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Saturday, October 13, 2012
U.S. spared by its shock call-ups

By Jeff Carlisle

ST. JOHN'S, Antigua -- Eddie Johnson had spent much of the last four years in a kind of soccer purgatory, bouncing from club to club in a desperate search for the scintillating form with which he began his international career. Then came Friday; playing on a rain-swept Caribbean field, the U.S. striker found his way back to the top, scoring twice to give the U.S. a vital 2-1 World Cup qualifying win over Antigua & Barbuda.

Granted, it's unlikely that Johnson will sit down with his grandchildren someday and boast about how he took down the Benna Boys -- such stories are best left for more highly regarded opponents. But that doesn't mean he can't draw immense satisfaction from his performance. A&B hadn't been a pushover for anyone in this semifinal round of qualifying, and given the three-way race for the top two spots in Group A, the Americans needed all three points lest their World Cup destiny slip from their grasp. Thanks to Johnson's first international goals since a World Cup qualifier against Barbados four years ago, the U.S. was able to tighten its grip instead.

"You dream, and you dream of playing for your country and playing in World Cup qualifiers," he said afterwards. "But a lot of people dream and don't make that dream into reality. I'm glad I was able to make that dream a reality tonight."

It borders on irony overload that it was Johnson who came to the Americans' rescue. After all, the Seattle Sounders forward was one of the surprise call-ups when U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann announced his roster Monday. But an even bigger shock was delivered when Klinsmann started Johnson on the left side of midfield, a position he'd played only during a loan stint last year with Preston North End.

"You just want to keep it simple, not try to overcomplicate things, and try to let the game come to you," said Johnson on playing out wide. "I think it was an OK performance. I can get a little fitter if I'm going to play that role."

Perhaps, but the move looked to be a master stroke early on as Johnson forcefully nodded home Graham Zusi's cross in the 20th minute. But the Benna Boys pulled level through Dexter Blackstock, at which point the U.S. knew it was in for a street fight.

Sensing the U.S. needed a different look in order to find a breakthrough, Klinsmann moved Johnson back up top in the 73rd minute and paired him with an even bigger shock selection: San Jose Earthquakes striker Alan Gordon. The 30-year-old -- he'll turn 31 on Tuesday -- was making his international debut and made the night even more memorable when, with time winding down, he gathered a ball from Sacha Kljestan (another impact substitute) and delivered a laser-guided cross that Johnson duly headed home.

For Gordon, such heroics have become commonplace this season given the late-game drama that San Jose dishes out in MLS on a regular basis. But it put an exclamation point on his first cap, allowing him to "prove Jurgen right that taking a chance on a guy like me can work out."

The play of Johnson and Gordon put a considerable shine on an overall team performance that was much less than the sum of its parts. Yes, CONCACAF has gotten stronger and A&B did put together an inspired performance. The wet field conditions -- forward Clint Dempsey likened the center of the pitch to "a mud pit" -- were difficult as well. But it is nonetheless disturbing to see the U.S. struggle to such a degree against the 106th-ranked team in the world. Klinsmann bemoaned his side's lack of urgency as well as the more passive mindset that -- as in the game last month in Jamaica -- took over when the U.S. broke on top.

"It's something that you always kind of reinforce," said Klinsmann about staying aggressive. "But it's something that has to develop in the whole group, especially in away games. We just need to be better at that. Maybe when you score the first goal, they still kind of react a bit too much and let themselves drop back instead of continuing to play your game, the same way you did it until you scored that first goal. These are certainly things we have to work on. We have to do better."

Indeed. Next year's final round of World Cup qualifying -- assuming the U.S. gets the result it needs on Tuesday against Guatemala -- will demand more consistency. As for this result, the U.S. got out of jail and the players know it.

"We won't be thinking about this game after we get on the bus," said captain Carlos Bocanegra. "We'll forget about this one. We just can't lose confidence. That's the biggest thing."

For Johnson and Gordon, that doesn't figure to be a problem.