Saturday November 14th, 2015

ST. LOUIS — No one is going to mistake St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a team filled with semi-pro players from a nation of around 103,000 people, for an opponent that represented any sort of legitimate obstacle to the U.S. The fact that the Vincy Heat took an early lead on Friday evening—or scored at all—should be considered a significant upset. The Americans were expected to win their World Cup qualifying opener handily and they did, storming back to a 6–1 triumph at Busch Stadium. 

But for the hosts, months of disappointment and doubt, a miserable performance at this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup and then a loss to Mexico in last month’s Confederations Cup playoff mean that Friday’s result shouldn’t simply be pocketed and forgotten. Sure, there’s another qualifier at Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday. That game is going to be a much tougher test and will tell us far more about the state of this U.S. squad than Friday’s walkover. Defeat would raise further questions.

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Friday’s win over St. Vincent still was noteworthy, however. For the first time in a while, coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad met expectations and played to its potential. It took the field against an inferior foe and after an early slip-up, it controlled the ball and the game. This is a team that has made just about everything difficult in recent months. After Oalex Anderson lifted the visitors to a shocking fifth-minute advantage, the Americans made it look easy. Finally, a bit of good momentum has been established. 

“It was a very professional performance by our team,” defender Matt Besler said. “I think we were sharp. I thought we moved the ball well and I think we did all the things necessary against a team like St. Vincent to win the game.”

As for the early deficit, which stunned the crowd of 43,433 in one of American soccer’s traditional hotbeds, Besler said, “I thought we responded excellently.” 

Less than 30 minutes after Anderson’s goal, the U.S. was ahead, 3–1, and on its way.

It’s tough to read too much more into the U.S. performance. The statistics are gaudy and almost incomprehensible. The Americans held 83.1% of the possession, completed 92% of their passes and outshot St. Vincent 20–2. But the intangibles were important to note. The hosts showed no sign of self-doubt after falling behind and drew level only six minutes later. They were patient as they probed St. Vincent’s compressed banks of four and took advantage of the corner kicks and free kicks that resulted from their dominance in possession.

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The U.S. played simple, square balls to maintain rhythm, then passed through the lines when the opportunity arose. All the composure and verve that was lacking during the Gold Cup was on display. Yes, it was against the 129th-ranked team in the world. But you have to start somewhere. 

“They bunker in and then you have to find a way to score the first and the second goal, which the team did very quickly and it kind of entered into an entertaining game. Six goals is a nice thing to have and to show the fans,” Klinsmann said. “Obviously, it’s important to start with three points into the qualifying campaign. It’s a long run we have ahead of us. Obviously, we expect ourselves to go through the group, get the necessary points … but altogether, it will be 16 games that we have to master and this was the first one tonight. It was a nice performance by the group, good energy from the players. They always strive to add another [goal] against a team that was basically putting a wall around their 18-yard box.” 

Klinsmann said he expected “a completely different game on Tuesday” against a “physical” Soca Warriors side that certainly will close down space and make possession a bit more difficult to come by. It’s a team of seasoned pros that performed well at the Gold Cup and tied eventual champion Mexico on its way to the quarterfinals.

“This is a completely different category [of opponent] that we deal with,” Klinsmann said. 

That’s why Friday’s win may have been about more than the final score. The momentum established in St. Louis will matter, and there were several tactical wrinkles that could make a difference for the U.S. as it seeks to establish a bit of tempo in its first road qualifier of the new cycle. 

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The U.S. is a more organized team when captain Michael Bradley plays a deeper role. Klinsmann has preferred to use him as an advanced playmaker since before last year’s World Cup, but that often leaves Bradley too far forward to establish the rhythm the U.S. needs and the combinations he sees better than any other U.S. player. On Friday, he spent most of his time in front of the back four, pulling the strings in the midfield while Jermaine Jones operated in the right channel and wingers Fabian Johnson and Gyasi Zardes cut inside to offer additional options. Bradley was the composed quarterback, and the U.S. was humming.

“Tonight, playing with Jermaine in there, I felt like the game needed me to play a little bit deeper and to help us find a rhythm and connect things and play and find guys in the attack and make sure the ball was moving quickly when it needed to,” Bradley said. “I think [that’s] something I’m able to give us on a lot of days. Obviously at the end of the day, the final decision in terms of the role and how that gets tweaked is of course Jurgen’s.” 

Jones, who shifted into the back line after experiencing some tightness in his hamstring, made it clear what he would do if he was the manager. 

“It’s always easier when you know the ways the other guy plays,” he said. “The games before it was a little bit tougher when [Bradley] plays a little bit higher, like a No. 10. I know him too. He’s a guy who always shifts back and wants the ball and sometimes then you have no space, [if] you have a No. 6 too and Mike and me, so it’s a little bit tough. But I think today, it was from both a good performance.”

Johnson’s role on the left was significant as well. Klinsmann typically has been deploying the German-born winger at right back, but Johnson plays in left midfield for Borussia Monchengladbach. He’s more accustomed to that role and can have more impact on the possession game and the attack. Bradley offered rave reviews for Johnson’s contributions in midfield. 

“He’s easy to play with,” the captain said of Johnson. “You want to have guys around you and you want to play with guys who are predictable—who are easy to play with, who give you the ball when it’s good for you, who know how to move, who know that when it’s right to play one touch they play one touch, when it’s right to dribble they dribble … He’s smart. He has a football brain.”

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That consistency comes from comfort. Johnson said he hasn’t asked Klinsmann specifically to move into midfield, but he did say Friday night that, “I’m comfortable in that position now. I’m used to it and play it with my club team.”

Johnson also was deadly on set pieces throughout the evening, scoring on a first-half free kick and helping to set up two more goals from corner kicks.

DeAndre Yedlin played the position he occupies at the club level as well and replaced Johnson at right back. He’s emerged as a starter there for Sunderland. Yedlin didn’t have to do much defending on Friday but offered the usual cover on the flank and an intriguing option going forward. Klinsmann now has an English Premier League right back and a Bundesliga left midfielder at his disposal if he chooses to use them there again.

Friday’s win also got Jozy Altidore back in the goal scoring groove. The veteran forward tallied the Americans’ third and sixth goals and broke a three-game international scoreless streak just in time for the trip to Trinidad.

“Jozy, throughout the last couple of years, he went through some extreme ups and downs … but he knows we believe in him,” Klinsmann said. “We need him. The U.S. team needs Jozy Altidore, there’s no doubt about it. That he finds the back of the net tonight is good for us.”

The whole evening was good for them. This wasn’t a win to brag about. But it was a performance that was needed. The U.S. is off to a good start on its quest to qualify for an eighth straight World Cup and, perhaps, it found a wrinkle or two that may help it once the road gets rockier.

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