Takeaways from the U.S.’s win in Antigua: States find their hero

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Not even the most ardent Eddie Johnson fan would have predicted the striker, making his first appearance in two years for the national team, would be the man that pulled the U.S. back from its World Cup qualifying ledge, yet that’s exactly what happened Friday night in St. John’s. Taking his comeback to a level nobody could have predicted, Johnson scored both goals in the States’ 2-1 victory over Antigua and Barbuda, his 91st header salvaging an otherwise worrisome performance from the United States Men’s National Team.

The U.S. had led for only six minutes – the time between Johnson’s opener and Dexter Blackstock’s 26th minute response. From then on, it was the same, attack-challenged U.S. we’ve come to know under Jurgen Klinsmann.

There was possession but no urgency; intent but no execution; talent but no production.

Had Johnson not redirected home Alan Gordon’s late cross, the U.S. would be in crisis mode. That Klinsmann’s two surprise recalls created the winner is their boss’s only saving grace. His team was lacked urgency, was curiously deployed, and showed no progress from their last disappointing road trip to Kingston.

Few teams in CONCACAF would have lost to the U.S. tonight. Klinsmann is lucky his team was facing one of them.

Here are some quick takeaways:

1. Where was the urgency? – This wasn’t a true must win, but as the coach said mid-week, the team was treating it as such. But if this team was treating this as a all-or-nothing scenario, the U.S. is going to have difficulty making it through The Hex (the next round of CONCACAF qualifying).

With the exception of some fire from Michael Bradley when he was taken down from behind late (a play that should have given the U.S. a penalty kick), the team approached this one with the same business-like approach we’ve seen throughout the tournament. They could have used a lot more passion tonight.

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2. U.S. is still not executing in the final third …

3. … and Jurgen Klinsmann bears much of the blame.

It will be interesting to hear Klinsmann’s explanations as to why Johnson spent most of this match wide left. The States generated three good chances for him on crosses, but all too often the Sounders’ No. 9 was seen deep in midfield, tracking back like a traditional midfielder, even if he played like a forward most of the time.

Beyond Johnson’s deployment, the U.S. still doesn’t seem to know what to do with all their possession. We’re seeing very few balls played behind the defense, and those that are tend to be poorly weighted into marginally dangerous spots. We’re not seeing effective runs in the box. We’re not seeing the type of movement and interchanging that opens up space. Aside from a few nice layoffs from Clint Dempsey, we’re not seeing the type of one-touch passing that can navigate compact defenses.

Some of that is personnel. Some of that is performance. Some of that is training, and some of it is tactical.

There are a number of places where solutions could lie, but after another performance where the play far outstretched the goals, the team needs answers.

MORE: Friday a good night for Jozy Altidore? 

4. The central defense remains a work in progress – Both Geoff Cameron and Clarence Goodson were beaten for Antigua and Barbuda’s goal. Cameron allowed his man, Peter Byers, to blow by him, while Goodson slipped getting across the six to mark Blackstock. Twice late, players were able to turn on shots inside the U.S. penalty area, leaving Tim Howard lunging to protect his far post. As Antigua and Barbuda were breaking out into counters late in the match, you couldn’t help but wonder what a World Cup-caliber team would have done to this defense.

Perhaps things would have been different if Fabian Johnson were healthy, allowing Carlos Bocanegra to play in the middle. We should find out on Tuesday.

5. Heroic Eddie Johnson – As the seconds ticked away on a game that looked destined to end in a draw, the U.S. desperately needed a hero. Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, perhaps Carlos Bocanegra? One of the core needed to assert himself.

Instead, it was Johnson. Controversial callup, having seen you in two years, “you’re not Jozy” Eddie Johnson.

MORE: PST Man of the Match – Eddie Johnson 2.0

Pealing off his man in the 91st minute into space toward the far post, Johnson subtly volunteered to be that hero. Just as he’d done on the opener, he hammered his header down and across goal, giving goalkeeper Molvin James little chance to preserve a historic result.

One year ago, Johnson was a non-factor for the U.S. After failing to land a place with a club in Mexico, it wasn’t even clear he had a professional future. When he landed in Seattle, he had to start over: New team; new city; no prestige. Everything that got Eddie Johnson to this point has happen in the last seven months.

Now (and all of a sudden), he’s the team’s best goal scoring threat, the man who represents the U.S.’s potential to be a truly dangerous team …

And the one good thing to come out of the States’ trip to Antigua.

