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Johnson defends gritty US performance in crucial win

US national team fans frustrated and disappointed with Friday night’s disjointed 2-1 win over Antigua & Barbuda may not want to hear it. But goalscorer, man of the match and all-around Yanks hero Eddie Johnson was proud and satisfied with his shorthanded team’s overall display on a stormy night a long way from home.

“We came down here to get three points,” Johnson told MLSsoccer.com in a post-game phone conversation late Friday night. “We’d already talked before the game [about how] it was not going to be pretty. We had to go out there and roll up our sleeves and fight and battle tonight, and that’s what we did. And I couldn’t be happier with the team tonight.”

Johnson emphasized the extent to which the evening’s rain turned central portions of the cricket ground at Sir Vivian Richards Stadium into a treacherous bog, a situation that benefitted the home side’s vertical counterattacking approach.

“I know there’s got to be a lot of people saying that it wasn’t our best performance. But people fail to realize how difficult these World Cup qualifiers are, especially the away [games], when you have to play under these tough conditions,” he said.

“It’s been raining here a lot and the pitches don’t hold water really well, so it was a very heavy pitch, a muddy pitch and a tight pitch. It didn’t allow us to play to our strengths and they made it difficult for us. But we grinded out the result.”

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US coach Jurgen Klinsmann had several prominent holes blown in his preferred lineup due to injuries and illness, and a low hum of pregame chatter reached a crescendo when the starting lineups showed Johnson, a striker, deployed on the left side of midfield. While the move stumped most observers, he says he actually has some flank experience and was further assisted by vocal guidance from outside backs Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo.

“You know, I’ve been fortunate in my career to play out wide a little bit,” Johnson explained. “At [English club] Preston North End I played on the wing in a 4-3-3, so I’m pretty familiar with it out wide.

“But one cool thing is that coach just said, ‘Play to your strengths. I know we’re asking you to play a different role, but you’ll be fine, and you’ll do well.’ So I just tried to feed off that positivity and go out there and play the way I’m capable of playing.”

The game turned in Antigua’s favor after Dexter Blackstock pegged the US back with a point-blank finish following Johnson’s 20th-minute opener. Despite dominating possession, the visitors found themselves under attack from one of the smallest countries remaining in 2014 World Cup qualifying, especially toward the close of the first half.

“But I thought we still were organized, we were very disciplined when we defended,” said Johnson. “It’s a game of opportunities and they had their opportunities, but [US goalkeeper] Timmy [Howard] was all over their chances and kept it tight in the back.”

Despite contributing as much hard running as anyone on the field over the full 90 minutes, Johnson still had enough in the tank to slip into open space near the back post and head Alan Gordon’s cross into the net just before the clock reached full time. It was the top highlight of a sloppy occasion, saving his team’s pride and taking a massive step toward the CONCACAF Hexagonal round, where Klinsmann and his men, should they win or tie vs. Guatemala on Tuesday, will hope to improve in several key areas.

“It wasn’t one of our best performances,” said Johnson, “but good teams find a way to get a result and we did that tonight.”