EDGAR ZUNIGA - Wednesday, October 7, 2009
Well, you've got to hand it to Bob Bradley.
Despite growing criticism of his call-ups, lineups, tactical decisions and second-half meltdowns of his teams, he has, nonetheless, brought the US National Team to the brink of qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
I know I've been rough on Bob repeatedly, but God knows I probably wouldn't cut it as a head coach or tactical director for a national team representing a nation as large as the United States, with the resources available to someone in that position.
Although the US has to officially qualify for the World Cup, it is practically a given (unless Team USA suddenly turns into this year's Detroit Tigers and falls apart at the end). This is a considerable accomplishment for Bob because the US is now expected to qualify every time, despite having to deal with some of the most threatening and intimidating away venues of all FIFA regions.
Yeah, the crowds in most CONCACAF nations support their national teams with ferocious zeal, but, at least, the US does not have to deal with playing in politically hostile areas like Palestine, Iraq or North Korea.
Wait...wait...Things in Honduras aren't exactly peachy keen right now, are they? Just in case you're stuck in the bubble of MTV News, Honduras has been undergoing a lot of political strife, centered on the arrest and coup of leftist President Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted and dispatched to Costa Rica.
There were riots, mass protests from both sides and, when things seemed to be hot already, Zelaya snuck back into Honduras, taunting interim President Roberto Micheletti and presenting himself as a martyr.
Initially, there was talk of moving the game to a neutral venue to avoid any potential hazards or disturbances. However, the Honduras Soccer Federation was not about to yield their valuable home-field advantage, arguing they would make sure the game would go on and would take preventative measures to ensure the safety of both teams and fans.
As if going to Honduras and getting a positive result wasn't difficult enough, now Team USA (an occasional anti-American political lightning rod when playing on the road) has to, at the very least, be aware that they are about to enter a potential war zone.
Add to this boiling pot a strong Honduran team that had to swallow a very tough loss against Mexico in Aztec Stadium and wants nothing more than to rebound at home against a high-caliber opponent like the US.
As if that wasn't enough to make Bob furrow his brow, he has to deal with an injury to Clint Dempsey, who suffered a sprained shoulder in Fulham's match against West Ham.
Without a doubt, Deuce, who has scored five goals during the World Cup qualifiers and is one of the cornerstones of the national team, will be missed. This means more pressure on Landon Donovan and Jozy Altidore, which means the US may just hang back and try to counter (nothing new here).
So, as you can see, Bob has a lot on his mind right now.
Under normal circumstances, expecting the US to win in Honduras would be too much to ask. Taking into consideration all the political turmoil and distractions that come with that, it would seem that things could not get more complicated for Bob and our boys.
Nevertheless, this situation can be viewed as a double-edged sword.
Emotions are running high in Honduras and the political morass might actually unsettle the Honduran players - even those who live and play overseas. Coming home to see your beloved country in such a mess can be demoralizing. While they were already expected to beat the US, they might feel added pressure get that win and bring some joy to their beleaguered countrymen. That pressure might get to them.
While it would be nice to draw or win in Honduras, the main objective is to finish atop the CONCACAF hexagonal; losing to Honduras would not be disastrous. However, it would set up a very tense rematch with Costa Rica at RFK Stadium, on Wednesday.
No one wants to finish in fourth and have to deal with a potential home-and-away series with Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Uruguay or even Venezuela. Yeah, Venezuela isn't a South American powerhouse, but socialist loudmouth Hugo Chavez is turning Venezuela into the next Cuba.
If the US turns in another of their recent ho-hum performances, where they do just enough to scratch out a win, they will find themselves having to deal with a Costa Rican team desperate to avoid the fourth and final spot and who might potentially recapture the play that had them flying high midway through the hexagonal.
Yeah, all signs point to a US victory and a huge collective sigh of relief from the team and a nation of followers, but, damn, did it have to come to this point?
Well, Bob will be the first to tell you that qualifying to the World Cup is not easy. And, this is why we owe Bob a lukewarm applause (for now), and hopefully a standing-O after a win over Costa Rica.
Although he will accomplish one of the goals of the US Soccer Federation, things have not come easy to Bob, and it is easy to point fingers at him from the security of our computers, living rooms, sports bars and stadium seats. After all, we are not privy to what happens on the practice fields, and the drama that his players might bring to the team.
Who knows why he is reluctant to call up Marvell Wynne, start Jose Francisco Torres or how long he will continue to use Michael Bradley, despite diminishing returns?
Recently, a good friend, with a good soccer mind, pointed out that the US is actually going through a rebuilding phase and expecting our current crop of players to go out and crush CONCACAF is asking too much. It is a valid argument, which means that if Bob can get us to the World Cup with these guys, they are going to be much better in the near future.
So, give Bob a hand.
I applaud him for all the great accomplishments of this year...
Defending the Gold Cup! No, wait...
Winning the Confederations Cup against all odds! Uh, no, hold on...
Getting us to the World Cup..?