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Friday, June 8, 2012
Grading the U.S. in World Cup qualie

By Brent Latham
Special to ESPN.com

The U.S. got the win and all three points in its World Cup qualifying opener Friday night in Tampa. But as it kicks off the marathon of qualifying, Jurgen Klinsmann's side left plenty of doubts headed toward a tougher challenge at Guatemala next week.

On a rainy night in West Florida, the home team predictably controlled the vast majority of play, but often looked sluggish in seeing off a game Antigua and Barbuda side, 3-1, with goals from Carlos Bocanegra, Clint Dempsey and Herculez Gomez. Despite the domination on the ball, though, it wasn't the type of complete effort for which Klinsmann would have hoped.

The German fielded an attack-oriented variation of a 4-3-3 which featured the forward-pushing Jose Torres at left back and a front line of Dempsey, Gomez and Landon Donovan. The U.S. controlled play for long spells in the first half, with the visitors content to get numbers behind the ball and try to stymie the American attack. Content to take the initiative, the U.S. pushed forward in droves, winning a number of corners in the early going.

In just the seventh minute the pressure paid off, as Bocanegra stole in from the back post to bundle home a loose ball after a Donovan corner. The U.S. looked to be on its way, but things wouldn't be quite so simple as the Benna Boys continued to defend resolutely.

The Americans had little problem getting into the attacking third, but despite some good combination play out of Donovan and Dempsey, couldn't find the final ball to spring an attacker past the Antiguan back line. The breakthrough finally came in the 41st minute, when Dempsey cleverly played in a surging Donovan down the left wing, and the Galaxy man was hacked down by an Antiguan defender upon charging into the box.

When Dempsey dispatched the spot kick up the middle, the U.S. once again looked to be in for clear sailing. But the killer instinct was lacking as the second half kicked off, and after the U.S. squandered several opportunities to extend its lead, Antiguan substitute Peter Byers turned Oguchi Onyewu and tucked the ball past Tim Howard to cut the U.S. lead to a dangerously thin margin.

The Americans reacted with their most determined spell of the match, and just seven minutes later extended their lead back to two when Gomez followed up a deflected shot to push the ball past the Antiguan goalkeeper and close the scoring. The final 20 minutes saw more sloppy play as the Americans took three points and not much else from Tampa.

More than the final score, the lackluster effort and a lack of any sense of urgency will concern Klinsmann as the U.S. heads to Guatemala for Tuesday's second qualifier. In Central America the margin for error will be thinner, and mistakes in central defense or any lack of finishing sharpness could easily cost the U.S. precious points.

What started out labeled as a five-game tournament by the coach seems to have taken more than the necessary toll on the squad, and -- aside from the gaping hole at left back if Fabian Johnson can't return and doubts in the middle of defense -- Klinsmann will be tasked with somehow remedying the level of motivation and stale legs in camp before Tuesday rolls around.

Player Ratings (1-10; 10=best)

GK, Tim Howard, 6 -- Didn't have much to do given the way the U.S. dominated possession, but did distribute well when called upon, helping restart the attack. Couldn't be blamed on the Antigua goal, and almost came up with the save.

DF, Carlos Bocanegra, 7 -- A much-needed intelligent effort from the U.S. captain, who led the way with the first goal. Bocanegra organized well from the back and helped cover for debutant left back Torres when the U.S. pushed numbers forward, and after Torres left.

DF, Clarence Goodson, 6.5 -- The tall defender broke up Antigua's best first-half chance with a well-timed sliding clearance. Goodson was also a constant presence on set pieces in front of the Antigua goal.

DF, Steve Cherundolo, 5.5 -- Spent the majority of the match well up the field, combining decently with the central mids, but didn't create too much danger with crosses on the night. Defended well when called upon.

DF, Jose Torres, 6 -- Showed a feisty side defending in his run at left back, and served the desired function of maintaining possession and distributing. Torres also demonstrated a little seldom-seen pace in getting to the end line and crossing, though that's still not his strength.

MF, Maurice Edu, 7 -- The Americans' most consistent player on the night, Edu's positioning and distribution on top of the defensive line were impeccable.

MF, Jermaine Jones, 6 -- Hot and cold with his passing, but as usual Jones was involved all over the field for 80 minutes, and somehow avoided picking up a yellow card.

MF, Michael Bradley, 5.5 -- A bit of a discreet performance from Bradley. He did make a couple good runs and had a good effort from range late, but failed to put his stamp on the game as he had in the past three friendlies.

F, Landon Donovan, 6.5 -- Against a fleet-a-foot Antiguan side, Donovan showed he's still got plenty of speed, blazing his way repeatedly into dangerous spots as he combined well up top with Dempsey and Gomez.

F, Clint Dempsey, 6.5 -- Dempsey doesn't quite have the edge back that put him among the Premier League's leading scorers this past season, but he was an invaluable asset dropping a little deeper and creating for his teammates.

F, Herculez Gomez, 7 -- Gave Klinsmann a workmanlike effort up top for 80 minutes, and rewarded his coach's confidence with not only hard work but also an important goal.

Subs

D, Oguchi Onyewu, 4 -- Made one big mistake in his 35 minutes of work, but that's one too many from a central defender.

F, Jozy Altidore, NR -- Altidore didn't do much more than look uncomfortable on the left wing in 10 minutes of work.

F, Terrence Boyd, NR -- A few years from now, this match may not be remembered for anything more important than the cap that makes Boyd an American international for the duration.

Brent Latham covers soccer for ESPN.com. He previously covered sports throughout Africa for Voice of America radio and works as a soccer commentator for a national television station in Guatemala. He can be reached at brentlatham@ymail.com.