That was what we all needed.
The United States men's national team defeated Guatemala 3-1 Tuesday night at Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan. With the victory, the Americans qualified for the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, sent Guatemala home (thanks to an assist from Jamaica), and calmed their fans' severely frayed nerves.
Clint Dempsey netted two goals and captain Carlos Bocanegra also scored as the U.S. overturned a surprising early deficit. Unlike in previous matches, Jurgen Klinsmann's team capitalized on its advantage in the first half and effectively protected it in the second.
As the U.S. moves on to the final-round hexagonal, here are seven things we learned from Tuesday's qualifier.
For once, the United States didn't cough up a lead. In fact, this time the Yanks turned around a deficit.
The U.S. dropped points twice after scoring first in the semifinal round, drawing at Guatemala and losing at Jamaica.
It didn't happen Tuesday, and the key—and, yes, this does sound incredibly obvious—was the fact that the Americans scored relatively quickly after taking the lead.
Clint Dempsey's goal in the 18th minute put the U.S. ahead for the first time. The next goal—Dempsey's second of the night—did take 18 more minutes to come, but the U.S. pressed throughout that time.
For once, they pressed its advantage after taking the lead. And in the second half, Jurgen Klinsmann's team successfully defended it.
For weary American fans, it was a welcome change.
It still needs work. Lots of work.
Especially in the opening minutes of the first half, the defense was disorganized and in all fairness dreadful. The center-backs drifted too far apart, communication was poor and the shape often fell apart when Guatemala had the ball.
The defensive performance improved as the game progressed, but it was still shaky enough to warrant concern heading into the final round of qualifying.
Graham Zusi, too.
Eddie Johnson has scored 10 goals for the U.S. in qualifying. That's nothing to sneeze at, whether you're a fringe U.S. international or Lionel Messi.
Johnson didn't score Tuesday, but he was sharp again on the left in what admittedly is not his favored position. Johnson set up the Americans' second goal from the right and showed abundant confidence in taking on defenders throughout the match.
Besides, his goals Friday against Antigua were crucial. He deserves more time with the team after his long hiatus.
37' USA 2:1 Guatemala. Eddie Johnson spoke to me about his confidence being sky-high yesterday. Can see it every time he's on the ball.— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) October 16, 2012
Herculez Gomez was another player brought back into the fold by Jurgen Klinsmann. He, too, has impressed since his return and deserves more time with the team as World Cup qualification continues in 2013.
The same can be said of Zusi, who again impressed in the Landon Donovan role out on the right. Speaking of which…
Wide midfielder Graham Zusi performed well again in the Donovan role, and the U.S. qualified for the final round with two wins in its final two matches—neither of which featured Landon Donovan.
Now, with that said, the U.S. did struggle at times, especially (and famously) in the match at Antigua and Barbuda on Friday. Donovan clearly could have helped the team with his skills and experience.
Now, with that said, the process of moving on from the Donovan era is clearly already under way. Donovan turned 30 this year and featured only sparsely in the semifinal round of qualifying.
Donovan should have a few more good years left, but as he ages, replacing him will become increasingly important. Zusi's continued strong performances should help relieve some of the anxiety in the process.
Michael Bradley pulled the strings in midfield, linking play from the defense to the attack.
Clint Dempsey will gather the headlines, and correctly so. He turned in a crucial, two-goal performance in a game in which the U.S. badly needed goals. He also set up the first after the U.S. fell behind early.
More importantly, Dempsey wasn't the player he was Friday in the Caribbean. In the win over Antigua and Barbuda, Dempsey was largely anonymous and seemed to spend more time glaring at his teammates than finding the ball.
On Tuesday, he was back to being the poster boy for U.S. soccer. He was sharp. His touch was clean. His movement was superb. He was, all in all, outstanding.
Bradley, though, was the maestro who made the U.S. midfield purr. For some time now he has surpassed Landon Donovan in importance to the national side, and it's no stretch to say he rivals Dempsey for the title of the team's most integral player.
Joe Corona entered the match as a second-half substitute, and by appearing in a World Cup qualifying match with the U.S., Corona tied himself to the team permanently.
Corona, 22, represented both Mexico and the U.S. at the youth level (he was also eligible to play for El Salvador).
He made his senior debut with the U.S. earlier this year in a friendly but was not tied to the team permanently until he featured for the country in a competitive fixture.
U.S. midfielder Jermaine Jones sat out the game while serving a one-match suspension for accrued yellow cards. Jones, 30, earned the yellow card during his brief cameo as a substitute during Friday's win over Antigua and Barbuda.
In his absence, the midfield performed well, with Danny Williams occupying the holding role and Michael Bradley linking play with the attack. In short, Jones was not missed at all.
Jones has been a regular during the Klinsmann era, but apart from a nearly automatic booking every time he wears the U.S. jersey, he has contributed little.
So little, in fact, that Jones' regular place in the lineup can no longer be justified.
At the club level, Jones is a valuable contributor to his Champions League side from Germany, Schalke. At the international level, it's not clear where he fits.