Surprising callups, much-discussed absences and a daunting injury outbreak have added up to a jittery week for the US national team ahead of Friday night’s crucial away World Cup qualifier against Antigua and Barbuda (7 pm ET, beINSport, live chat on MLSsoccer.com).
The loss of Landon Donovan, Brek Shea and Edgar Castillo to injury and Fabian Johnson to illness has complicated coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s preparations for a match which effectively, if not mathematically, must result in a victory for the visitors. Piled atop lingering questions about the decision not to call in familiar faces like Jozy Altidore, Chris Wondolowski and Jose Torres, there’s been more uncertainty present than would usually be expected for a clash with a team sitting 74 places below the US in the latest FIFA Rankings.
The three-way logjam atop Group A featuring the US, Guatemala and Jamaica, from which only two can qualify for CONCACAF’s final, “Hexagonal” round, will not be fully resolved until the close of the semifinal stage’s final round of matches on Oct. 16. Yet the USMNT have no room, or intention, to leave advancement to chance by dropping points against the smallest nation remaining on the road to Brazil 2014.
“We’ve got to get these three points, no matter what,” Klinsmann told members of the media in a conference call on Monday. “So this is our approach over the next couple of days, to build this sense of seriousness and urgency. We’re not wasting time at all.”
With just one point from their first four games, Antigua and Barbuda have all but mathematically been eliminated from contention for the Hex. Yet a closer look at their performances reveals that they’ve accepted their David-vs.-Goliath role with gusto, conceding just one goal at home with an approach based on clustering bodies in the defensive end and springing occasional counterattacks, most effectively through powerful striker Peter Byers.
Even before the spate of bad news about the aforementioned players, Klinsmann had adopted a ruggedly realistic stance approach to these meetings with Antigua, then Guatemala, who visit the US at Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan., next week after their own pivotal road trip to Jamaica.
“We need to find ways to score goals,” he said. “So we need to adjust to whatever it is and to find ways to play through and to come through, even if it’s with sending in long balls or high balls or whatever it is.”
A win in Antigua is crucial for lingering US hopes of uncomplicated passage to the Hexagonal, and the Yanks’ German-American coach has called in MLS stars Eddie Johnson and Alan Gordon to offer ample options for direct play, though Santos Laguna’s Herculez Gomez is still expected to get the starting nod up top, either alone or next to Clint Dempsey.
Midfielders Sacha Kljestan, Graham Zusi and Joe Corona are in contention to play off that duo in wide or attacking roles, though none will be as pivotal to US hopes as Michael Bradley, the beating heart of the squad who will be welcomed back to central midfield after missing September’s twin matches against Jamaica due to a quadriceps strain.
His usual partner, Schalke 04 terrier Jermaine Jones, has been carrying an ankle injury but the US technical staff is said to be “optimistic” about his availability for Friday. Depending on his health, Danny Williams and Kyle Beckerman are in contention for holding midfield duties.
Veteran right back Steve Cherundolo should earn his 86th cap this week, though the left side continues to haunt the USMNT, with Johnson battling the flu back in Germany and Club Tijuana standout Castillo ruled out for both qualifiers with a foot injury. Captain Carlos Bocanegra may shuffle out to the flank in their stead, or Michael Parkhurst may switch flanks if Boca remains the preferred option to partner with Geoff Cameron in the center of defense.
Klinsmann calls the versatile Maurice Edu “a very serious option” at center back along with big man Clarence Goodson. Tim Howard remains the unquestioned starter in goal.
Given the stakes, expect Klinsmann to start as many established vets as possible. Quirky roster choices aside, he’s emphasized that aesthetics and experimentation are well down the priorities list this month.
“We want to play a high-paced game, we want to push the back line up, we want to high-pressure whenever it’s possible and want to combine as much as possible,” he said on Monday. “We’d love to play really well and please people, please the fans and excite everybody. But first, we’ve got to make sure that we score the goals.”
Antigua & Barbuda
Located a few miles east of St. John’s, Antigua’s capital and largest city, Sir Vivian Richards Stadium has itself become a leading figure in the leadup to these teams’ penultimate match of the semifinal round.
Its primary use for cricket, the tiny nation’s favorite sport, is expected to make for a hard, fast surface which may be further affected if the current wet-season conditions drop more rain on the Eastern Caribbean locale. Challenging conditions could assist their hopes of unleashing an upset in what is probably the most significant-ever soccer match on Antiguan soil.
