JOHNSON RESCUES USMNT
The US national team nearly suffered a major setback against Antigua and Barbuda in their effort to qualify for next year's final CONCACAF qualifying round but were bailed by Eddie Johnson.
Entering into tonight's game at Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in Antigua, the U.S. team was in a three way tie with Guatemala and Jamaica for first place of Group A in the CONCACAF qualifying. The U.S. team likely needed four points from their last two games against Antigua and Barbuda and Guatemala on Tuesday to secure advancement.
With the team struggling with injuries, U.S. head coach was forced to change up his starting lineup and he elected to play captain Carlos Bocanegra as a left back and use the centerback pairing of Geoff Cameron and Clarence Goodson.
In the midfield, Klinsmann started Danny Williams as a center defensive midfielder and Graham Zusi on the right after both impressed last month in qualifiers against Jamaica. Michael Bradley has missed most of the past month with injuries but he recently was cleared to play and was given the start.
At left midfield, Eddie Johnson earned the surprising start after resurrecting his career this season with the Seattle Sounders in M.L.S. At forward it was not surprise where Clint Demspey and Herculez Gomez were named the starting pair.
The game was not played in very difficult conditions as hard rain and wind throughout the day carried over past kickoff. On a narrow field, it was obviously that long-balls and a very direct game plan would be necessary.
Buoyed by a boisterous home crowd, Antigua and Barbuda began the game with a lot of energy looking to counter attack against the U.S. team and force turnovers.
Despite that approach, the U.S. team opened the scoring in the 20th minute when a poor clearance off a U.S. corner bounced to Bradley who quickly fed Zusi. The Sporting Kansas City star then swung in a cross that found Eddie Johnson who easily beat Antiguan keeper Molvin James with a header.
"We see a player that is extremely proud to be back in this group," Klinsmann said of Johnson. "We see a player that has matured a lot and who knows he has a point to prove. It's great to see that hunger that Eddie brought with him into camp and also the instinct to be in the right place at the right time. "
The lead lasted only four minutes when an entire defensive breakdown allowed Antigua and Barbuda to level the score a 1-1. Peter Beyers forced a turnover from Carlos Bocanegra and moved down the right side into the box. Goodson had fallen down close to goal leaving Dexter Blackstock open close to goal. Beyers quickly sent a low cross which Blackstock was able to send past a helpless Howard.
In the second half, the U.S. team continued to struggle and Antigua and Barbuda appeared to be the more dangerous of the two teams.
The U.S team, however, came close to pulling ahead in the 85th minute when Michael Bradley's header off a Sacha Klijestan corner was saved by James off the cross bar.
In stoppage time the Americans eventually pulled ahead when San Jose forward Alan Gordon, making his international debut just four days shy of his 31st birthday, sent in a superb cross that found Johnson who again headed past James for his second goal of the game.
"I was just working to put myself in this opportunity again," Johnson said of the play. "Coach made a tactical change and put me up top with Alan Gordon and we were working together this week in training and moving off each other. Sacha [Kljestan] was able to keep the play a live out wide. He played a ball to Gordon [who crossed it] and I was able find a seam and put the ball in the back of the net."
For Gordon, he insisted that he was not nervous heading into his first cap but rather excited and happy that Klinsmann would give him the change.
During this current MLS season, San Jose has earned the reputation of being a team able to win late. Gordon has been at the heart of some of the team's most memorable moments and he was happy to carry that over into World Cup qualifying.
"I wasn't nervous, I was just excited to get the chance," Gordon said. "I just tried to put a dangerous ball in and Eddie finished it well. There was a sense of urgency we were pushing for the late goal and we got it."
Johnson used to be a regular contributor to the U.S. national team but has struggled in recent years in Europe. Earlier this year he signed with Seattle and has been one of the most surprising stories of the year.
His last cap was over two years ago but Johnson believed he could still contribute at this level where he has scored many important goals in the past in World Cup qualifying.
"I know the last two and a half years have been difficult but I think my record for World Cup qualifiers is pretty good," Johnson pointed out. "I know what it takes to play at this level and in these conditions. Hard work pays off. We knew it wasn't going to be pretty. We knew it was going to be difficult but at the end of the day we grinded it out and got the three points "
When the final whistle sounded, the U.S. team walked off the field with three valuable points but it is clear that the team has many areas of concern when it returns back to the United States to face Guatemala.
The U.S. only needs a draw now to advance to next year's final round of qualifying and Klinsmann understands there are specific areas where he needs the team to improve significantly in the days ahead.
"We have the three points and that's the most important thing," a relieved Klinsmann said after the game. "Do we have to play better? Absolutely. Individually, we're not happy with what we saw but we expected a very difficult challenge and it came down to the wire. They have quality players that can surprise you. There are a couple of things we have to discuss internally that we need to do much, much better in Kansas City."
Michael Bradley, who was one of the strongest U.S. players on the night, agreed that it was a difficult game but that the team showed a lot of character in finding a way to win.
"We feel good. We can try to explain to people what it's like to play in these types of games but until you actually do, you have no idea. We're honest enough to look at ourselves and say on a night like tonight there are things we can do better and should do better. But there's a lot to be said about coming away with a win."