The United States National Team faced three of its four easiest qualifying matches at the beginning of the Hexagonal schedule. The expectation that the United States would capture nine points from these three matches and have a security buffer against failures in the summer and the fall has not been achieved.

Yet largely thanks to the schedule, the US finds themselves atop the Hexagonal, leading an over achieving Costa Rican team by a point and Honduras, the most viable competition the US faces in the region by three points heading into a two month qualifying break. Mexico, whose national team is in a state of decline is fourth in the Hexagonal which reflects both their tough opening schedule which featured match ups with the other three potential qualifiers from the region as well as the dysfunctional nature of their management structure.

The dominating performances we saw from the US in the Hexagonal of 2005 under Bruce Arena have been replaced by uneven, questionable play and even more difficult to explain tactics. A 3-0 win over outclassed Trinidad & Tobago at home while appearing convincing on paper, actually opened up more question marks as the US was beat repeatedly on the counter attack: the sort of chances that will burn you on the road against better opposition, like Honduras and Mexico, not to mention non CONCACAF opposition. Trinidad and Tobago has fallen so far from their 2006 form that they failed to qualify for this summer’s Gold Cup being beaten out in Caribbean qualifying by the likes of Guadeloupe, Grenada and Haiti.

I felt fairly good about the US team a week ago, even though the less than stellar performance against a Mexican team that travels badly had me a little bit concerned. But the last two matches have reminded us that outside of Landon Donovan, most American attacking players lack the imagination and quality to break down a bunkered down defense, and that the US is more suspect at the back than anytime since before World Cup 1994.

For all the criticisms of Steve Sampson and the 1998 World Cup, in that competition the US only gave up five goals in three matches. But with the current form of the US defense, this American team should be expected to concede twice that amount in South Africa. The US has repeadtly shown in qualifying that it is a mess away from home. Struggles against the likes of Barbados and Cuba on the road were shrugged off at the time but in hindsight were harbingers of a trend which shows the US losing its way against CONCACAF minnows off of the friendly home soil.

The next six competitive US matches outside of the Gold Cup are as follows: @ Costa Rica, Honduras at home, Brazil, Italy, Egypt all at the FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa, and then @ Mexico likely played at Azteca. Given the US’ recent performances, several changes tactically and from a player selection standpoint will need to be made before the summer to ensure the US does not collapse during that stretch.

The US must integrate another creative midfielder into the starting XI. Either Freddy Adu or Jose Francisco Torres must start beginning with the match at Saprissa against Costa Rica. Adu’s lack of playing time at Monoco should have no affect on his selection, given Coach Bob Bradley’s willingness to play Jozy Altidore, Heath Pearce, Mo Edu and DaMarcus Beasley all players receiving little or no playing time for European clubs negates the argument about Adu’s lack of pitch time in France.

Torres for his part has been brilliant in the Clausura for Pachuca, and is playing his club football at a higher level right now than just about any other US National Team regular field player call up. Clint Dempsey and Oguchi Onyewu are the only other two Americans playing exceptionally well at the moment at the club level, and quite frankly Pachuca’s roster offers more competition for Torres than Fulham’s roster does for Dempsey or Liege’s squad does for Gooch.

Secondly, DaMarcus Beasley must be dropped from starting XI but kept on the squad because of his near legendary training work ethic which is likely to rub off on the team. Jonathan Bornstein and Heath Pearce are also poor options at left back. That means either Jonathan Spector, Michael Orozco or pushing Carlos Bocanegra out to left side.

Thirdly, the US must drop the bucket formation and play either a traditional 4-4-2 or a 4-5-1 with a traditional #10 in central midfield. One of the Bradley’s two holding midfielders must be removed from the lineup. While Michael Bradley would be the obvious choice to be dropped leaving the reliable and savvy Pablo Mastroeni in the starting XI, chances are that if forced to drop a holding midfielder, Coach Bradley will not drop his son. I happen to think Michael Bradley is the perfect role player that serves as the first or second option off the bench late in matches. His fiery personality combined with his almost reckless attacking demeanor after minute 80, makes him a viable attacking option if the US is behind. More viable than let’s say Eddie Johnson or Brian Ching.

Fourth, the US cannot play scared. You could literally see the fear in the eyes of the US players in San Salvador. If the US goes into Saprissa, San Pedro Sula or Azteca with that attitude, the squad will be routed. Same goes for the neutral site Confederations Cup where the US could very easily be intimidated by the site of Italy or Brazil.

The US has the talent in its player pool right now to be a force next year in South Africa. But since the successful 2002 World Cup where Bruce Arena swallowed his pride and fielded the brilliant Clint Mathis, personality issues and rigid standards have been applied by US coaches to player selection. Taylor Twellman and Jay DeMerit could have helped the US in 2006 more than Chris Albright or Brian Ching. Yet neither was selected. Currently, Frank Simek, Jeremiah White, Charlie Davies and other accomplished European club players along with Kyle Beckerman in MLS seem to have been completely ignored. That’s in addition to the continued misuse of Adu and Torres, who despite being regularly called in, are not being utilized properly in the current setup.

The US will qualify for World Cup 2010, but perhaps will not win the CONCACAF Hexagonal. The result in El Salvador will be so damaging in the FIFA Rankings, it’s highly unlikely the US can approach gaining a seed for December’s draw. That means the US likely will be grouped with a major European or South American power and must improve its play dramatically to stand any chance of advancing from the group stage in South Africa.