a finish, Donovan made a quick, darting run just outside the penalty area, and he unleashed a shot that went just wide. It’s these sorts of bursts that separate Donovan from his compatriots. He can attack at any moment, no matter what the rhythm of the game.

While Donovan and Mathis understandably looked like two of the more seasoned players on the field, several players made solid contributions. Ben Olsen made a welcome return to the U.S. midfield, and, for his efforts, he won Man of the Match honors. Olsen looks like he should be able to play even more heading into 2006-he’s tough, determined, and athletic.

The other U.S. players all had good showings. Tim Howard certainly looks like yet another budding world-class keeper in the making. Indeed, Howard looks ready to make the jump to a European club. He’s put in several good years for the Metrostars, but he can certainly take his game to another level with a Premiership or Primera Liga club side. Hopefully it’ll happen in the next couple of years.

So the U.S. youngsters can play-that’s something we already knew-but the most critical time comes in the next two or three seasons. It’s a long, long way off, but, by 2006, the U.S. needs at least one or two established, world-class field players. The U.S. has never had one (Claudio Reyna comes somewhat close), and the Americans need to develop at least a couple explosive players. Goalkeeping will not be a problem. By 2006, however, it’s not unrealistic to see a player like Donovan, perhaps DeMarcus Beasley, or maybe even Taylor Twellman standing as bona fide all-world players.

These developments remain key to the growth of the U.S. program. The Americans now have a number of players who can contribute on the international level. Claudio Reyna, Ben Olsen, Chris Armas-all these guys will play well and give a great effort. To become even better, however, the U.S. needs to finally develop what it has always lacked: