With the final two weeks of the regular season briefly set aside, springloaded with playoff implications, MLS shifted focus to the international stage this week.
Canada hosted a depleted Cuba in Toronto, Honduras battled Group C leaders Panama in Panama City and the US faced a must-win game in North Sound, Antigua and Barbuda.
The run-up to that US match was riddled with puzzling decisions and bad luck, generating currents of anxiety among the US faithful.
When the Americans labored to create chances against the underdog hosts, those misgivings were validated — with a vengeance. So much so that even a dramatic 90th-minute winner from Eddie Johnson did little to erase the negative impression of the first 89 minutes. This was a 2-1 win that felt like a loss for many observers.
But how much validity does the pessimistic view of this one hold? Can US fans find enough positive takeaways to feel good about the win?
Let’s take a look.
Glass Half Empty
No. 1 on the pessimist’s list of grievances is the fact that the US failed to generate many chances (they had four shots on goal) against a nation with a population roughly the size of the crowd that turned up for last week’s Seattle-Portland game at CenturyLink Field.
Sure, they held 76.4 percent of possession in the game, but they didn’t translate that edge into total command of the game.
Second, they looked surprisingly vulnerable in the back at times. Johnson opened the scoring in the 20th minute, putting a punctuation mark on the US dominance to that point, but A&B zipped right back and equalized just five minutes later.
The goal came after three consecutive miscues on the US backline — Carlos Bocanegra coughed up the ball on the flank, Geoff Cameron was beaten by Peter Byers, and Clarence Goodson slipped and fell while scrambling to defend the A&B rush, allowing Dexter Blackstock to score from inside the six: 1-1.
The game had every appearance of ending that way — and becoming one of the more infamous results in modern US soccer history — until Johnson swooped in late.
There was no shortage of other problems: Herculez Gomez killed two scoring chances with lead-footed first touches, Clint Dempsey faded in and out of the game — and berated Graham Zusi a couple of times — and Danny Williams was largely ineffective.
On the whole, the US performance was as dismal as the Hurricane-season weather attending the game.
Glass Half Full
The optimistic view of this game — not that many outside the US camp are taking it — is that the Americans grinded out a result in difficult conditions, dominating possession on a tiny, swampy field, and getting the goals they needed against an underrated opponent.
Antigua & Barbuda are not quite the pushovers some have made them out to be.
In September, they held a 1-0 lead over Guatemala, in Guatemala, until the 60th minute, before eventually falling 3-1.
They also tied Jamaica this round — the same Jamaica that beat the US 2-1 a month ago — and played Guatemala tough a second time, dropping a 1-0 decision.
That Hurricane-season weather was a huge factor in the game. Steady rain left pockets of standing water in places and turned the field into a muddy bog that limited the US passing game and its ability to push the tempo.
The field was also scaled down to the minimum dimensions allowed by FIFA (110 yards by 70 yards), making A&B’s packed-in defense all the more packed in.
“We can try to explain to people what it’s like to play in these type of games,” midfielder Michael Bradley told The New York Times, “but until you actually do, you have no idea.”
Given all that, the US weren’t perfect, but they can feel good about securing these crucial three points.
What’s more, they added to the team’s depth with the performances of Johnson and San Jose striker Alan Gordon, who set up the winning goal with a superb chip to the far post in his US debut.
Both players proved they can be useful to the US qualifying effort, as did Sacha Kljestan, who provided a late spark as a sub.
If the US can produce a solid performance — in ideal conditions — on Tuesday against Guatemela, they’ll advance to the Hexagonal, and their Caribbean struggles will fade in the rearview.
They may also have an extra focused, motivated Jozy Altidore to call on should they reach the more competitive next round. He’ll have something to prove after being snubbed for these games.
If you thought Jurgen Klinsmann had roster problems leading up to Friday’s game, consider the plight of Cuba’s coach, Alexander González, who was left with only 11 players for his team’s World Cup qualifier in Toronto after five Cubans apparently defected to Canada ahead of the match.
The Canucks rolled to a 3-0 win, outshooting the visitors 37-6, and will now advance to the Hexagonal for the first time since 1997 if they can escape Honduras’s Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano with a point on Tuesday.
That’s a big if, of course, as the Honduran side they face will be a far cry from the Cuban team they blanked on Friday. With five MLS stars in their starting XI, a fearsome homefield advantage, and their backs against the wall, Honduras will be tough to handle.
Canada certainly have a fighting chance, but they could definitely use one more MLSer to go with the seven already on their roster: D.C. United’s injured Dwayne De Rosario.