If it hadn't been so harrowing, it might have been humorous.
The United States men's national team defeated Antigua and Barbuda 2-1 on Friday in a CONCACAF World Cup qualifying match that played out nothing like the final score might suggest. The Americans struggled throughout, turning in perhaps the worst performance of the Jurgen Klinsmann era in one of its most important matches.
The U.S. entered the match level on points with both Guatemala and Jamaica in Group A of the semifinal round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. That meant that while not technically necessary, winning the match was important.
And yet, the U.S. played as if the opposite were true.
The attack lacked cohesion amid the poor conditions—the pitch, normally used for cricket, was bumpy, and the weather included high winds and rain from a tropical storm—and the defense struggled to contain unheralded players like Dexter Blackstock and Peter Byers.
The U.S. won, eventually, but it took a late goal from Eddie Johnson—his second of the match—to seal the points. (Johnson, incidentally, hadn't played for the national team since 2010.)
Not that the performance should have surprised. On the contrary, it was depressingly and, like the certainty of a Jermaine Jones yellow card, almost humorously familiar.
Let's be clear. One of the defining characteristics of the Klinsmann era has been inconsistency.
Back in February, the U.S. beat Italy for the first time, winning 1-0 in Genoa behind Clint Dempsey's second-half goal. In August, the Americans won for the first time in Mexico, with Michael Orozco-Fiscal scoring the only goal in a 1-0 victory over El Tri at the Azteca Stadium.
But there have been an equal (possibly even greater) number of disappointing performances under Klinsmann. In World Cup qualifying alone, the U.S. surrendered a late lead at Guatemala and lost 2-1 at Jamaica.
Such a record suggests that the U.S. plays better in matches against big-name opposition, but that theory is called into question by the Americans' 4-1 loss to Brazil in May. Whether it's a lack of urgency, poor preparation or just plain bad luck, the U.S. has a problem playing its best game every game.
Klinsmann addressed the subject following the Antigua match (via USSoccer.com):
It is something that you reinforce and talk about, but it has to develop within the whole group, especially in away games. We just need to be better at that. When you score the first goal, they still react a bit too much and drop back instead of just continuing to play your game the same way you did it until you scored. These are certainly things we have to work on, we have to do better. We were leading in Jamaica after a minute and then suddenly we dropped back. That is something that we have to work on mentally.
Midfielder Michael Bradley echoed those thoughts. "As we go forward we have to have a little bit more of a killer instinct that says when we get the first goal, we’re able to, in a smart way, go after a team and put them away and be able to get a second and a third," he said.
Klinsmann and Bradley are right.
As the final match in the semifinal round approaches, the U.S. must take more initiative after taking control of matches. The Americans have scored first in every semifinal-round match so far but have kept only one clean sheet in five attempts.
In other words, the Yanks are letting opponents back into games. They might get away with it this round, but the competition in the final round will present a tougher test.
One match remains in the semifinal round. On Tuesday, the U.S. will host Guatemala at Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City. Guatemala defeated Jamaica 2-1 on Friday in Guatemala City and sits tied with the U.S. atop Group A with 10 points.
With both teams sitting on 10 points, a draw would mean both advance to the final round of CONCACAF qualifying. A loss for either could be devastating. Jamaica, third in the group with seven points, will expect to beat Antigua and Barbuda in Kingston the same night.
So with one match left, the stakes are high, and the opponent is a dangerous one. And this time, if the performance is poor, the U.S. won't be able to blame a bumpy pitch and poor weather conditions.