The night started with banter regarding the controversial playing surface. A thorough 90 minutes later, that could not have been further from being pertinent.
The U.S. men's national team turned in as comprehensive of a performance as it has during the Jurgen Klinsmann era, dominating the proceedings at CenturyLink Field in Seattle to the tune of a 2-0 victory over Panama that vaulted the Americans to the top of the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying hexagonal standings. Between the continued top-level play of Jozy Altidore, the way Geoff Cameron seamlessly stepped in for the concussed Jermaine Jones in central midfield and the way Michael Bradley commanded the field altogether, there was plenty to write home about for USA after a memorable night in front of a memorable crowd.
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Granted, a win over Panama on U.S. soil should not be all that much of a cause for celebration, but it was the manner in which it was completed (contrasted with the struggles Mexico has had at home) that is cause for optimism and promise. With the American Outlaws belting out an original rendition of "We are going to Brazil" in the middle of a game exactly a year before the 2014 World Cup kicks off, it certainly seems like the doom-and-gloom days of February are way back in the rear-view mirror and things continue to trend in the right direction. Here are U.S. player ratings from the match (as always, an a scale of 0-10):
GK, Tim Howard, 6 - Howard was hardly threatened by Panama, but he came up with a clean-sheet-preserving save to rob Rolando Blackburn in the closing stages. It's not always easy for a goalkeeper to stay completely on his toes in a game during which there is one-way traffic, but Howard was ready for Blackburn's chance and posted his first clean sheet of the hexagonal. His yellow card late in the game adds him to the lengthy list of Americans who are one caution away from a suspension.
D, Brad Evans, 4 - If anyone struggled in a U.S. shirt Tuesday it was the previous game's goal-scoring hero, Evans. Perhaps it was nerves in front of his home fans or weary legs from playing his third international match in 10 days when he is not used to the level, but Evans was targeted repeatedly by Panama in the first half and beaten consistently. Between Omar Gonzalez and Geoff Cameron, his teammates helped pick him up and provide cover, but a team with more efficient wingers -- like the next opponent, Honduras -- would have made the U.S. pay for the slack defending on that side of the field.
D, Omar Gonzalez, 6.5 - Gonzalez provided sound cover for Evans when necessary and had an altogether strong performance. His distribution out of the back improved from past showings and he adjusted well when Panama shifted to a two-forward front in the second half. Gonzalez was at fault for Panama's best chance, keeping Blackburn onside and failing to stay with him as he got in behind and fired on goal. But aside from that slip-up, Gonzalez turned in a solid match.
D, Matt Besler, 7 - Another 90 minutes paired with Gonzalez, another stout showing for the reigning MLS Defender of the Year. Besler's early passing out of the back got Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley involved down the left-hand side and his timely defensive work, clean tackling and ball-winning made Howard's night increasingly easier. It's easy to forget Besler now has a grand total of six caps, because he is playing with the stability of a seasoned veteran.
D, DaMarcus Beasley, 7 - Beasley's night would have been complete had he just been able to direct his late shot from inside the area from inside the frame instead of off of it. The veteran left back marauded up and down the flank, marked D.C. United castaway Marcos Sanchez out of the game and whipped in crosses when he ventured into the final third. His late yellow card gives him two for the hex, preventing him from playing Tuesday in Honduras and forcing Klinsmann to change his back line after keeping the same unit for the last three games.
M, Eddie Johnson, 7 - Johnson was charged with stepping in for the influential, but suspended, Graham Zusi and maintaining that same level of effectiveness. He was able to do that and then some. He scored a beautiful goal in front of his home fans, latching onto a great ball from Cameron and taking two clinical touches to give USA a much-needed insurance goal. He also put in the work to track back defensively and not shun his responsibilities. Considering Fabian Johnson could be shifted back to left back in Beasley's absence against Honduras, Eddie Johnson could easily find himself with another starting nod, this time on the left wing.
