On Friday night, the U.S. Men’s National Team did it’s best to give us all heart problems, leaving it until the 90th minute to secure all three points in the away World Cup qualifier at Antigua & Barbuda. The result is a very positive one, as it means only a draw is required versus Guatemala on Tuesday, but the nature of the win leaves many questions.
Jürgen Klinsmann’s lineup was mostly as predicted. Danny Williams came in for Jermaine Jones, but the big surprise was that Eddie Johnson, in his first national team game for more than two years, was given a start—as a wide midfielder. Johnson is a striker by trade, but with the lack of left-sided players on the roster it made a kind of sense, and certainly paid dividends, as Johnson scored both U.S. goals.
The bright side
Before we start to quibble and dissect things, let’s relish, for a moment, that the U.S. did what it needed to do. On a very small field (the 110 by 70 international minimum), which took away one of the U.S.’s main strengths (speed and athleticism), the U.S. controlled possession and took the chances they needed to take in order to secure the win.
From a personnel standpoint, Klinsmann’s decision to drop Altidore and bring in Johnson and Alan Gordon appears to have been the correct one, with Johnson scoring twice and Gordon assisting the winner with an inch-perfect cross. Graham Zusi continued his strong play, especially through the first hour, and assisted the first U.S. goal, while Sacha Kljestan performed well as a substitute.
What’s more, if we’re honest, Antigua & Barbuda played quite well. Their goal, while somewhat fortuitous (resulting, as it did, from an individual error by Carlos Bocanegra, followed by a defensive lapse by Geoff Cameron and Clay Goodson either being pushed or slipping to the ground), was well taken, and the emotional lift it gave the Antiguan team was obvious. The U.S. needed to dig deep to break them down and find a winner, but that’s just what the team did. With Guatemala’s win over Jamaica, the pressure is off, a bit.
There are only so many excuses. Yes, the left side was weaker than it could be. The team missed Fabian Johnson’s attacking verve up that side, and Brek Shea out there would have been helpful, too. Landon Donovan, of course, is also someone who would have added something going forward. That said, the team the U.S. had out there is a pretty good one. With Clint Dempsey, Herculez Gomez, Michael Bradley, and Graham Zusi—not to mention the goal-scorer, Johnson—why did the U.S. struggle so much to break down an inferior team, which Antigua & Barbuda most certainly is, regardless of how well the Antiguans played, or how injured the U.S. was, or how small and choppy the field, or how rainy the conditions? Klinsmann has been in charge for over a year now and, instead of improving, the U.S. appears less dangerous as an attacking force.
The U.S. needs only a point on Tuesday in order to advance to the next round of qualifying and, barring disaster, they are more than capable of doing so. The question then becomes, what does Klinsmann need to do to take the team to the next level?
We all know that improvement in sport is not a linear process. Tiger Woods, arguably the greatest golfer of all time, has broken down and rebuilt his swing multiple times during his career, and the pattern is always the same: plateauing performance, a rethinking of technique that results in degraded performance, followed by improved performance. I hope that the U.S. team is in that middle period. The U.S.’s game plateaued under Bob Bradley. Klinsmann was brought in to retool everything. Now, we have to wait and hope that the improvement makes itself evident before Brazil in 2014.
But all of that is premature, as there’s still Guatemala to contend with. The game on Tuesday is at home, at Livestrong Sporting Park, in Kansas City, KS. With a wider lawn and a home crowd in support, as well as more practice days and the return of Fabian Johnson, a better U.S. performance should be expected.
Guatemala will likely play rather conservatively, as they, too, require only a point to advance. As such, the U.S. is again likely to control the game, and the focus will be on whether the U.S.’s offensive players can break down the defensive shape of the Guatemalans and create more chances than they have in the last couple of games.
I expect the starting lineup to remain basically unchanged, with Fabian Johnson returning, thus pushing Bocanegra inside and Goodson to the bench. With Jones suspended after receiving his second yellow card of the tournament, I would not be surprised if Williams kept his spot. Johnson is likely to retain his place after his goal-scoring heroics, though I wonder if he might be pushed up top, with Gomez dropping to the bench. Who comes in on the wing, in that case, is an open question.
The score? I honestly have no idea, but 1–1 seems like a good call. That said, I’m going to be optimistic and predict a 2–1 win for the U.S.A., and a positive send-off into the next round of qualifying.
Match: U.S. Men’s National Team vs. Antigua & Barbuda
Date: Oct. 12, 2012
Competition: 2014 FIFA World Cup Qualifier – Semifinal Round
Venue: Sir Vivian Richards Stadium; North Sound, Antigua
Kickoff: 7 p.m. ET
Weather: 81 degrees, muggy
USA – Eddie Johnson (Graham Zusi) 20th minute
ATG – Dexter Blackstock (Peter Byers) 25
USA – Eddie Johnson (Alan Gordon) 90
USA : 1-Tim Howard; 6-Steve Cherundolo, 21-Clarence Goodson, 20-Geoff Cameron, 3-Carlos Bocanegra (capt.); 19-Graham Zusi (16-Sacha Kljestan, 78), 14-Danny Williams (13-Jermaine Jones, 56), 4-Michael Bradley, 18-Eddie Johnson; 8-Clint Dempsey, 9-Herculez Gomez (17-Alan Gordon, 73)
Subs not used: 2-Michael Parkhurst, 5-Kyle Beckerman, 7-Maurice Edu, 11-Joe Corona, 12-Brad Guzan, 22-Nick Rimando
Head Coach: Jurgen Klinsmann
ATG : 18-Molvin James; 5-Marc Joseph, 17-George Dublin, 11-Quinton Griffith, 20-Akeem Thomas, 19-Luke George, 3-Zane Francis-Angol, 14-Randolph Burton, 16-Peter Byers (9-Stefan Smith, 89), 13-Tamorley Thomas, 23-Dexter Blackstock
Subs not used: 1-Brent Mohammed, 21-Keita De Castro, 22-Hazel Pyle, 4-Karanja Mack, 8-Troy Dublin, 12-Moses Ashikodi, 10-Tevaughn Harriett, 7-Kimol Alexander
Head coach: Tom Curtis
Stats Summary: USA / ATG
Shots: 11 /10
Shots on Goal: 4 /2
Saves: 1 /2
Corner Kicks: 7 /2
Fouls: 11 /11
Offside: 4 /1
ATG – Tamorley Thomas (caution) 61st minute
USA – Jermaine Jones (caution) 62
Referee: Neal Brizan (TRI)
Assistant Referee 1: Dion Neil (TRI)
Assistant Referee 2: Ionut Bordieanu (CAY)
Fourth Official: Christophel Stewart (CAY)