With Johnson's two goals, U.S. slips by Antigua, faces crucial qualifying test.
By Robert Wagman
(Saturday, October 13, 2012) -- The visiting United States men took a major step to advancing to the final round of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying with a last minute, less-than-impressive 2-1 victory behind two goals by striker Eddie Johnson, the second in the 90th minute, last night over tiny Antigua & Barbuda at Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in North Sound, Antigua.
The U.S. needs a minimum of a draw Tuesday night in its semifinal-round finale against Guatemala at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan., to advance to the final hexagonal. Guatemala defeated Jamaica last night and is tied with the U.S. atop Group A at 3-1-1 with 10 points, while Jamaica is at 2-2-1 with seven points. Antigua & Barbuda trails at 0-4-1 with one point.
When the qualifying groups were first drawn, the consensus was the U.S. would win in Antigua, short of having to play in a hurricane. The weather was close to that and the match was played under awful conditions with wind and driving rain on a short, narrow, bumpy field, laid out in the center of a cricket oval. The field was the smallest allowed under world governing body FIFA's regulations.
When U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann called players in for this match and next Tuesday's in Kansas City against Guatemala, he left certain strikers such as Terrence Boyd off his roster and instead brought back players, such as Eddie Johnson, saying they were good in the air. He expected his opponent to bunker in and he needed forwards who could go up and head a ball on net.
Klinsmann proved prophetic with in this selection of Johnson, who hadn't played for the U.S. since May 2010, hadn't scored a goal since 2008 and two in a match since 2004. Both goals came on headers and he is now tied with Braian McBride for second-most goals in U.S. World Cup qualifying with 10.
Friday's game was not well-played. Once again, the Americans struggled mightily, and without much success, to find any attack. Without injured Landon Donovan in the lineup and midfielder Clint Dempsey largely ineffective, the U.S. lacked any kind of offensive spark in the midfield.
As Klinsmann had expected, Antigua packed in its defense, playing a 4-5-1 formation which saw it often have all 11 players behind the ball. The U.S., except for Johnson's two strikes, simply could not break down the Antiguans.
Yes, Antigua scored a goal as a result of a defensive lapse and a defender slipping on the soaked field, but that should not have resulted in the tight, tense match that resulted. The U.S. simply did not have a coherent attack with players having an off-night, combined with the poor conditions.
Midfielder Danny Williams, playing wide right, was far from his best position. He was largely ineffective. Graham Zusi, on the other side of midfield, was a bit better, but really did not push the ball up the flank, mainly because of the lack of width of the field. This left Dempsey and Michael Bradley in the middle and, with Dempsey getting no service, a largely absent Bradley was left to try to shore up the middle of the defense and act as playmaker moving the ball down the middle into the attack. It did not work.
The U.S. defense was uncharacteristically confused at times during the 90 minutes. With both left backs, Fabian Johnson and Edgar Castillo, unavailable, Carlos Bocanegra was moved to the left side where he played professionally in France three seasons ago. Clarence Goodson and Geoff Cameron were paired in the middle and without the steadying hand of Bocanegra, the two had their problems and communication seemed lacking. The defenders also appeared to have some problems with the speedy Antiguans, especially in the treacherous footing on the wet surface.
"We expected a very difficult challenge and (Antigua) gave us that challenge," Klinsmann said. "It came down to the wire. I'm obviously happy for Eddie getting this moment back on the team. He was all excited the last couple of days and he put the two goals away. That gets us back home with three points (in the standings)."
With the three points, the U.S. continues in prime position to advance to the final round. Had Johnson not scored late and the match ended 1-1, the Americans probably would have needed to beat Guatemala.
As it has done on a number of occasions in this round of qualifying, the U.S. did what it had to do, but did not look particularly good in doing it.
U.S. Player Ratings
Goalkeeper Tim Howard - 6: Not at fault on conceding a point-blank goal. Made a couple of saves that seemed routine, but given the wind and rain might have caused trouble.
Defender Carlos Bocanegra - 6: Best U.S. defender tonight. Was not beaten and adjusted to the pace, but the slick field kept him from going forward much.
Defender Clarence Goodson - 4: Fell down allowing Dexter Blackstock to score, part of a forgettable night that saw him do little right. Fine in the air, but unsettled on the ground.
Defender Geoff Cameron - 4.5: Was at fault on the Antiguan goal when he allowed speedy Peter Byers past him near the end-line. He had problems with Antigua's pace at other times. He too had a bad off-night.
Defender Steve Cherundolo - 5.5: Gave up the ball on the play that eventually led to the Antiguan goal. Seemed to worry about what was happening in the middle and, as a result, was not really sharp on the outside. A mixed performance.
Midfielder Graham Zusi - 6: Very good and then not-so-good. Wonderful chip for Johnson to run onto provided the first U.S. goal, but he could not get the ball to Dempsey on several occasions when Dempsey had put himself in position to do damage.
Midfielder Michael Bradley - 6: Overall, he was the best U.S. player besides Johnson, but his problem was determining what position he was being asked to play. Alone in the middle, he was both the defensive midfielder and responsible for pushing forward and distributing the ball. That is not his forte, but what he will have to do.
Midfielder Danny Williams - 5: He is really not happy playing wide. Owing to a combination of factors, he was never in the match and came out early.
Midfielder Clint Dempsey - 5: Far and away the most frustrated American player tonight. He did not get the ball when he wanted it and, at times, he dropped deeply to pick it up himself, then was facing multiple defenders. At the same time, he disappeared for long stretches. A very off-night.
Forward Eddie Johnson - 7: Welcome back, Eddie. It might be forgotten he is an experienced player with 28 national-team appearances and that experience helped tonight. He maintained a high work rate all evening despite the conditions and when the opportunities presented themselves he cashed in.
Forward Herculez Gomez - 4.5: As good as he has been in some recent matches, he was poor tonight. He was not a factor at all in the first half, then in the second, he created some opportunities, but could not finish. A forgettable outing.
Midfielder Jermaine Jones (56th minute for Williams) - 5.5: Held out of the starting lineup because of a minor injury and the yellow card he was carrying, he entered in the second half and promptly picked up another yellow for a intentional midfield hand ball when he challenged Blackstock, who looked to have pushed him sideways into the flight of the ball. The yellow from referee Neal Brizan was harsh to say the least. He was very active down the stretch and gave the U.S. an outside weapon it lacked earlier. He will sit out the match on Tuesday.
Forward-midfielder Alan Gordon (73rd minute for Gomez) - 5.5: Actually, a nice 20-minute appearance. He added some pace to the front line and was on the spot to deliver the ball to Johnson for the winning goal.
Midfielder Sacha Kljestan (78th minute for Zusi) - 5.5: A positive, short appearance. He took two quality corner kicks and made one attack with a pass off to Bradley that could have resulted in a goal.
SoccerTimes U.S. Player of the Match: Eddie Johnson.
Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.
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