The US national team made heavy weather of the task, but eventually earned the victory they needed against Antigua & Barbuda on Friday night as an injury-time header from Eddie Johnson delivered a ponderous 2-1 win on a blustery, rain-soaked night at Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in North Sound, Antigua.
Making his first US start in more than two years, Johnson offered one of the few bright spots in a grim overall performance for the US. The Seattle Sounders hitman thumped home the opening goal in the 20th minute from a superb inswinging cross by Graham Zusi, nodding a downward header past A&B goalkeeper Molvin James to ease the visitors’ jumpy nerves.
But a sequence of defensive blunders let the underdog islanders strike back and level the score just five minutes later. After a Carlos Bocanegra turnover, Antigua striker Peter Byers surged past Geoff Cameron to reach the right endline and centered to Dexter Blackstock, who was left with a simple finish inside the six-yard box after Clarence Goodson slipped and fell.
The equalizer jolted the Yanks and gave their hosts renewed confidence, especially as a tropical storm began to lash rain down on an uneven playing surface which was laid out at a mere 70 meters wide, the FIFA minimum.
Zusi and Michael Bradley were the only US players to impress in midfield and Johnson, despite his goal, looked uncomfortable with the left wing role handed to him by coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
Bradley glanced a low drive off the post but the overall rhythm remained choppy and Antigua might have even gone ahead when a Quinton Griffith cross was nearly deflected in just before halftime.
Herculez Gomez had a tough night in what was essentially a lone striker role, and in the 50th minute he was sent in alone on James, only to flub the chance with a poor first touch.
Jermaine Jones entered for Danny Williams in the 56th minute, but struggled to positively influence the US and soon received a yellow card that leaves him suspended for Tuesday’s match against Guatemala.
Gomez's first touch failed him again on a great chance inside the Antigua box, and he came off in 72nd minute for Alan Gordon, the San Jose Earthquakes striker’s first cap.
Frustration mounted as the half played out at 1-1, spiking when Bradley was hacked down from behind in the penalty box and no call was made by Trinidadian referee Neil Brizan. The US midfielder drove a header on target on the ensuing corner kick from substitute Sacha Kljestan, but James produced a massive save to preserve the deadlock.
He was completely exposed on Johnson’s late winner, though. Gordon and Kljestan combined along the right channel to set up a far-post cross that “EJ” headed home from close range, saving US blushes and putting the Yanks in pole position for a spot in the CONCACAF Hexagonal round.
The US are provisionally atop Group A with 10 points from five games, pending the result of the Guatemala vs. Jamaica game later on Friday. Both the Chapines and Reggae Boyz are on seven points.
MLSsoccer.com Men of the Match
|Rank||Player||What We Saw|
|1||Eddie Johnson||No doubt about this one. EJ's finishing was the only redeeming feature of a scruffy night. Can his amazing international comeback get any better?|
|2||Alan Gordon||Didn't get much time or many touches, but made the most of them, setting up one opportunity before laying on the ball that led to Johnson's winner.|
|3||Dexter Blackstock||The Nottingham Forest man turned heads tonight, roasting Clarence Goodson to net Antigua's goal. His speed and strength tortured the US back line.|