FOX Soccer Exclusive
USA survives again, shifts focus
It was CONCACAF World Cup qualifying at its purest – tough and wild and frenzied and unpredictable.
Laboring through the assault on all the senses delivered by the National Stadium – the cloaking humidity, the ear-splitting music and air horns, the stifling heat, the occasional bypassing ganja cloud – the United States national team was ultimately rewarded with its first victory in a World Cup qualifier on Jamaican soil on Friday, winning 2-1 on Brad Evans’ 92nd minute winner.
They had sat on a lead for almost an hour when a lone unguarded moment on a set piece in the 89th minute gave Jermaine Beckford the opening he needed to cancel out Jozy Altidore’s 30th minute opening goal. But Evans’ late swivel and rushed shot on a corner took a deflection and settled into the back of the net, bringing three points as its prize.
That’s how it goes in CONCACAF.
“Every game is difficult,” said head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “Coming away with three points was our goal and we achieved our goal. We didn’t plan it that way: conceding a goal in the last minute and in stoppage time scoring another one. But that’s what those games are about. They’re always down to the wire. The most important thing was leaving this place with the points in our pocket.”
The road to Brazil isn’t straight. It leads through games such as this one. Games that you get through, by whatever means necessary. You don’t dare hope for anything more than a win, however comely. “We all realize that qualifying for the World Cup you have to know how to win hard games,” said midfielder Michael Bradley. “You have to know how to deal with the twists that come along the way.”
“Qualifying you either pass or you fail,” added Bradley. “At times people get so caught up in overanalyzing that they get away from the point of what all this is about, and it’s to make sure that a year from now we’re at a World Cup.”
On Friday, the USA passed. But barely. They emerged with the exact same lineup as they had fielded in a 4-3 friendly win over Germany last Sunday, the first time head coach Jurgen Klinsmann had duplicated a lineup in almost two years in charge.
The bout was no less physical than these sides’ previous fracas here last September, when Jamaica beat the USA 2-1 in the third phase of qualifying. Altidore took a shot to the face almost immediately after kickoff and his strike partner Clint Dempsey was just as swiftly made aware that he was in for a grind. “We knew it was going to be a physical game and challenge for balls and try to intimidate us,” said Dempsey.
Still, the USA came out swinging, displaying a terrific urgency from the opening whistle. The thinking, Klinsmann had said prior to the game, was that Jamaica might panic if they conceded a goal early. Such was the dire state of their qualifying campaign, having taken just two points from four games.
In a frightfully physical half, the pattern was very much one of punch and counter-punch. In one such instance, Graham Zusi carved out a little room for himself on the right wing in the 30th minute. He sent a sharp cross to Altidore, who ran away from his man, rose high and authoritatively headed in from close by.
That sapped the frenzied energy from the stadium and the game somewhat until Rodolph Austin slipped his shot onto the far post, instigating a furious finale to the first half. But the Americans held firm and entered the locker room with something closely resembling a dream-scenario.
After 15 minutes of contemplation over what a loss would mean to their World Cup hopes, Jamaica re-emerged from the bright blue tunnel with a fresh verve. They created a bundle of chances early in the second half and push hard for the equalizer. The brutality of this contest claimed a victim when Jermaine Jones took a hit to the head and had to come off in the 58th minute, initially diagnosed with a mild concussion.
The Americans tried to settle game down now but coping with Jamaica’s energy and physicality proved a handful. Jamaica kept on lumping balls forward in hopes of catching the American back line out on speed. But the newly-assembled defense was never beaten and took an impressive leap forward in its maturation.
Just as the game seemed to have bled out, a long free kick by Austin loped into the American box and settled onto the head of the all-too-open Beckford, whose finish was routine. This unleashed bedlam among the erstwhile sulking locals. But amid the festivities Brad Evans got himself onto the end of Bradley’s pass in the opposing box for the winner.
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And just like that, all is well again for the United States men’s national team. Whereas just a few months ago, the roof seemed to be caving in on Klinsmann and his men following a lackluster 2-1 loss to Honduras and blistering reports on disharmony within the ranks, the course of the ship has been righted.
Following a gutsy 1-0 win over Costa Rica in a Denver blizzard and only the second-ever point earned in Mexico in a 0-0 draw in March, the USA is now a very respectable 2-1-1 after four qualifiers, having already played three games on the road, in the most trying of circumstances.
“The good thing is we were able to grind out the result,” said Dempsey. “It wasn’t pretty, we knew it wasn’t going to be a pretty game. It’s always difficult to go away from home and play a good style but we’re happy with the result and our position in the table.”
Indeed, the USA hasn’t played a pretty game in qualifying yet. This has been a struggle, a long slog.
But such is life in CONCACAF. It isn’t a pageant. It’s Darwinism. You survive and move on. So for the USA, it’s on to Seattle for a contest with Panama on June 11, and then Salt Lake City to face Honduras again on June 18.
Survival is all that matters.
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