photo by John Dorton/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
TAMPA, Fla. — The U.S. men's national team did not need a reminder as to how difficult World Cup qualifying can be, but they got one anyway.
The United States began its qualifying campaign for Brazil 2014 with a 3-1 victory over Antigua and Barbuda at a rainy Raymond James Stadium on Friday night in a match that proved more difficult than many would have expected.
Carlos Bocanegra scored early off a rebound and Clint Dempsey doubled the lead just before halftime on a penalty kick in front of the 23,971 fans that braved the wet conditions. But it took a Herculez Gomez goal in the second half to give the Americans some real breathing room after Peter Byers had temporarily trimmed the deficit for the visitors, who threw numbers back in order to negate the American attack.
"We discussed that prior to the game, that it would be a tricky game (and) that it would be difficult to break them down," said U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. "Antigua did a very good job defending. They made it very tight, they made it very difficult for us to create more chances."
The U.S. team had their chances, especially in the second half. The Americans outshot Antigua and Barbuda, 19-7, in the match, but goalkeeper Molvin James made eight saves to keep the visitors from getting routed.
The United States also hurt itself, with the players opting to pass or dribble instead of shoot when they had space to try and hit one on frame. That was particularly the case in the first half despite the Americans leading, 2-0, at the intermission.
"I mentioned it at halftime," said Klinsmann. "I said, 'Guys, you've got to shoot more often. Once you have a little bit of an open space, pull the trigger.'"
Just as they did in the first half, the U.S. team struggled to break down an Antigua and Barbuda side content to clog the center of the field in the opening minutes of the second half. That allowed for the visitors to score in the 65th minute off a counter, as Byers got by Oguchi Onyewu and raced in goal before hitting a shot past Tim Howard from close range.
Onyewu had entered the game just eight minutes prior in place of Jose Torres, who made a surprise start at left back and was injured in the second half when he dove to clear a ball on the left flank.
"Jose is now getting an X-ray," said Klinsmann. "We'll see tonight how his situation is. It's not looking very good right now."
The Americans' ability to protect their lead also did not look good following Byers' goal, but Gomez gave the United States a two-goal advantage again when he scored in the 72nd minute. Landon Donovan helped create chaos in the penalty area and after a pair of shots were blocked by defenders, Gomez slotted his shot into the back of the net from inside the six-yard box.
Gomez's strike was the insurance goal the United States needed after a first half that was unconvincing despite the U.S. team's 2-0 lead.
"It's tough here, because if you do win like we did tonight but you don't do it in a better manner than what we did, we still get a little bit of slack," said Dempsey. "The only way we could have won tonight is if we would have won 5-0. Having a 3-1, is kind of like, 'It's okay. It's bittersweet because we didn't get the cleansheet.' No matter what it's going to be tough, no matter who you play, big or small, that's just the way it goes."
Dempsey scored for the United States a minute before halftime when he slotted a penalty kick down the middle after Donovan was fouled in the penalty area. That came after Bocanegra's eighth-minute finish, a finish that gave the centerback 13 international goals.
Those two goals also helped pave the way for the United States to pick up three points, even if it did so in a sloppy manner.
"At the end of the day, the three points is the starting point that we wanted to have, we have that," said Klinsmann. "We know obviously after an evening like that that we have to step it up a lot going into Guatemala, which we will do."
The Americans visit Guatemala for its second World Cup qualifying match on Tuesday.
What do you think of the U.S. team's 3-1 win over Antigua and Barbuda? Who impressed/disappointed you? Wondering who will play left back versus Guatemala?
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