The United States men’s national team rarely gets to play they way the women’s national team plays. That is, like they are so superior to their opponent that the real struggle is internal. Not: “How should we play to win?” But: How should we play if we want to take lessons from this practice-type match?”
From the opening whistle the United States were in control, though they lacked a clear path through the Antigua & Barbuda defense. The gaps between the midfield and strikers weren’t being filled and it looked like it might be a long night of pushing without return for the Americans.
But the breakthrough came early and from an unlikely source.
After Jermaine Jones’ cross was cleared away from Clint Dempsey, the resulting corner from Landon Donovan was flicked on goal by Herculez Gomez. When the ball fell to the back post, Carlos Bocanegra was there to side foot it into the net.
The match fell back into a lull as the US put pressure on but rarely threatened.
In the 14th minute, Clint Dempsey showed his class when he slipped through two players at the top of the box and had his shot cleared. Off the corner, Michael Bradley weaved through defenders up the goal line and fired a near post shot that was again pushed wide.
In the 23rd, the US was pressuring again and a ball off of Jones’ feet was deflected away from Donovan in the center. Gomez was streaking up the right channel and recovered the loose ball, but his shot was blocked. There was no clear trends in the American attack, except that they were blunt. While Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones probed the center of the pitch, Donovan pushed up the wing with Dempsey and Gomez lurking in the middle.
With a one goal lead, the worry is always that a single moment of madness can take two points off the board. The 39th minute almost provided just such a moment, as Peter Byers found acres of space at the top of the box and had his shot blocked by a sliding Clarence Goodson.
Their defense’s big play spurred the offense on, and the two leaders took it on themselves to make it count. Donovan was faster than any two A&B players combined, and he zipped up the left before tapping a pass to Dempsey. A one touch pass put Donovan into space and he was hacked down just inside the eighteen yard box.
Dempsey stepped up and drove a weak but effective penalty up the middle to double the scoreline.
At halftime, Jurgen Klinsmann’s message was clearly to spread things out. The Americans moved the ball side to side with long, sweeping passes until they approached the opposing box. Jose Torres, playing left back (but rarely staying there), exploded down the left but failed to put much on his cross and had it dealt with. Donovan tried the same trick moments later but found the same result.
In the 53rd minute, Torres’ night came to an early and scary end. He slid into a tackle and came up with ball and a lot of shoe. The midfielder/fullback limped off and was replaced by Oguchi Onyewu. If you just thought, “Uh ho,” you’re right.
But before things went wrong, Herculez Gomez had a chance to extend the lead but his volley struck the bar.
Gooch couldn’t wait any longer. He just had to make a tackle. But then he didn’t. An innocuous pass to Peter Byers 24 yards from goal became an opportunity when Oguchi Onyewu stepped to the striker and completely mistimed his move. Byers drove on Tim Howard and finished with a deflected but effective shot.
With a one goal lead, the United States needed a striker to come up big. Herculez Gomez has been the most productive American striker over the past year, and he continued his strong play with an industrious goal in the 72nd minute.
In the 80th, Gomez made way for Jozy Altidore, returning from injury.
The match seemed over as the US held more and more possession, but a small error almost put the result in doubt.
Carlos Bocanegra’s back pass was intercepted by Peter Byers. He broke in alone but Tim Howard stayed big to clear the danger.
The United States walked away with a 3-1 win, though it was far less than the convincing stuff they’ll need to prove they belong on the big stage.