Well, suffice to say, that was a heck of a game in San Pedro Sula, where the U.S. pulled out all the stops in its monumental 3-2 win against Honduras. It was quite simply one of the most entertaining games you'll ever see in CONCACAF -- the type of game that either team could have won and in which, to some degree, you just throw all the analysis out of the window and simply enjoy the action. Here's what I'm thinking in the aftermath:
1. Weathering the storm. For U.S. fans able to watch the first half, it was somewhat akin to a horror show, as the Hondurans completely dominated. The U.S. central midfield pairing of Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark was overrun by their Honduran counterparts Wilson Palacios and Hendry Thomas, and were an absolute non-factor. Yet, of the half's three best chances, the U.S. had two of them -- both point-blank chances that should have been buried by Charlie Davies and Carlos Bocanegra -- and it was obvious that the U.S. would always threaten on the counterattack. At this juncture, it was easy to conclude that the U.S. would be best served withdrawing one of its two forwards and bringing on an extra midfielder such as Benny Feilhaber or Jose Torres at the start of the second to help stem Honduras' possession. And yet, to his credit, coach Bob Bradley stuck to his guns and his initial game plan, which brings me to
2. Conor Casey vindicates Bradley's decision. I'm pretty sure that all across America there were really only two reactions when one first saw Casey's name in the starting lineup: either shock at Casey's inclusion or dismay at Jozy Altidore's exclusion. I'll be the first to admit that I don't see Casey as an international-caliber forward, but he did open my eyes somewhat with his display against Everton for the MLS All-Stars back in July, when he proved he could provide a powerful physical presence against Premiership-caliber defenders.
After his two-goal display at Estadio Olimpico, I might have to revise my thinking somewhat -- he's certainly got the edge over Brian Ching as a target man if he keeps playing like this. At the same time, let's not get too carried away. Casey's first goal was more a result of a goalkeeping error than anything else, and unlikely against most countries with a quality player in that position. However, given the U.S. team's style of play, we could see Casey being used more in tandem with Davies or Altidore, with the loser of the Davies/Altidore duel being used in an off-the-bench role.
3. The U.S. team's shakiness when holding leads. For a team that prides itself on defensive solidity, the U.S. team certainly has a lot of trouble holding onto leads. It's one thing to throw away a two-goal lead in a half against the likes of Brazil, but the U.S. almost managed to throw away a two-goal lead with just 21 minutes remaining in the game. This could very easily have been an epic capitulation by the U.S. that would have gone down in Honduran folklore.
Considering that in addition to the second goal it conceded, the U.S. allowed a goal that was narrowly ruled offside; a late penalty that was horribly missed by the unfortunate Carlos Pavon; and, to cap it all off, an almost equally glaring miss by Pavon with minutes left when he was inexplicably left all alone for a free header just five yards out.
A large part of the problem continues to be the U.S. midfield's inability to control tempo or possession and the continued poor play by the U.S. fullbacks. However, you also have to wonder why coach Bradley didn't bring on an extra midfielder after the U.S.' third goal, or at least right after Honduras scored its second in the 78th minute. It might be quibbling on my part, but I still think Bradley's management of his subs needs improvement.
4. Kudos to Bob Bradley. One only has to look at the difference that Fabio Capello has made with England to see the impact that a great coach can have, even when he's working with exactly the same set of players as his predecessor.
Is there any question in my mind that a coach like Capello or Guus Hiddink could get more out of this U.S. team than Bob Bradley? Of course he could -- that's not even debatable. Would I love to see what an iconic coach could do working with the U.S. player pool? Absolutely.
However, as I said at the time of Bradley's hiring, if the USSF failed in its attempts to land an elite coach, then you could also do far worse than Bradley (as Mexico subsequently showed when it hired Sven-Goran Ericksson, someone I thought wasn't worth considering).
That being the case, Bradley does deserve recognition for what he's achieved this year, and U.S. fans should savor reaching South Africa -- especially when you consider a team like Croatia, loaded with stars such as Luka Modric, Eduardo and Darijo Srna, likely will not be there. At the same time, we still have to remember that qualifying for the World Cup out of CONCACAF is the minimum criterion for any U.S. coach these days.