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Saturday, October 13, 2012

Grimace and Grin: USA wins in Antigua

Photo credit: AP

There was a collective grimace today as we watched the United States Men's National soccer team wait until stoppage time to score the second goal and defeat Antigua and Barbuda. Yes, Antigua and Barbuda. This wasn't Trinidad and Tobago or Jamaica or even Cuba. No, it was a cricket-loving, island nation of only 85,632 people. 

The grin came at the welcoming return of Eddie Johnson, whose career had been in decline after an ill-fated transfer to Europe and numerous loans in Britain and Greece. His positioning for the goals today was just what Klinsmann had wanted.

And yet, for the most part, as the television monitors closed and opinions began, it became certain that this national team had just had one of its worst performances. By virtue of beIN Sport being the sole proprietor of all the away USA matches, this game was not available for me. However, I was still able to keep up with plays through Twitter and other media and I saw the highlights afterwards. Where was the fighting spirit in these players? Even in the condensed version of the game the only ones enthused with being there were Michael Bradley, Zusi and Eddie Johnson. Everyone else was simply at work.

What happened to the team that won in Slovenia, Italy and Mexico? Those were the vintage Klinsmann games. Then again, with Bob Bradley the semifinal qualifying round was over at the fourth game with four straight wins and USA ended up taking the Hexagonal, reaching the final at the Confederations Cup and winning the group at World Cup 2010. Suddenly, for all of us that dreamed of something better than Bradley, the next step is hardly one in the right direction. 

Many of us were Klinsmann believers from the start, but stumbling into the final game before the Hexagonal is no way to repay faith. Yes, Concacaf can be difficult, but not for the USA or Mexico. It hasn't been that way for the past 10 years. Then again, Mexico just slipped into the Hexagonal last time around and Sven Goran Erickson lived for a couple more matches. The Aztecas regrouped under Aguirre and built one of the better teams in the world over the last 4 years. Could the Americans do the same? 

There is another truth to speak of here. Yes, Eddie Johnson was the savior and Gordon the provider in today's match. But what happens against a team like Mexico or Costa Rica or Panama? Or at the World Cup? Are we still not going to field Altidore or Boyd or Lichaj for the games that matter most? When Donovan, Shea, Fabian Johnson and Edgar Castillo go down, the first thing to do is to replace the players with those that matter. The team lived today without replacements, but just so. What if this scenario occurs again in the Hexagonal? Wait, we're not there yet either.

The final match in the semifinal phase of Concacaf World Cup qualifying is versus Guatemala, with whom the US is now tied in points at 10 and the same goal differential. A win provides safety and redemption, a tie will do and a loss could be enough depending on Jamaica's at-home match versus Antigua.Not once in the past 5 World Cup cycles has this occurred. Our players have the talent, they just need the guidance to funnel their strengths.

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