Vidal rips Ronaldo ahead of Confederations Cup semifinal

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Chile hopes to make a statement on Wednesday when it faces EURO 2016 champions Portugal and Ballon d’Or champion Cristiano Ronaldo.

The 2015 and 2016 Copa America champions can lay claim to another inter-confederation title with two more wins in the 2017 Confederations Cup, beginning with the semifinal in Kazan.

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Chile finished behind Germany in Group B but didn’t lose a match and only allowed two goals. That’ll be tested by Portugal and its seven goals in three matches.

Two of those goals came from Ronaldo, but don’t tell that to Arturo Vidal. Chile’s hard-edged midfielder doesn’t like him much.

From Goal.com:

“Cristiano is a smart ass,” he told reporters. “For me he does not exist.

“I have already told my Bayern Munich team-mate Joshua Kimmich that we will meet again in the final.”

Germany will have to take care of Mexico to make that happen, though we have a feeling a certain smart ass will have a thing or two to say before it’s all said and done.

Vidal has spoken loudly of his desire to get Chilean teammate Alexis Sanchez, a former Barcelona man, at his club Bayern Munich. If Ronaldo is on the market, this isn’t a great recruiting tool. Ah, jokes.

Trio of Crew players in Ghana roster to face USMNT, Mexico

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Ghana’s team to face the United States men’s national team on Saturday in East Hartford will look somewhat familiar to fans of Major League Soccer.

Columbus Crew players Harrison Afful, Mohammed Abu and Jonathan Mensah join David Accam of the Chicago Fire, and Gershon Koffie of the New England Revolution on a unit with Kwadwo Poku of the NASL’s Kwadwo Poku.

John Boye, Asamoah Gyan, and Mensah are the only three players from the loss to the USMNT in the 2014 World Cup.

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Like the U.S., this is a less than full-strength squad. Missing are a number of Black Stars standouts, with Andre Ayew, Jordan Ayew, Afriyie Acquah, Daniel Amartey, Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, Christian Atsu, Jeff Schlupp, and Baba Rahman not with the team.

Saturday’s match is the last USMNT outing before the Gold Cup begins on July 8 in Nashville against Panama.

Goalkeepers: Addo Joseph (Aduana Stars), Richard Ofori (Wa All Stars)

Defenders: Lumor Agbenyenu (Munich 1860), Harrison Afful (Columbus Crew),  Nicholas Opoku (Berekum Chelsea), Jerry Akaminko (Eskiserhispor),  John Boye (Sivasspor), Rashid Sumalia (Al Gharafa), Jonathan Mensah (Columbus Crew), Samuel Sarfo (Liberty)

Midfielders: Mohammed Abu (Columbus Crew, Isaac Sackey (Alanyaspor), Ofori Ebenezer (Stuttgart), Kwadwo Poku (FC Miami), Winful Kwaku Cobbinah (Hearts of Oak), Frank Acheampong (Anderlecht), Thomas Agyepong (NAC Breda), Gershon Koffie (New England Revolution)

Strikers: Asamoah Gyan (Al Alhi), Raphael Dwamena (FC Zurich), Majeed Abdul Waris (Lorient FC), David Accam (Chicago Fire)

Timo Werner abused in Germany but key to World Cup defense

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) The abuse has followed Timo Werner for months, gathering pace as rapidly as the striker has amassed goals.

No German player was more prolific in the Bundesliga last season. No player was as ostracized.

But Werner is now a full-blown Germany international, scoring his first goals at the Confederations Cup on Sunday, and he could hold the key to the World Cup defense next year.

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That could require Germany supporters to forgive a player they jeered at during his first competitive game for Joachim Loew’s team earlier this month.

“Kobe Bryant has also been booed everywhere and he always been the best,” Werner reflected ahead of Germany’s Confederations Cup semifinal against Mexico on Thursday, seeing a kindred spirit in the basketball great. “I do not want to say that I am the best like him, but (the abuse) is a bit of an incentive.”

If playing for the ascendant but deeply unpopular Leipzig wasn’t bad enough, a dive in December by Werner provided a focal point for the animosity – jealousy, perhaps – toward the Red Bull-funded team.

The insults have even been hurled far from Germany, far from soccer stadiums. The dive won a penalty against Schalke, and provided Werner with one of the 21 goals that helped to propel Leipzig into second place and a Champions League debut next season.

“There was a dive, he made a mistake and he admitted it,” Loew said, “but he is very, very young player.”