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M, Geoff Cameron, 8 - What a difference a position makes. Slotted into central midfield in place of the concussed Jermaine Jones, Cameron turned in his finest showing on the international level. The Stoke City man roamed the midfield with authority, provided tremendous cover for Gonzalez, Besler and Evans, winning balls with regularity, while also distributing at an extremely accurate rate on both ends of the field. He won the ball that sparked the goal-scoring sequence for the opening tally and put an absolutely perfect pass in Eddie Johnson's path for the second goal. At one point, the versatile Cameron was the center back of the future and then he was in the mix at right back. It's clear his strengths as a player shine in the midfield, though.
M, Michael Bradley, 8.5 - Bradley earned the nickname "General Bradley" during his time at Chievo Verona in the 2011-12 season and he certainly lived up to it Tuesday. With Jones out, Bradley took on an alternate role in the center and was a completely different player given the freedom to get forward. He was denied one goal on a shot inadvertently blocked by Clint Dempsey and he fired just high on another blast from long range, but that was him just getting warmed up. He had the secondary assist on Jozy Altidore's goal by spraying the ball wide left to Fabian Johnson, completed a team-high 78 passes en route and also assumed free kick duties with Zusi out of the lineup. Just a total-package showing.
M, Fabian Johnson, 7.5 - Johnson came under a bit of fire for a couple of lackluster showings in recent matches, but the versatile German-American brought his A game Tuesday. He announced his intentions early with a shot in the third minute that just went high and he remained involved after that. The icing on his night was his picture-perfect, first-time assist on Altidore's goal, one that bent perfectly into the forward's path by the far post. Taken off in the 87th minute while carrying a yellow card from a previous match, Johnson remains eligible for next week's match against Honduras, though he may deputize in defense with Beasley suspended.
M, Clint Dempsey, 7 - The U.S. captain locked horns with physical center back Felipe Baloy in the early stages with his rugged, physical play, but never lost his head while carrying a yellow card and remained an involved part of the attack. His best chance came when he appeared to purposefully strike a shot at the ground to bounce over Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo after a rebound had been parried in his direction. There was recently a time when if Dempsey didn't score, USA was doomed. That's not so much the case anymore with other players, especially Altidore, doing the heavy lifting, and that means less pressure on Dempsey to produce and more of a freedom to do the dirty work and combine with others while knowing he has teammates who can pick up the scoring slack.
F, Jozy Altidore, 8.5 - Altidore scored for the third straight game, completing a grand sequence with precision, but his game -- yet again -- was about so much more than just his finish. Altidore's combination play with Dempsey was inventive and wise, and his ability to control the ball in tight spaces, hold up the ball to incorporate his teammates and make the right decisions on a consistent basis show his growth as a player. Altidore probably should have been granted a penalty after displaying strength to body off one defender and take a bump from another while turning to enter the box, but he made that all moot by scoring the eventual game-winner. He did pick up a yellow card, and he'll have to play smartly against Honduras, knowing that another caution means being suspended for September's qualifier in Costa Rica.
Note: All subs came in late, so there wasn't much to judge them on. Hence, no ratings.
M, Brad Davis, N/A - Came on in the 87th minute to spell Fabian Johnson, which was important considering that if Johnson had received a yellow card he would have been suspended for Tuesday's match against Honduras. Beasley picking up a yellow in stoppage time makes Johnson's availability even more crucial and could provide an opening for Davis in the starting lineup, although Eddie Johnson is more likely to take that wing spot. As for Davis's on the field exploits, he hardly saw the ball.
M, Joe Corona, N/A - Entered the game along with Davis for Eddie Johnson and was able to experience the World Cup-qualifying atmosphere. It is clear Klinsmann thinks highly of Corona and his skillset. Additionally, picking up minutes here and there will help his growth and maturation as part of the midfield depth puzzle.
M, Stuart Holden, N/A - What a great moment it must have been for Holden to step onto the field in a World Cup qualifying match after his long road back from injuries. Holden came on as a 90th-minute substitute for Altidore, allowing both players to receive deserved ovations. Didn't have much to do in mop-up duty, otherwise.