The USA started out sluggish in Friday night's qualifier versus Jamaica, but some key second-half substitutions helped spark the rally in a 2-0 victory at Sporting Park.
The only thing missing, at least for the first 76 minutes of Friday night's USA-Jamaica qualifier, was a goal. Jurgen Klinsmann turned to a hometown favorite to help provide that goal, and Graham Zusi stepped up to deliver a special moment like he has done at Sporting Park so many times before.
A halftime substituet brought on to provide a spark, Zusi did just that, latching on to an Alejandro Bedoya pass in the 77th minute to deflate a Jamaican team that played with confidence and purpose despite being the longest of World Cup qualifying long-shots when the night began.
By the time Jozy Altidore tapped home an Edgar Castillo cross to make the score 2-0, the celebrations had begun for a team that secured first place in the Hexagonal Round by recording its fifth straight shutout victory at home.
"We expected a tight game. Jamaica's not coming here and giving us the points," Klinsmann said after the match. "They're disappointed with their run, they know they can do better then where they actually are right now. They were very well organized, they closed the spaces down in the first half, we know them physically, a strong team, and they can always hurt you on the counter-attack."
The Americans did find scoring looks in the first half, but those chances were squandered, with Johannsson missing on a few of them.
"Even if we had four or five chances in the first half, we said to them simply at halftime, 'guys you've got to raise the bar here, you've got to raise the tempo', and that's what we did," Klinsmann said. "After 55, 60, minutes, we passed it through faster with a lot of passing sequences, one-touch only, and that's when you open up any team. So the chances came and I felt on the bench that it's only a question of time until we get that first goal."
The evening didn't go according to plan, at least in the first half. Klinsmann trotted out an attack-minded starting lineup with the hopes of putting the match away early, but sloppy play and poor finishing left the Americans still searching for a goal well into the second half.
Momentum turned quickly though, as Klinsmann's second-half substitutions helped spark the U.S., beginning with Zusi, a halftime replacement for the ineffective Landon Donovan. The change, coupled with the insertions of Sacha Kljestan and Edgar Castillo, helped boost the U.S. offense against a Jamaica defense that began to show cracks as it pressed for a goal of its own.
Zusi, who plays club soccer for Sporting KC, played the role of hero in the 77th minute when he latched onto an Alejandro Bedoya pass to score the opener in front of his home team fans.
“(Jurgen) told me to play my game," Zusi said. "To enjoy it and I think we needed a little bit of a spark coming into the second half. He didn’t say much, just to play my game."
Zusi nearly set up a third goal shortly after when he picked out a streaking Kljestan with a perfect pass to set up a goal-bound shot denied by a stunning kick save from Jamaican goalkeeper DuWayne Kerr.
Before Jamaica could respond, Altidore made it 2-0 just four minutes later after Edgar Castillo set up the striker on the doorstep with a tap-in finish after racing in to pick off a Jamaica pass. The goal was Altidore's fourth in the final round of World Cup qualifying.
Castillo nearly made it 3-0 when he capped a perfect give-and-go passing sequence with Kljestan before sending his own chance wide of goal.
Tim Howard helped preserve the shutout with a key save late in the match to deny Jamaica's best chance of the night.
Zusi's efforts earned him Man of the Match honors, and the adoration of a grateful crowd that turned in a performance as impressive as their hometown star's.
"I’m fortunate enough to play in front of this crowd, week in and week out,” Zusi said. “I knew it was going to be a special night. They definitely didn’t disappoint.
“It was a rocking atmosphere from the get go. They pushed us on from minute one to minute 90 and I think that allowed us to keep creating chances late in the match, which proved to be what gave us the win.”
The first half saw the U.S. midfield struggle to maintain possession, while Johannsson squandered a handful of scoring chances in his first World Cup qualifying start. The young striker showed some good skills to put himself in positions to score, but lacked the finishing touch that has helped him enjoy a standout season with Dutch club AZ.
The Americans return to action on Tuesday in Panama City against a Panama side that will need a result to try and secure fourth place in the Hex, which brings with it a berth in a World Cup qualifying playoff series vs. New Zealand.