And a potentially very important one for Loew at the World Cup in Russia next year. Germany’s striking options are being assessed at the eight-team Confederations Cup as Loew still seeks a long-term successor to Miroslav Klose as target man for the world champions.

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Werner opened his account for Germany on his fourth appearance, scoring twice in a 3-1 victory over Cameroon on Sunday in Sochi.

“Werner put in a lot of legwork,” Loew said. “He showed how dangerous he is and that he’s got a great nose for goal. Both of his efforts were very well taken.”

Werner’s rivals for a place in the squad next year include fellow squad newcomers Lars Stindl and Sandro Wagner. They are both close to 30, while the 21-year-old Werner has youth, strength and speed on his side. Even Wagner said he has “never seen such a good striker at that age.”

That’s a result of Werner fusing his pace with intelligence on the ball, mastering dribbling at high speed first with Stuttgart and then at Leipzig.

“There’s no recipe for it,” Werner said. “The quickest players just know how to do it automatically. I like to knock the ball three or four meters ahead of me when I’m on the counter or have space in front of me, that way I can increase the distance between a defender and myself.”

Such proficiency should help Werner win over fans beyond Leipzig. Time, he hopes, will heal the fractures, and there’s certainly support from his new international teammates.

“I wish him well because of the issues he has had to endure,” captain Julian Draxler told Germany’s ARD television.

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

More AP Confederations Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/ConfederationsCup

USMNT Gold Cup 23-man roster leaves some questions

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We have Bruce Arena’s 23-man United States men’s national roster for the Gold Cup, and there are more than a few surprises left out of the bunch.

Often a chance to experiment, those who thought this year’s Gold Cup roster would be one aimed at reclaiming glory with authority may be surprised to see the status quo.

Jurgen Klinsmann brought most of his big guns to the 2015 party — which didn’t go well for Brad Guzan and Co. — but Arena will roll into this summer’s tournament without most of his big names. There’s no Geoff Cameron, John Brooks, Michael Bradley, Christian Pulisic, Clint Dempsey, nor Jozy Altidore.

Those aren’t huge surprises, though who Arena neglected from his original 40-man short list is a bit of a shock to the system (Players can be called into the mix after the group stage, which is a fairly simple affair for the USMNT to navigate versus Panama, Martinique, and Nicagarua).

Arena is going with Brad Guzan, Sean Johnson, and Bill Hamid in a trio that fails to impress. Hamid does have a big crowd of fans who’d like to see him get a chance to assert himself as the future, and hopefully either Johnson or Hamid finds time between the sticks against a serious opponent like Panama. No surprise that Tim Howard and Joe Bendik didn’t leap into the trio (EDIT: This post initially questioned the omission of Jesse Gonzalez, but his one-time switch from Mexico to the USMNT has yet to go through).

We’ll ignore the omission of Danny Williams for the most part considering he was absent from the 40-man list, but he must have said something seriously awful to Arena or someone at U.S. soccer.

The group of forwards leaves little to complain about, as Juan Agudelo and Dom Dwyer very much deserve their chances to compete for playing time with Sounders star Jordan Morris, but the midfield provides some head-scratching. Gyasi Zardes may be a longtime Arena favorite, but the Galaxy man has been ice cold in MLS. The 25-year-old has a single assist in almost 1000 minutes of play this season, and that came back on April 8. Tommy McNamara has not lighting the league on fire and Chris Pontius and his six assists are 30 years old, so much of the grief should be directed at the 40-man again, but Zardes has to embrace this opportunity. And maybe it’s a way to help the Galaxy and Zardes get a little mojo.

As an aside, Wil Trapp is among leaders in several MLS passing stats, which leads me to believe Arena is going to play Dax McCarty and Kellyn Acosta a ton and doesn’t see much of a need for Trapp in this tournament, not ever.

Defenders Steve Birnbaum and Jonathan Spector were not rewarded with looks, though Graham Zusi was included in what must be an arm reaching out for USMNT experience. Birnbaum is leading MLS in aerials won per game and Spector is by far Orlando’s top rated player since returning from England. Yes, Spector is 31 but this is about still qualifying for next summer’s World Cup, not the 2022 cycle. Spare a thought for Matt Polster, who has been decent since returning from a knee strain. This is nothing against Zusi, a consummate professional who won’t kill the team by any means and will be an tremendous asset in leadership.

What about you? Any other gripes? Or do you love the bunch?