U.S. dodges potential disaster with feel-good win against Jamaica
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- At 10:04 p.m. local time, the sinking sky hovering above the U.S. men's national team began its ascent back into the atmosphere. The worst-case scenario was avoided; the original goal still very much in play; the caravan on the road to Brazil 2014 -- for the time being, anyway -- no longer forcing the U.S. GPS to frantically recalculate.
Group play in any international tournament is a fickle beast given the importance of each match and the fortune swings with every result. As Steve Cherundolo, who masterfully patrolled the right flank in the United States' 1-0 triumph over Jamaica in his return from a calf strain, said in the build-up to the rematch from Friday's lackluster loss in Jamaica, "When we win (Tuesday), the world looks a lot different."
And what a different world it is for the U.S. men. From potentially being on the cusp of unforgivable embarrassment to the top of their qualifying group in a matter of 90 minutes.
Buoyed by successful lineup changes, a sense of urgency evident from the start and an infectious energy in the sold-out Crew Stadium stands that has become a true home fortress, the U.S. men handled their business against Jamaica in a way that restores confidence, hope and a clear path to the final hexagonal qualifying round going forward.
"We are back on track," U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann said. "We know it's not done yet. It was obviously very important after that frustrating loss Friday night in Kingston to come back and get back in pole position. We wasted points in Jamaica. It was really important that they get serious and down to business tonight, and they responded well."
To reclaim stability, Klinsmann altered his lineup significantly, making five changes to the team that fell in Jamaica, three of which coming in the midfield. Klinsmann sat Maurice Edu and Kyle Beckerman and pushed Clint Dempsey into a forward role. He gambled by deploying the relatively inexperienced Graham Zusi on the right and much-maligned Jose Torres on the left. Danny Williams was given a fair shot at the holding midfield role he plays for his club in Germany. Cherundolo and Carlos Bocanegra returned to the lineup and brought their experience, quality and sense of stability to the back line.
For as much flack as Klinsmann received for his lineup and tactical choices Friday, every one of his moves Tuesday had a positive affect for a team that came out firing like few U.S. teams have before. The ball pinged cleanly across the pristine Crew Stadium surface as opposed to the rugged turf at National Stadium on Friday, allowing the Americans to assert control and dictate the feverish tempo.
"What we wanted was width, we wanted our fullbacks going forward," Klinsmann said. "In Jamaica, they played strikers against our fullbacks as defenders. What we tried to do, with the creativity of Jose Torres and Graham, we created more space there."
Despite Michael Parkhurst's solid showing at right back in Kingston, Cherundolo's integration in his place and ability to be dynamic out of the back was a game-changing development from the opening whistle. For a player who has experienced just about every important U.S. moment this century, his contributions Tuesday were invaluable.
"Steve is phenomenal," Klinsmann said. "He's an exceptional professional player. That's why we didn't want to risk anything (Friday). He wasn't 100 percent in Kingston. His experience, how he reads the game, how he anticipates the game, his tempo how he goes down the wing, it's important to us. It seems like he's not getting any older."
Even with the domination -- to the tune of almost 80 percent of first-half possession while hitting the post on three occasions -- it still took a fortunate set piece goal to let the U.S. break through and supply the decisive moment. Herculez Gomez did the honors with his 54th-minute bending strike that forced Jamaica to suffer the same fate as the U.S. did Friday: Death by poorly placed foul.
"After all we did in the first half, we deserved a little bit of luck," said Gomez, whose free kick hit off the hands of otherwise heroic Jamaican goalkeeper Dwayne Miller and set off a celebration among the crowd of 23,881. "I'm a forward, and this is the credo for any offensive player: As long as you're creating those opportunities, there'll always be more, you'll be fine. It's when you're not creating them that there's a problem, and I think that was the case Friday."
Now the task of advancing becomes infinitely more manageable as the U.S. men control their own destiny, and the five-day roller coaster ride becomes a powerful teaching tool and reference point as opposed to one of the darkest stretches in U.S. Soccer history.
"Yeah, you feel relief in getting the points and finding yourself in a good position now," Dempsey said. "We've still got a lot of work ahead of us. We still have two important games that we have to make sure we get the right results so we can advance to the next round."
The U.S. faces Antigua and Barbuda on Oct. 12 as Jamaica and Guatemala -- both tied with the U.S. for first place in Group A with seven points -- face each other. After that, the U.S. returns to Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City four days later to face Guatemala in front of a partisan crowd. Tuesday's win does not mean the pressure to win is any less heightened, but the ramifications of Friday's shocking loss have been mitigated to a massive degree, and the advantage is back in the U.S. side after a brief and eye-opening hiatus.
"We talked about this before the game, must-win, this-and-that. We were never coming here to hopefully lose," said goalkeeper Tim Howard, who had little to do before preserving the result with a trademark, diving save off a long-range blast out of nowhere in the 81st minute. "Had we gotten a result in Jamaica, it's not like we would've sat back and accepted a loss. There still would have been pressure on us to win. It's just about how guys handle that pressure."