To quote Sir Alex Ferguson, the storied Scottish coach of Manchester United, the U.S. Men’s National Team has arrived at “squeaky bum time” in this round of World Cup qualifying matches. With two games remaining, the U.S. is tied atop it’s qualifying group, with seven points. However, the third place team, Jamaica, is on seven points as well, making these final two games of the utmost importance.
A win over Antigua & Barbuda on Friday night means a draw would be enough against Guatemala next week to put the U.S. through. Anything less, and things get complicated.
Surprising omissions; surprising inclusions
Jürgen Klinsmann’s roster choices have been fairly routine during his tenure as national team head coach. He’s made decisions that raised eyebrows before, but all coaches do, and he’s never left off team stalwarts when they were in form for their club teams. Which makes his decision to leave Jozy Altidore at home for these critical games all the more puzzling.
Altidore is joint-top of the scoring charts in the Dutch Eredivisie, but such performances have not swayed Klinsmann, who is unimpressed by the showing Altidore has given in his last several national team games and camps. This is an understandable decision, but if the U.S. struggles to score goals in these next games, Altidore’s absence will surely be brought up as a main cause.
In Altidore’s place, Klinsmann has brought in Alan Gordon and Eddie Johnson. This is only Gordon’s second call-up, while Johnson makes his return after a long absence. Their inclusion seems to indicate a slightly different offensive approach from Klinsmann, perhaps looking for more direct options for these games, which are likely to be against defensive setups.
Another interesting inclusion is Sacha Kljestan, whose club form has been very good for some time, but who has remained on the outside looking in during Klinsmann’s tenure. His inclusion seems a response to the need for increased creativity in the U.S. midfield.
While Michael Bradley, who has been so missed in the U.S. midfield, returns, having just scored his first goal for his club team, A.S. Roma, the U.S. is again struggling with the injury bug. Landon Donovan and Brek Shea were both included on the roster while carrying knocks, and have both since been ruled out (and not replaced). José Torres is also injured, and didn’t make the roster. Late additions to the injury list include starting left back Fabian Johnson (he is recovering from the flu, and should be back for the next game) and his backup, Edgar Castillo, which likely pushes captain Carlos Bocanegra outside.
Is it time to panic?
Actually, no—everyone take a deep breath. The injuries are a concern, certainly, but the only injured player that is a real loss for Friday’s game is Donovan. His speed and creativity have been missed by the national team for months. Johnson at left back is also a disappointment, but he will be back for Guatemala, which is the more difficult game. As for Altidore, he was never likely to start, and if the U.S. can’t beat Antigua & Barbuda without him, it hardly deserves to go to the World Cup, anyway.
With the underwhelming performance against Jamaica, the U.S. has put itself under pressure, but it is important to remember that this is nothing new. The U.S. has qualified under worse conditions than this in the past, and there’s little reason to think they won’t be able to do so now.
When the U.S. played Antigua & Barbuda back in June, it played somewhat poorly, and won 3–1. Let me repeat that: even though the U.S. played poorly, it scored three goals and won without much difficulty. Antigua & Barbuda haven’t gotten any better since then (currently bottom of the group with no wins, one draw, and two goals scored versus seven goals allowed), and the U.S. will be playing with much more urgency than it did in June. As such, I believe we will see a much-improved performance and a 3–0 victory for the U.S.
Predicting the actual lineup is a bit more difficult, given the injuries, especially on the left side, but here is my best guess:
Howard; Bocanegra, Geoff Cameron, Clay Goodson, Steve Cherundolo; Kljestan, Jermaine Jones, Bradley, Graham Zusi; Clint Dempsey, Hérculez Gómez.