Photo: Courtesy of the Shin Guardian
The warm-up is complete. After playing Scotland, Brazil, and Canada, the U.S. Men’s National Team must now begin the long slog that is World Cup Qualifying in CONCACAF. Its first opponent: Antigua & Barbuda, today at 7 pm, in Tampa, Florida.
Antigua & Barbuda — What do we know?
Antigua & Barbuda is a nation of two small islands in the Caribbean, best known in the U.S. as a tourist destination. With a population of something around 100,000 people (that would make it approximately 15 times smaller than Philadelphia), it is the definition of a soccer minnow. Antigua & Barbuda has never qualified for a major international tournament. None of its current squad play their club football in a top-tier league, with most of the team playing for the recently formed Antigua Barracuda in USL PRO, though some play in the lower levels of English soccer. One player, defensive midfielder Mikele Leigertwood, is a member of Reading FC, which was just promoted to the English Premier League.
The US has never faced Antigua & Barbuda before but should expect to win this game, played as it is at home. However, to underestimate A&B would be a mistake. They topped their second round qualifying group, which included favorite Haiti, with a goal difference of +23, conceding only 5 goals in 6 games. Granted, some of that GD is propped up by a 10-0 defeat of the U.S. Virgin Islands (which is even more of a minnow than A&B), but still.
(For those who don’t know, the CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying system is byzantine and opens with two rounds where the lowest seeds in the region battle it out for the privilege of playing the highest seeds later on. This round about to begin is the third, where the U.S. is grouped with A&B, Guatemala, and Jamaica.)
Antigua & Barbuda will play a system reliant on athleticism, physicality, and organization, but the US should be superior both technically and tactically.
The USMNT — What do we know?
The three recent friendlies told us a great deal:
- Michael Bradley is our best central midfielder, by some margin. He is our best defensive mid and best offensive mid. Against a team like A&B, defensive responsibilities ought to be ceded to Maurice Edu, who is more than up to the task. That will allow Bradley’s vision and passing to move further up field, where they can help break down what is likely to be a committed, physical defense.
- Clint Dempsey isn’t yet 100% fit. Which is all the more reason he should start and play the full 90. He needs touches, and it’s important to get him settled into the current team.
- Central defense is still unsettled. Carlos Bocanegra will start, but it’s unclear who his partner will be. My money is on Clay Goodson, but there are arguments for both Oguchi Onyewu and Geoff Cameron.
- 4-3-3 is the USMNT’s best formation. 4-4-2 can work as a late-game switch, when a second striker is needed to help chase a game, but the U.S. is clearly at its most effective with three central midfielders and a single out-and-out striker flanked by creative wing players.
Expect a physical game. Antigua & Barbuda’s best chance to get something from the game is to be disciplined, win the physical battle, and disrupt the U.S.’s passing and possession. If they can do that, the U.S. may have trouble breaking them down, especially if Bradley is shackled by defensive responsibilities.
That said, this is a game that the U.S. should win comfortably, by multiple goals. If Tim Howard picks the ball out of his own net more than once, then one of two things has happened:
- Things have gone horribly, horribly wrong;
- The U.S. is up by so much that it has lost focus.
Neither should be acceptable. The goal for the U.S. is to assert itself and dictate play from the opening whistle.
My predicted U.S. lineup: Howard; Fabian Johnson (if fit), Bocanegra, Goodson, Cherundolo; Jermaine Jones, Edu, Bradley; Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Landon Donovan.
The final score is hard to predict, but the U.S. should expect to record a shutout and score at least twice, if not more.