ST. LOUIS – Decades from now, Oalex Anderson, a 20-year-old forward from Barrouallie on the island of St. Vincent, will be able to tell his friends and family about the time he lifted his national team, which represents a country of around 103,000 people, to a lead over the (relatively) mighty U.S. in an actual World Cup qualifier.
The story will end as many would have anticipated, with an easy U.S. victory. The Americans responded well to Anderson's stunner, were comfortably ahead just after the half-hour mark and coasted to a 6-1 triumph. The result against St. Vincent and the Grenadines, FIFA's 129th-ranked national team, was expected. But the opening act certainly wasn't. For around five minutes, the 43,433 in attendance here at Busch Stadium saw first-hand just how bonkers the region's qualifying competition can be.
The Americans halted a three-game losing streak and extended their unbeaten run in home World Cup qualifiers to 28 games dating back to 2001 (26-0-2).
This semifinal group is about to get tougher. The U.S. will take its three points south to Port-of-Spain, where it will look end a difficult 2015 on a high point in Tuesday's qualifier against Trinidad and Tobago. The Soca Warriors have defeated the Americans twice before at home.
But first, here are three thoughts from a strangely predictable night in St. Louis.
A stunning first act
In a little over five minutes, Friday's game progressed from the solemn to the surreal. Before kickoff, the two teams gathered at the center circle, which was located just beyond the edge of the baseball infield, and observed a moment of silence for the victims of the attacks in Paris. A few minutes later, Anderson imposed a far different kind of quiet onto the crowd.
St. Vincent managed only two shots on Friday. The first lifted the visitors, a team composed primarily of semi-pro players who came in having won only one match against a non-Caribbean nation in program history, to a shocking lead. A long ball played over the top was won by U.S. defender Geoff Cameron, who then played a sloppy, blind pass toward midfield. Anderson, who plays for Vincy Heat legend Ezra Hendrickson for Seattle Sounders 2 in the third-tier USL, collected the ball, dribbled into the penalty area and curled a perfect shot past Brad Guzan and inside the right post.
Anderson scored four times for S2 this season. His fifth goal against American opposition won't soon be forgotten.
Set pieces make the difference
The Americans dominance in possession was total. Anchored by captain Michael Bradley, the U.S. utterly dominated the midfield, rarely let St. Vincent get a touch in the offensive half and bullied the visitors to the tune of an 83.3%-16.7% advantage in possession. The U.S. completed 916 passes.
That resulted in a slew of set-piece opportunities (11 corner kicks and a host of free kicks), and it was there that the U.S. pulled away.
Bobby Wood pulled the Americans level from open play, nodding home a cross from right back DeAndre Yedlin in the 11th minute. It was the Hawaiian's fourth U.S. goal.
Then came the set piece goals. Fabian Johnson gave the U.S. the lead in the 29th minute, sending his free kick spinning off the St. Vincent wall and past goalkeeper Winslow McDowall. Jozy Altidore doubled the advantage two minutes later off a Johnson corner kick. Altidore left the entire St. Vincent defense flat footed when he ran behind the goal line toward the far post, where he headed home from close range.
At 26 years of age, Altidore became the second-youngest player in U.S. history to reach the 30-goal plateau. Landon Donovan beat him by a year.
In the 51st, Cameron made amends for his first-half misplay with a goal-bound header off Wood's smart flick of another Johnson corner kick.
Out of contention at that point, St. Vincent was easier to pull apart in open play. And the U.S. took advantage as Gyasi Zardes struck in the 58th and Altidore notched his second of the evening in the 74th.
Comfort zones and big debuts
Given the opportunity to re-establish some confidence and momentum against an overmatched opponent, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann made some moves that weren't necessary on Friday but may prove more significant down the road.
Johnson, who Klinsmann called the team's top outside back for the past year, was pushed up into left midfield, where he plays for Borussia Monchengladbach. It was his fourth U.S. start of the year on the wing. Klinsmann did the same favor for Yedlin, who often plays in midfield for the U.S. but mans the right side of defense at Sunderland. Yedlin started at right back on Friday opposite St. Louis native Tim Ream, whose versatility and composed performances for English Championship side Fulham have thrust him back into the national team picture.
Paired with Jermaine Jones in central midfield, Bradley played as more of a stay-at-home defensive midfielder than he has in recent months.
Not surprisingly, he was effective and tidy directing the U.S. in possession. Is Klinsmann ready to use Bradley as the deep-lying orchestrator he's likely meant to be? The Trinidad game may reveal the answer.
Up front, Wood was active and involved and probably should have had a second goal. His climb up the depth chart continues. And in the second half, Klinsmann gave defender Matt Miazga and midfielder Darlington Nagbe their senior international debuts. Both promising players now are cap-tied permanently to the U.S.
After the fifth minute, everything that could go right did go right for a U.S. team in need. The World Cup campaign is off to a good start.