The shifting ground of World Cup qualifying came into stark reality for the United States over the past four days.
A humbling 2-1 defeat in Kingston jolted the Americans to their core and prompted harsh examination. The sweeping changes instituted prior to the return match in Columbus and the response produced the first half in last night's 1-0 victory over Jamaica showed the rebuke made an impact. The nervous denouement to the victory underscored the room for growth still available.
It is, on the whole, a pair of tasks completed to the minimum acceptable standard. Three points from two games against the strongest opponent in the group kept the World Cup qualifying effort on track. Six points from the final two matches in October – away to Antigua and Barbuda and home to Guatemala – will break the current three-way tie atop Group A on seven points, render the rather overblown consternation of the past few days irrelevant and secure a spot in the Hexagonal.
U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann knows the standards must rise before the real work starts next year. If he needs to establish a baseline in those efforts, he could do far worse than to point his charges toward the first half display against the overwhelmed Jamaicans.
Klinsmann's five changes from the defeat at The Office injected energy and impetus into the starting XI. Steve Cherundolo and Graham Zusi exerted the most impact in the first half by controlling the right side and posing problems in the attacking third. José Torres proved useful in possession without influencing the game. Danny Williams added dexterity into the holding role of Klinsmann's revamped 4-1-3-2. Carlos Bocanegra solidified matters at the back with his experience.
By pressing earnestly and pushing the fullbacks into the attacking third, the Americans grabbed control of the game and pinned the conservative visitors into their own end. The performance deserved a goal or two, but Jamaican goalkeeper Dwayne Miller held out defiantly and the woodwork intervened three times to keep the scores level until the second half.
Herculez Gómez's opener after 55 minutes marked the turning point in the U.S. performance. Gómez's curling free kick received a bit aid from the unfortunate Miller, but it proved altogether unsettling for the home side when it arrived.
Instead of asserting the advantage and sustaining the diligent work from the first half, the standards and the tempo dropped in the final half-hour or so. Jamaica opened up and tried to come into the game a bit. They weren't good enough on the night to claim an equalizer, but the U.S. aided their efforts and failed to truly close out a game that should have probably been over as a contest by halftime.
Many of the issues in the latter stages arose through the lack of fitness and sharpness from a few key figures and the recurring absences of Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan. Clint Dempsey faded badly in the second half and missed his usual tidiness on the ball for most of the night. Klinsmann's decision to play Dempsey for 90 minutes constituted the most puzzling decision in the peculiar treatment of the three U.S. substitutions. Bocanegra and Cherundolo fared better over the course of the night, but the strains imposed by a dearth of high-level competition appeared in possession and in the service provided from time to time. Bradley and Donovan would have certainly added an ample dose of composure in the late stages and a hefty dollop of helpful midfield play throughout the course of the night.
For this U.S. side to really thrive against better opponents than Jamaica, those integral figures must obtain the necessary sharpness with their clubs and maintain critical roles for their country. The displays by several other players – the increasingly important Geoff Cameron in central defense and the revelatory Williams as a holding midfielder – suggests the parts to build a better and more complete outfit exist. Quality depth, as always, remains an issue, though Zusi's encouraging step forward in his first real test in a U.S. shirt may help in that regard.
Time still remains to address those concerns and determine how to fit all of the necessary pieces into a functioning, possession-oriented outfit in time for the Hexagonal. This night mandated and received more pragmatic attention. The victory should salve the wounds from Friday's disappointment and shepherd the U.S. through a semifinal assignment that eases off from here. Concerns still remain for the future, but, for the moment at least, Klinsmann and his players have reached a valuable piece of firm ground after the tenuous footing of the past few days.
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