SEATTLE -- Even a sandy, slip-inducing temporary grass surface couldn't slow the newfound momentum of the U.S. men at CenturyLink Field in front of a lively pro-U.S. contingent of 40,847 on Tuesday, the second largest crowd ever to see the men's team play in the Pacific Northwest.
The Americans used both muscle — here's your chance to shine, Jozy Altidore — and finesse — hometown favorite Eddie Johnson offered up a healthy platter of that — to finish goals en route to a 2-0 home World Cup qualifying game victory against Panama. But equally as important as surviving the temporary field without injury and capturing three points on home soil, the U.S. now stands on 10 points halfway through the 10-game hexagonal tournament, a full two points up on Mexico — a team with one more game played — and Costa Rica (those two tied 0-0 in Mexico earlier Tuesday).
To top it off, the U.S. gets to carry that cozy lead and four-game unbeaten streak into yet another home game next week, hosting Honduras in Salt Lake City on June 18. If the U.S. hopes to avenge its lone hex loss of the year, it must like what it sees from the finishing abilities of its forwards and quickly solidifying defense that has now allowed just one goal in the last four qualifying games and improves to 22-0-2 in home qualifying games dating back to 2001.
Panama wanted to play the U.S. physical. Altidore obliged. The 6-foot-1 forward, who plays club ball for AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands, scored his third goal in as many games for the U.S., giving the Americans a 1-0 lead in the 36th minute. His physicality showed up before his right-footed one-touch found the back of the net. The Florida native pushed his way to the front of the box throughout the first half, even appearing to draw a penalty in the box just two minutes before his goal. The call went the other way.
After a fruitless Panama possession, midfielder Michael Bradley carried the ball out of the defensive end, eventually sending it wide to Fabian Johnson on the left side. Fabian Johnson crossed the ball across the box with his left foot, under Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, where Altidore took the bouncing ball with one touch safely into the goal, sending the decidedly pro-U.S. crowd — clad largely in red with giveaway red scarves — into a frenzy.
"Fabian joined in in a big way and the ball he gave to Jozy was perfect," Bradley said. "It makes such a difference for Jozy to score and I'm happy for him."
"When we play this well whoever is playing forward will have success and fortunately that was me," Altidore said. "I think the guys can taste Brazil."
The U.S., instead of wilting with the lead as its been prone to do throughout head coach Jurgen Klinsmann's tenure, essentially put the game away just eight minutes into the second half.
Midfielder Geoff Cameron — whose length goalie Tim Howard said allowed him to get his toe on plenty of balls — took possession at midfield and sent a soaring pass to the streaking Eddie Johnson who controlled the ball with his right foot, let it bounce twice and then punched it in the left corner with his left foot before crashing through Penedo.
The 2-0 lead on fourth-place Panama, playing without ill star Blas Perez, was cushion enough. And momentum aplenty.
"We pushed for a second goal, that's what we said at halftime," Klinsmann said. "It was a complete performance by the entire team. We just need to put up points and next week is a must-win."
Altidore now has two goals in qualifying play and three goals in his last three matches, including friendlies. Klinsmann said he gives Altidore his full support, even if that means "kicking him on his backside when he needs it."
"I know what is going on in his mind and when he struggles, he has to fight his way back into the game," Klinsmann said. Tonight he did. "He is learning to use his body. He is such a physical presence and he did a lot of work for us."
The hero of the American's 2-1 win in Jamaica, Sounder Brad Evans, said playing with Eddie and the backline gave him confidence moving forward. "We respect each other and lift each other up," he said. "I thought Eddie and myself did well and he really turned it on in the second half in front of the home crowd."
While players complained about the temporary grass surface laid atop CenturyLink's FieldTurf leading up to the game and there was plenty of slipping during the contest, the players said the field didn't bother them. They were too enamored at home crowd environment in Seattle, nearly filling the home of the NFL's Seahawks.
"It was awesome," Howard said. "To get that bowl rocking was cool and we would like to come back here. It has been amazing."
Bradley took it a step further. "The crowd was unbelievable," he said. "That is the best crowd I've played in front of in the United States without a doubt. They made it a special night for us, to play in an atmosphere like this."
The pre-game strife, talked about by Bradley and Evans, especially, raised serious questions about playing surfaces. In a land of luscious natural turf, it was a temporary sod surface that took headlines early in the Emerald City's first World Cup qualifier since 1976.
The much-maligned turf was a product of U.S. Soccer, as FIFA approved CenturyLink's FieldTurf. But temporary natural turf was brought in for the fourth time in stadium history, this time 90,000 square feet of sand-based grass installed over 36 hours starting June 3. The Seattle Sounders more than broke it in, defeating the Vancouver Whitecaps 3-2 on Saturday, showing off the slowness of the .75-inch high turf and also exposing the seams in the chunky rolled surface.
Even though temporary grass doesn't get as low and slick as native grass, it doesn't offer the unnatural bounces of FieldTurf. Tuesday's surface, 90 percent Kentucky bluegrass grown east of Seattle in Pasco, Wash., enjoyed a week of sunshine, perfect conditions, Sounders director of field and facilities John Wright said. His crew mowed the turf eight times prior to the game, drum rolled it every day and filled the seams that were exposed by Saturday's game with sand. Klinsmann praised the staff for watering spots as requested and performing an extra roll of the field during the day Tuesday.
Bradley said the grass appeared shorter during the game than earlier in the week and ended up being a non-issue come kick off.
The issue, now? Carrying the momentum of the nation's best soccer crowd into the second half of the hex. Howard will miss the readily available coffee, but knows with everything going on in the pool, things are going well for the U.S. That's a vibe the team is finally ready to embrace.