ST. JOHN'S, Antigua -- Eddie Johnson is hoping 2012 will never end.
Johnson scored a double - including the game-winning goal in the 91st minute - to give the U.S. national team a hard-fought 2-1 victory over an Antigua & Barbuda side hungry for an upset. Dexter Blackstock scored for the home team.
The United States now sits in a promising position to advance out of Group A to the Hexagonal round heading into Tuesday's match against Guatemala in Kansas City. The Americans entered the penultimate group game in a three-way tie for first place with Jamaica and Guatemala.
Entering the match, Klinsmann stressed that the United States needed to take better advantage of the opportunities it had created in previous matches and elected to use an aggressive formation. Klinsmann started Clint Dempsey and Hercules Gomez at the forward spots and played another striker, Johnson, on the left, leaving Graham Zusi as the only traditional midfielder at right wing.
It was Johnson's first national team appearance in two years and his first call by Klinsmann, who decided to leave Jozy Altidore off the roster in one of the most surprising moves since the German-born boss took over for Bob Bradley over a year ago.
The surprising addition paid off for Klinsmann in a big way.
"I'm happy for Eddie," Jurgen Klinsmann said. "Getting this moment back on the team, he was excited the past couple of games and he put the two goals away. That gets us back home with three points."
Johnson scored his first goal on a powerful header off of a left-footed cross from Graham Zusi to give the U.S. the early lead in the opening 20 minutes. Michael Bradley set up the opportunity by finding Zusi. Poor marking by Zaine Francis-Angol allowed Johnson to latch onto the lofted ball for the finish.
Johnson's second goal came in similar fashion. U.S. debutant Alan Gordon stood the ball up and EJ headed past goalkeeper Molvin James in stoppage time.
Johnson's two goals put him in a tie with Brian McBride for second all-time in World Cup qualifying with 10. Only Landon Donovan (12) has scored more in qualifying.
"It's great to see that hunger that Eddie brought to the camp and the instinct to be in the right place at the right time," Klinsmann said.
Despite the victory, there will be plenty of questions asked of the U.S. defense. Once Antigua fell behind, it quickly took advantage of individual defensive errors to equalize. The team's two holding midfielders, Bradley and Danny Williams, couldn't stop the Antigua forwards from taking advantage of the slow-footed American defense, with Fabian Johnson and Edgar Castillo both out with injuries.
Blackstock scored the equalizer for Antigua & Barbuda off of a low cross from forward partner Peter Byers in the 25th minute. Byers stripped Bocanegra on the buildup to the goal and Blackstock accelerated past Clarence Goodson for the easy finish. But Antigua's opportunities didn't end there.
Though the U.S. dominated in possession with a hefty 78 percent advantage in the first half, Antigua created almost as many chances, with six shots compared to the United States' eight in the opening 45 minutes. Howard had the top two saves of the opening half, kicking away a close opportunity for Blackstock and then later saving a precise shot from Randolph Burton in the 40th minute.
Howard's job wouldn't get any easier in the second half. The U.S. goalkeeper saved three more opportunities and rushed out to stop other close-range attacks.
However, Antigua's goalkeeper Molvin James was equally as effective. In the 86th minute, the stopper saved a deadly header by Bradley which appeared to be destined for the back of the net. The keeper tipped the shot towards the crossbar.
"It took hard work to break their block of nine guys and find chances," Klinsmann said. "Do we have to play better? Absolutely. I think individually, we aren't happy with what we saw but they gave us a very difficult challenge."
Yet as determined as Antigua was, Johnson was just a bit more.
It was the Seattle Sounders star's first multi-goal game for the United States since 2004 and it capped a magical year for the forward. Johnson wasn't playing soccer just a year ago but, since joining MLS in January, he has revitalized his career. He has scored 14 goals in 26 appearances for the Sounders and helped the MLS All-Stars upset Champions League winner Chelsea with a similarly late goal in the 88th minute.