The United States men’s national team slipped past Antigua & Barbuda on Friday night, 2-1, courtesy of a brace by Eddie Johnson.
Three points gained puts the USMNT in a much better position for its final CONCACAF group-stage qualifying match against Guatemala on Tuesday, where the U.S. now only needs one point to guarantee advancement.
Here are six thoughts from Friday’s U.S.-Antigua match.
Eddie Johnson and Alan Gordon were the two biggest surprises when the USMNT roster was announced on Monday. However, both had their parts to play.
Johnson, who had been cast away from the USMNT since 2010, came away with both goals on Friday night, the second one courtesy of a service from Alan Gordon.
After calling up Johnson based on the fact that he was “really strong in the air,” Jurgen Klinsmann lined the U.S. up in a 4-4-2 form, with Johnson starting as an outside midfielder.
The decision befuddled American fans, but either by design, the low pressure of Antigua or both, the U.S. looked much more like a 4-3-3, with Michael Bradley and Danny Williams sitting deep, Clint Dempsey working back for the ball underneath Herculez Gomez and Graham Zusi and Johnson pushing up high on the wings.
On the first goal, Johnson ghosted into the area, perfectly timing his run to get on the end of a beautiful service from Graham Zusi.
On the second goal, Johnson peeled away from his marker to find space on the back post to put away the service from Gordon.
It’s debatable whether Jozy Altidore would have made a difference for the U.S. on Friday, but Eddie Johnson definitely did.
Graham Zusi also had another very strong performance for the Nats, and Klinsmann should be given credit for bringing him into the fold over the last few months.
Zusi received his first cap in the January 2012 camp and has only six caps in total. Klinsmann has shown faith in Zusi despite his relative international inexperience, and it has paid off.
Is Jermaine Jones a quality player? Yes.
Does he play top-flight club football? Yes.
Should Jones continue to get opportunities with the USMNT? No.
Jurgen Klinsmann’s most criticized decision over the past week was the exclusion of Jozy Altidore from the roster. Despite the fact that Altidore is the leading scorer in the Eredivisie, he was not called in.
Klinsmann justified this decision by saying Altidore has not preformed well enough on the international stage.
The same applies to Jones.
Jones was left out of the starting lineup on Friday. Perhaps this was because he was in yellow-card trouble, or because Klinsmann did not want three defensive-minded midfielders on the pitch at the same time.
However, in the 56th minute, Jones was inserted for Danny Williams, who, despite playing well against Jamaica on Sept. 11, struggled to get involved in the match on Friday.
The decision seemed completely justified. Even though Jones is not an offensive dynamo, he is certainly a better attacker than Williams.
However, like he has done so many times before, Jones disappointed with his performance.
He was yellow-carded only six minutes after his introduction on a stupid, deliberate handball. The foul also gave Antigua a free kick 30 yards from the U.S. goal directly in front of the net, something that has haunted the U.S. this World Cup qualifying cycle.
Then, in the 75th minute, Jones had a cleats-up challenge that could have easily resulted in a second yellow and his sending off.
At that time, the U.S. was desperately trying to find the equalizer and even faced repeated counterattacks by the Antiguans. Jones being sent off would have been a disaster for the U.S. and put its World Cup qualifying hopes in serious jeopardy.
This follows a long pattern by Jones of picking up unnecessary cautions. Jones has 11 cautions in 21 appearances for the USMNT, picking up 33 yellows for his club in that same time frame.
And, in his overall effort, Jones’ contribution to the match was poor.
Maurice Edu may not be the flashiest player on the USMNT squad, but he is consistent. Jones is, and always will be, a wild card.
Because of injuries to almost all of his left-footed options (Brek Shea, Edgar Castillo, Fabian Johnson and Jose Torres), Klinsmann elected to move Carlos Bocanegra out to the left against Antigua.
The move made sense, as Bocanegra has played on the left for much of his career, and it also allowed Clarence Goodson to start.
Goodson’s start also made sense, considering the United States’ best chances to score would likely come on set pieces due to the poor weather and field conditions.
However, Bocanegra has never been a great attacking fullback, and his presence in the middle was missed.
Just like the last time, in the 2-1 defeat to Jamaica on Sept. 7, Bocanegra was not one of the center-back choices, and his leadership was sorely missed.
Geoff Cameron and Goodson struggled to contain Antigua’s repeated counterattacks, especially in the second half.
And while Bocanegra is not the most pacy defender, his smart positioning, experience and leadership in organizing the back line make the U.S. much better when he is in the middle.
As largely anticipated, Klinsmann started Danny Williams and Michael Bradley up top.
According to U.S. Soccer's Twitter, Bradley was supposed to be playing higher up the pitch while Williams stayed deep.
While Bradley did get forward on a number of occasions, he also dropped very, very deep to get the ball, almost eliminating Williams’ role.
Williams struggled to get into the game and was replaced shortly after halftime.
This was the first time Williams and Bradley started together in midfield, so it may just be a matter of them getting used to one another.
It could also be that Antigua’s low pressure made two deep-lying playmakers unnecessary for the game.
Obviously, the two will need a little bit of time to gel if they continue to be the preferred partnership in the middle. A game against a quality, high-pressing opponent may help delineate their roles going forward.
Under Jurgen Klinsmann, the USMNT only has five shutouts in 17 games (not counting the January 2012 friendlies).
In the same run, the U.S. has only scored more than one goal on four occasions.
It doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that this is not a formula for long-term success.
On Friday, the U.S. back line was very poor and struggled to contain Antigua’s counters, particularly in the second half.
For long stretches, the U.S. rode its luck, with Antigua missing a number of good chances. The U.S. gave Antigua repeated open looks at Timmy Howard, but the Antiguans failed to capitalize. In total, Antigua had 14 shots, compared to 17 shots for the Americans.
Goodson, Cameron and Bocanegra all struggled in the game and will need to do better going forward.
While Antigua is certainly not a world power, and the crowd environment was not intimidating, the U.S. did still have to overcome a number of problems to pick up three points.
From an injury perspective, the U.S. was missing Landon Donovan, Fabian Johnson, Jose Torres, Edgar Castillo and Brek Shea.
The referee did the U.S. no favors in denying what appeared to be three legitimate penalty appeals. There was a blatant handball in the 23rd minute with the arm clearly away from the body. Fouls against Goodson and Bradley in the box went uncalled in the 61st and 85th minutes, respectively.
The pitch was atrocious, the ball clearly bouncing all over the place, and a massive patch on the right center of the field looked completely unplayable.
Then, about 10 minutes before the half, the rain and wind came. With Tropical Storm Rafael moving through the area, the pitch became a muddy mess and made any type of combination play almost impossible.
The U.S. had also put itself in a very bad spot coming into the game, needing three points after dropping last-minute points against Guatemala and Jamaica in its earlier away matches in group play.
However, the U.S. gutted out the win and picked up a valuable three points going forward.
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