The United States was on the road in World Cup qualifying, flailing away with uninspiring play and trying to pull things together just enough to get a result. It looked unlikely and in the penultimate match of the World Cup qualifying round, the Americans needed a win to avoid a must-win match four days later. But just when the U.S. looked doomed, a much-maligned MLS striker who was handed a surprise started saved the day, bagging a brace to earn the Americans a win they so badly needed.
On Friday night, Eddie Johnson was the hero, scoring twice to save the U.S. from possible doom days after raised eyebrows met his inclusion on the roster. But as dramatic as the U.S. win was, the script was hardly a new one for the Americans.
Almost three years ago to the day, the U.S. found themselves behind on the road in qualifying and looked set to head into the final match of the round in need of a win, but instead of Johnson, it was Conor Casey who came to the rescue. An even more unexpected source of goals than Johnson, Casey scored two goals of his own to lead the U.S. to a thrilling one-goal win that silenced a crowd ready to celebrate a historic result.
But as similar as the tales of the doubted MLS striker come good at the international level in qualifying are, there are two major differences -- the opponent and round.
Whereas Casey propelled the U.S. past a good Honduras team in front of 40,000 raucous fans in San Pedro Sula to clinch a spot in the 2010 World Cup, Johnson's goal was just enough to best Antigua and Barbuda, the 106th ranked team in the world, at a cricket stadium with scores of empty seats in the semifinal round of qualifying.
In three years, the U.S. has gone from celebrating World Cup qualification to breathing a sigh of relief that the unthinkable embarrassing loss would put them on the verge of going out of the world's biggest sporting event 20 months before it got underway. It is a nearly unthinkable fall for the Americans, who were then the best team in CONCACAF and are now struggling just to make the final group of six.
Making matters worse is that the scoreline and place in the table doesn't even tell half of the story from Antigua on Friday.
The U.S. was not unfortunate to be caught in a close match or the victim of a team playing exceptionally. They were no better than the Benna Boys and looked less likely to score for most of the second half.
The Americans failed to execute fairly simple tactics that did little to expose an Antigua and Barbuda side ripe for the taking. Four players were pushed high, but outside of a general idea of what space to occupy, they looked unsure of what to actually do in the final third.
Meanwhile, Johnson was stranded on the left and charged with tracking back as much as trying to find space in front of goal, which is curious at best for an out-and-out striker. Clint Dempsey was invisible again as he vacillated between playing his preferred free role to do as he pleases and having to come back just to fill the massive gap in the center of the U.S. attack. Even Michael Bradley, the Americans' most influential midfielder struggled to find teammates making dangerous runs and had to settle for simple passes with regularity when so much more was possible.
Without purpose, the pace of play slowed and the Americas' possession-heavy game looked as impotent as it has since the day Jurgen Klinsmann took over.
While possession is all well and good, it is not to be confused with attacking and Klinsmann's U.S. is not that. They managed just 11 shots against the Benna Boys and no more than a handful of good chances yet again. It is a trend that is worrisome enough now that is has become commonplace, but is even more troubling considering the opponent.
Last cycle, by the time the U.S. entered World Cup qualifying Antigua and Barbuda had already been eliminated, falling to Cuba 8-3 over two legs in the second round. The Benna Boys are made up largely of Antigua Barracuda FC players, the last place team in USL Pro, the United States' third division. That is a far cry from the team Honduras trotted out in 2009 with Wilson Palacios, Maynor Figueroa and Emilio Izaguirre.
Still, that Antigua and Barbuda team is who the U.S. had to play to reach the elusive two-goal mark for just the fourth time in 19 matches under Klinsmann, a number exceeded by how many times they have been shutout under the German. The defense hasn't fared much better of late either, failing to keep a clean sheet in four of five World Cup qualifiers, which now includes twice against the lowly Benna Boys.
The United States is miles from where they were last cycle, when the final matches of the semifinal round of qualifying were used to try out young players. Honduras used to be their challenge in the Hex, but now Antigua and Barbuda and the semifinal round is where they are being pushed.
The worrying and dramatics have come a year early for a team that is much worse than it was just three years ago. Johnson may have emulated Casey on Friday, but the Americans can only dream that Johnson's U.S. team is as good as the one that Conor rescued. And if they don't sort things out soon, instead of playing for a spot in the World Cup on the penultimate day of the Hex, the U.S. will have been eliminated and no amount of heroics, be it by Casey, Johnson or anyone else, will be able to save them.