When United States head coach Bob Bradley celebrated things going the "right way" and Landon Donovan said Wednesday's 3-0 World Cup qualifying victory over Trinidad and Tobago was "ideal," it was hard to disagree with them.
The Americans were dominant and decisive at Chicago's Toyota Park and the smiles on the faces of the players and coaches were full of satisfaction after a job well done. All appeared well in the world of U.S. Soccer.
However, a deeper look beneath the surface of the U.S. national team begs a vital question: While the team clearly is on the right path to reach the World Cup, is it taking the right steps to succeed in South Africa in 2010?
Without any doubt, Bradley's first objective must be to reach the World Cup. Anything else would be an unmitigated disaster and drastically could stunt the progress of soccer in America.
Yet the public is hungry to see the team not only reach soccer's showpiece event but also perform strongly. A repeat of the dismal first-round exit in Germany two years ago will not be considered acceptable.
The best chance of making an impact in the World Cup is to ensure that the players who have a real chance of shining are ready and equipped for the international game. Youngsters Freddy Adu and Jozy Altidore both were omitted from the squad for the last two games, a move which reeks of shortsightedness.
Not selecting Adu and Altidore against Cuba and T&T gave them the chance to settle in at their new European clubs – Monaco for Adu and Villarreal for Altidore. However, what they really should be doing is settling in to the U.S. senior side and becoming integral parts of the setup.
The U.S. has lost only once in home World Cup qualifiers in the past 20 years, so the risk of disrupting the squad Wednesday was surely minimal. Many U.S. fans have doubts about the ability of Adu and Altidore to shine at the top level. Now is the time to find out if they can excel, not two years from now.
If further proof of pushing youth development is needed, England's 4-1 victory over Croatia on Wednesday should provide it. Theo Walcott, who was just 17 when he was selected by then-head coach Sven-Goran Eriksson for the 2006 World Cup, scored a hat trick in the latest example of his impressive development. Eriksson is doing it again with Mexico, giving Giovanni dos Santos and Carlos Vela their international chances.
Bradley may choose to use Adu and Altidore in the next three games of the semifinal round, with progress to the final qualifying phase now virtually assured. But they should have been in already.
If they had played even part of the game, it would have taught us something of value moving forward. Winning against T&T proves nothing except that this U.S. team can beat decent opposition, but it does not inspire any hope that bigger and better opponents can be toppled.
Part of the problem is that the U.S. is not being tested enough. Trinidad and Tobago offered no real threat as Dwight Yorke's absence robbed it of not only the most potent goal threat but also its most experienced player and leader. The Caribbean side sat way too deep and invited U.S. attacks, failing to put significant pressure on the host's midfield.
It all was pretty straightforward for the Americans, and once Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey put the team up 2-0 within 18 minutes, the contest was over.
Following road victories against Guatemala and Cuba, the win was another step toward the World Cup. But not necessarily a step in the right direction.