ST. JOHN'S, Antigua & Barbuda -- Eddie Johnson is wishing 2012 would never end.
Johnson scored a brace - including a brilliant game-winning goal in the 91st minute - to give the United States national team a hard-fought 2-1 victory over an Antigua & Barbuda side that was hungry for an upset. Dexter Blackstock scored for the home team.
The U.S. 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 group semis in a three-way tie for first place with Jamaica and Guatemala, leaving Jurgen Klinsmann team desperate for a win.
Entering the match, Klinsmann stressed that the U.S. needed to take better advantage of the opportunities it had created in previous matches and elected to use an aggressive 4-2-4 formation. Klinsmann started Clint Dempsey and Hercules Gomez at the forward spots and played another striker, Johnson, leaving Graham Zusi as the only traditional midfielder at right wing.
It was Johnson's first national team appearance in two years and first time being called up 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 would pay off for Klinsmann in a big way.
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 after poor corner marking by Zaine Francis-Angol allowed the midfielder to find Zusi, who then assisted on Johnson's finish.
Johnson second goal was an absolute stunner as he dribbled in on the right side of goal and blasted the ball 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.
Despite the victory, there will be plenty of questions asked of the U.S. defense. Once Antigua fell behind, it quickly took advantage of the defensive frailties of Klinsmann's tactical formation. The team's two holding midfielders, Bradley and Danny Williams, couldn't stop the Antigua forwards from taking advantage of the American slow-footed defense at flanks 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.
While 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 in 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 saved a precise shot from 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.
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 U.S. since 2004 and it will continue to cap 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 help the MLS All-Stars upset Champions League winners Chelsea with a similarly late goal in the 88th minute.
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