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.

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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.

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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.