It was anything but pretty, but the U.S. national Soccer team managed to do what it needed to Friday night at rain-soaked Raymond James Stadium, beating overmatched Antigua and Barbuda 3-1 to open its 18-month World Cup qualifying marathon with three vital points.
But an early authoritative performance turned into a tense and embarrassing situation midway through the second half: a one-goal advantage against unaccomplished Antigua and Barbuda (population 89,000).
Herculez Gomez relieved the unexpected pressure with a 72nd-minute goal, leading to a 3-1 victory before 23,971 at rainy Raymond James Stadium. The overall display, however, was not what Juergen Klinsmann wanted in his first consequential game since accepting the coaching helm last summer.
The Americans remain heavily favored to finish atop their four-team, semifinal-round group and advance to the final stage of regional qualifying next year. But projecting to the harder matches that lie ahead, including Tuesday at Guatemala, this demonstration was not reassuring.
Captain Carlos Bocanegra scored in the eighth minute and Clint Dempsey converted a penalty kick just before halftime, but Peter Byers answered in the 65th for the ambitious visitors, whose roster includes 16 players competing in the third division of a U.S.-based pro league. Gomez then capitalized on a scramble in the box to all but secure the three points.
With injuries to the top two options at left back, Fabian Johnson and Edgar Castillo, Klinsmann made a surprising choice: The assumption was that he would summon Bocanegra or Michael Parkhurst, natural defenders with experience at outside back. Instead, in a major jolt, he anointed Jose Torres, an attacking midfielder.
If ever there was a qualifier for such a risky decision, it was this one: at home against the historically weakest team in the four-team group.
The other big defensive decision was the central partner for Bocanegra. Klinsmann had started Geoff Cameron, Oguchi Onyewu and Clarence Goodson once apiece in the three friendlies. The pick Friday: Goodson, who had shown well against Canada on Sunday.
Heavy rain throughout the afternoon and into the evening made for sloppy conditions at the NFL venue, which was hosting a U.S. match for the third consecutive year.
After a sluggish start on the slick surface, the Americans went ahead — thanks in part to Landon Donovan’s stalling tactic.
Bocanegra had lost his shoe on a sequence that resulted in a corner kick. With the captain fixing his footwear, Donovan placed the ball down, picked it up, spun it — everything to delay the restart.
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As the Benna Boys protested, Bocanegra returned to play. Gomez headed Donovan’s service on target. Molvin James made a reflex save, but Bocanegra swept in the rebound from inside the six-yard box for his 13th international goal, tying retired Marcelo Balboa for the most by a U.S. defender.
The Americans accumulated six early corner kicks and made several surges into the box but were too cute with the ball and failed to test James regularly. The interplay between Donovan and Dempsey was quick and synchronized but fell short.
Under intense pressure, Antigua could only venture out of its end for occasional counterattacks.
The U.S. dominance continued deep into the half but failed to translate into a wider lead. Antigua had a golden chance to equalize in the 39th minute, but with time and space, Dexter Blackstock had his 17-yarder blocked by a defender.
The Americans added a second in the 44th minute after Marvin McCoy tripped Donovan running onto Dempsey’s feed. Dempsey fired the penalty kick into the center of the target for his 26th U.S. goal.
The second half offered much of the same: control without goals. After Torres departed with an ankle contusion, Gomez hit the crossbar in the 58th minute.
The match turned dramatically in the 65th minute when Byers touched the ball past Onyewu, Torres’s replacement, and raced away from the slow-footed defender for a clear run at Howard. The cool finish halved the deficit and provided unexpected drama.
After James made two fine saves, Gomez collected a loose ball in the box and tucked it into the left corner for his fourth U.S. goal.
Source: Washington Post