“The stadium is designed for cricket and the only time they use it for football is for national team games,” defender Zaine Francis-Angol, who plays for Scottish Premier League side Motherwell, told the Scottish Sun this week. “It’s not a natural football surface, but it’s the only stadium big enough to accommodate the kind of crowd we’ll have on Friday. The lads say this will be the biggest game ever in Antigua, so we anticipate it being full.
“It was sold out against Jamaica and the players felt that contributed to our display in a 0-0 draw.”
With a population of around 87,000, the small twin-island nation’s federation has tried to bolster its CONCACAF hopes by fielding a club team called Antigua Barracuda FC in USL PRO, the third-tier US pro league run by the United Soccer Leagues.
Coached by national-team boss Tom Curtis and composed of most of the Benna Boys’ domestic contingent, Barracuda has given A&B a chance to play competitive matches on a regular basis. The addition of British-based talents like Francis-Angol, Mikele Leigertwood (a midfielder with English Premier League side Reading FC), Keiran Murtagh (Macclesfield Town) and Dexter Blackstock, a former England youth international who plays for Nottingham Forest, offers a bump in quality and experience.
Antigua and Barbuda can be expected to sit deep and defend in numbers on Friday, as they have throughout their Group A adventure, as underlined by their typical choice of a 4-5-1 or even 5-4-1 formation. That said, their shape and communication has been inconsistent and the US may also find inviting opportunities on set pieces.
Of course, after surrendering three free-kick strikes in two road matches in Guatemala and Jamaica, Klinsmann will have hammered home the importance of not granting the Benna Boys restarts at the other end, where Byers’ strength and movement will be crucial to A&B’s underdog hopes.
United States: Michael Bradley
Last month, the AS Roma star’s absence left a gaping void in the USMNT midfield, particularly in terms of possession and poise. If he can seamlessly resume his role as field marshall in the center of the park, every other aspect of the Yanks’ first 11 will reap the benefits at Antigua’s expense.
Antigua and Barbuda: Peter Byers
A physically gifted frontrunner with experience in the Trinidad and Tobago league and the second division in the US and Canada, Byers unsettled US fans and threw Oguchi Onyewu’s international career into doubt when he muscled past the World Cup veteran to score A&B’s consolation goal against the USMNT in June. He’ll need to have his scoring boots on for the Benna Boys to beat the odds on Friday.
GOALKEEPERS (3): Brad Guzan (Aston Villa/England), Tim Howard (Everton/England), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
DEFENDERS (7): Carlos Bocanegra (Racing Santander/Spain), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City/England), Steve Cherundolo (Hannover/Germany), Maurice Edu (Stoke City/England), Clarence Goodson (Brondby/Denmark), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim/Germany), Michael Parkhurst (Nordsjaelland/Denmark)
MIDFIELDERS (7): Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Michael Bradley (Roma/Italy), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana/Mexico), Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04/Germany), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht/Belgium), Danny Williams (Hoffenheim/Germany), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
FORWARDS (4): Clint Dempsey (Tottenham Hotspur/England), Herculez Gomez (Santos Laguna/Mexico), Alan Gordon (San Jose Earthquakes), Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders FC)
GOALKEEPERS (3): Molvin James (Antigua Barracuda FC), Keita De Castro (Antigua Barracuda FC), Brent Mohammed (Florida Institute of Technology)
DEFENDERS (6): George Dublin (Antigua Barracuda FC), Akeem Thomas (Antigua Barracuda FC), Karanja Mack (Antigua Barracuda FC), Hazel Pyle (Antigua Barracuda FC), Marc Joseph (Kendal Town FC/England), Zaine Francis-Angol (Motherwell FC/Scotland)
MIDFIELDERS (6): Tomarley Thomas (Antigua Barracuda FC), Luke Blakeley (Antigua Barracuda FC), Quinton Griffith (Antigua Barracuda FC), Randolph Burton (Antigua Barracuda FC), Mikele Leigertwood (Reading FC/England), Kieran Murtagh (Macclesfield Town FC/England)
FORWARDS (4): Peter Byers (Antigua Barracuda FC), Stefan Smith (Antigua Barracuda FC), Dexter Blackstock (Nottingham Forest/England), Moses Ashikodi (Ebbstfleet United/England)