Eddie Johnson (2nd R) of the U.S. celebrates with teammates (L-R) Geoff Cameron, Carlos Bocanegra, Herculez Gomez, and Clint Dempsey after Johnson scored a goal against Antigua and Barbuda during their 2014 World Cup qualifying soccer match in St. John's, Antigua, October 12, 2012. (Photo : REUTERS/Thaddeus Price (ANTIGUA AND BARBUDA - Tags: SPORT SOCCER) )
The US managed a win against Antigua and Barbuda in Friday's World Cup Qualifiers, but it was far from the performance that fans have come to expect from the US in the CONCACAF.
There was a time when the group stage of the World Cup Qualifiers was a breeze for the Americans. In 2010, the US was in a group with Guatemala, Trinidad and Tobago, and Cuba. They stormed through the group with four wins in their first four matches before losing their only qualifying match against Trinidad and Tobago. In that round they had games in which they won 3-0 and 6-1. Cuba has never been a powerhouse but the US was dispatching its group opponents with only three goals against and four cleansheets. This year, they have given up five goals in five matches and only have one clean sheet. While the goals against are not worrisome, the goals for certainly are. Through five matches the US has scored eight goals. In 2010 qualifiers they scored 14 goals in six matches, including six in one game.
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In the following hexagonal stage, the US won six, lost two, and drew two. In the process they scored 19 goals in ten games while allowing 13. But in this group they were facing upper echelon teams of the CONCACAF. Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Trinidad and Tobago were among the competitors in the round of six. The US's loses in that round came against Costa Rica and Mexico on the Road. They were not flawless, but they was never any insecurity surrounding them.
Fast forward to this year's qualifiers and you have to start wondering how good this team really is. Through five matches, they have yet to showcase a completely dominant performance. Their game against Jamaica in Columbus was the closest thing to that thanks to a strong and assertive effort in the first half. But after 45 minutes that game was level at 0-0 with the US struggling to find offense. They found it by good fortune but never came close after a Hercules Gomez. Jamaica had several chances to tie the game, but the US was fortune to not lose the lead as they may never have recovered it. People may point to a 3-1 win over Antigua and Barbuda, but that one was far from tension-free. The Caribbean squad came again and again and created several chances to come back into the game. It showcased weakness in the US back-end that the other two group squads took advantage of in following games. Antigua and Barbuda seemed to take note as well, but this game was not more lopsided not because of Antigua and Barbuda's brilliant display, but because of the US's lack of tactical facility.
The Americans came out strong and looked poised for a huge game. When they scored 20 minutes in off an Eddie Johnson goal, it looked like they would finally realize their potential. But five minutes later, their leaky defense let Antigua and Barbuda tie up the score. At that point, the Americans were expected to try and regain momentum, but the complete opposite happened. The USMNT was rather passive throughout the remainder of the game, looking tentative of giving up another goal rather than confident that they could score another. Through the first 80 minutes of the game, the US only had one shot on goal and it was the goal.
Fortunately for them, Eddie Johnson found a way to score a second goal at the 90 minute mark to salvage the US and require just one more point to pass into the hexagonal stage. But the question beckons as to whether they will be better in that round. Over the last few qualifiers they have excelled in that round. But with Mexico in top form, can the US truly expect at least one win against El Tri in the group of six? Costa Rica has been solid as have been Panama and Canada. Guatemala could very well get out of the group with the US and should never be overlooked after some inspiring play. The US should match up well against all of these teams on paper... but that was also the case in the group stage. And while the expected results have come, they have never looked more uncertain.
There are a few notable factors to consider and all of them positive. Michael Bradley looked sharp in his first match back for the team in quite a while. Eddie Johnson remains an anomaly but coach Jurgen Klinsmann is still testing the team out and the squad that went up against Antigua and Barbuda was a completely different approach from the German in past qualifiers. The US is also without two regulars in Landon Donavon and Brek Shea. The former is one of the best offensive stars on the team and his absence in the last few qualifiers has been evident for the Americans. The defense is still a mystery for Klinsmann but he has one more game to try it out on Tuesday. Ultimately however, that is what this US team currently is: a question mark. We know they can make the World Cup, but the question is how effective can they be. In 201 they won their group in heroic fashion and took Ghana to the brink in their Round of 16 match. Many would argue that they should have won that game. After such a successful tournament, the expectations have climbed and anything but that would be deemed another US failure at the World Cup. Can this team pull off that feat from two years ago? Possibly, but they still have a lot of other questions to answer in the qualifiers before that.