At an unknown time in an unfamiliar place, Brad Evans came up big
KINGSTON, Jamaica -- He didn't even know how much time was left in the game. Fifteen minutes? Ten? Two? There are no clocks showing the running time of the game in The Office, Jamaica's national stadium, and Brad Evans found the confusion, the not-knowing, entirely disorienting as he played in the U.S.'s World Cup qualifier here on Friday night.
"The most difficult part of playing here is there's no clock, so you have no idea what time in the game it is," Evans explained. "There are certain moments in games where you look up and say, 'All right, 10 minutes: Let's get through this.' Every time I asked the ref how much time there was, he wouldn't even talk to me. He'd just run away. So we had no idea."
What Evans, the U.S.'s right back, did know was this: The U.S. had built a 1-0 lead on the road, just as it had in four of the five previous away World Cup qualifiers under coach Jürgen Klinsmann. And then the U.S. had given up a gut-punch equalizer, just as it had in each of those four other games. When Jamaica's Jermaine Beckford scored on a set-piece header in the 89th minute, it canceled out Jozy Altidore's 30th-minute strike and appeared to consign the U.S. to a disappointing tie -- and the feeling that this would be two points lost, not one point won.
Evans said he didn't even realize the game was in stoppage time when he pushed forward for a corner kick in the 92nd minute. But then the U.S. took a short corner, and Michael Bradley exchanged a couple times with Graham Zusi before laying the ball toward Evans. Looking like someone who had scored mountains of international goals instead of, well, zero, Evans whipped a shot that took a slight deflection before beating Jamaican keeper Donovan Ricketts and sucking the sound out of a joyous stadium.
USA 2, Jamaica 1. And in an instant Evans, who wasn't even part of the U.S. national team picture until recently, had scored an indelible goal, the latest game-winner for the U.S. ever in a World Cup qualifier.
"Insane," he said afterward, still not knowing what minute he had scored in (until reporters finally told him). "Crazy. Just a really cool moment." He didn't even mind that referee Roberto Moreno of Panama gave him a somewhat bogus yellow card for removing his jersey, even though Evans simply pulled it over his face without removing it entirely. "Happy to take a yellow card there," he said.
Evans wasn't exactly at the top of the list of U.S players you'd expect to produce a huge goal in that situation. The 28-year-old has never scored more than five goals in any of his seven MLS seasons. And considering he doesn't even play right back for Seattle, it was surprising to see Evans be chosen ahead of European-based Geoff Cameron at right back in the last two U.S. games.
But Evans has been solid if unspectacular, at least not until the final moments Friday night, when he saved the U.S.'s bacon and preserved three important points. Yet across the board, the U.S. players and coaches acknowledged that the team has to protect leads better and not fall prey to the lapses that have been so common in qualifying on the road.
"What we need to do better is once we get in the lead, we have to continue playing the same way," Klinsmann said after the game. "Here and there we became too hectic instead of being more confident. Our back line played too many balls straight up to Jozy, longballs that were gone. We said, 'Play it through midfield, through Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones, that's what they're good at.' And suddenly after leading by a goal, we forgot about that."
"It was tough then for Michael and Jermaine because they had to cover big spaces again," Klinsmann continued. "So at halftime I said, 'Guys, settle in, relax and combine. Manage the ball and look for your players.' But you can only do that if you're willing to move off the ball. We became a bit too static. To manage the game we still have to do a better job, especially after leading."
"We need to be more switched on, to stay focused for the whole 90 minutes," said U.S. captain Clint Dempsey. "The key will be going away from home and trying to keep clean sheets. That'll always leave you in good standing where at least you'll get a point. The good news is we are scoring goals."
And, finally, Dempsey isn't the only one scoring them. Altidore connected for the second straight game, removing questions about his U.S. goal-scoring issues, and Evans summoned the last-gasp winner from nowhere, even if he didn't know how much time was left in the game. Sometimes it's better just to play and not worry about anything else.
Bradley, for one, said the U.S. learned a valuable lesson about holding onto leads, adding that it's easier to talk about when you come away with three points. He's right about that. This U.S. team has plenty of improvement ahead if it wants to stick around for longer than three games at the World Cup. But more and more, it looks like a trip to Brazil will be part of the equation. Nights like Friday certainly help.