Playing its first qualifier for the 2014 World Cup, the United States escaped Friday's match against upstart Antigua and Barbuda with a 3-1 victory. But after the game, the team still faced more questions as to its ability to compete on the world's biggest stage.
While a soggy pitch at Florida's Raymond James Stadium can certainly be blamed for some of the slow play, the truth was the U.S. played unnecessarily reserved against a team it should have dominated on the field and on the scoresheet. Antigua and Barbuda ranks 105th in the FIFA World Rankings, 77 slots behind the United States.
After Carlos Bocanegra poked in a loose corner kick in the 9th minute, it appeared the U.S. was on its way to an easy win. But showing little urgency, the U.S. seemed more content to dink-and-dunk against Antigua, settling for methodical possession after the early tally.
Against some teams, this would be a viable strategy. But the defensive weaknesses in Antigua were apparent from the onset, and rather than exploit them, the United States held back.
Landon Donovan showed an unusual lack of killer instinct in the penalty area, passing up shots on multiple occasions to force tough passes. Clint Dempsey rarely found much wiggle room in the attacking third. Michael Bradley and Maurice Edu, the team's expected distributors in the middle of the field, provided lackluster play.
The team benefitted from a penalty kick just before halftime to take a 2-0 lead into the break. But rather than look to tack on more goals in the second half, the team again reverted to unimaginitive soccer. And as has seemingly been the case for the past decade, the U.S. needed to get punched in the mouth in order to finally awaken and step up the intensity.
Lackadaisical U.S. play gave Antigua a breakaway in the 65th minute and substitute Peter Byers slotted a short shot past Tim Howard to bring "The Benna Boys" within 2-1. The stunning turn of events silenced the home crowd, but it lit a fire under the U.S. side, which finally seemed to realize the gravity of the situation.
Minutes later, the U.S. put together its most aggressive seconds of the match, peppering goaltender Molvin James with two cracking shots from outside the box and a close range header, all of which were blocked but not corralled by the Antigua keeper. The sudden sense of urgency was pleasant to see, and the offensive barrage paid off in the 72nd minute when Herculez Gomez cashed in a rebound to give the squad some breathing room.
The 3-1 score held up, and the United States gladly took three points away from the match. But now questions abound.
Is the team tired? Where will the attack come from? Is the defensive line strong enough to play so conservatively and hold a lead? Why does it take a late-game letdown for the team to pick up the energy level?
Things will only get tougher from here. The United States heads to Guatemala for a brutal road game on Tuesday. Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann doesn't seem to be worried. But a performance like that seen Friday probably won't get it done in Guatemala and most certainly won't work in Brazil in 2014.
Time to step things up.
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