With serious embarrassment and a World Cup nightmare looming, the United States men's national team was saved on Friday by perhaps the two most maligned players on its squad.
Eddie Johnson's pair of goals against Antigua & Barbuda, including the game-winner in the final minute, sealed a 2-1 win and rescued the side from a dismal draw that would have left it in serious trouble in CONCACAF regional qualifying for soccer's biggest showcase.
A strong 20th-minute header and another to clinch it late on is exactly the sort of thing a goal scorer is supposed to do. But USA fans long ago gave up hope of Johnson being its striking savior, after he followed a spectacular start to his international career eight years ago with an equally-dramatic nosedive that saw him fail to make the grade in Europe.
The second goal, with the U.S. on the cusp of a disastrous draw against an opponent ranked 106 in the world, came courtesy of the most timely of assists from a colleague who neither most supporters nor possibly even himself thought would get the chance to don national team colors.
Alan Gordon's lanky size sometimes makes him look awkward on the field, but a superb season with Major League Soccer's San Jose Earthquakes got him a call up into the camp. Ushered onto the field with 20 minutes remaining, and with few decent crosses having been aimed at the USA forwards all evening, it was Gordon who delivered the perfect ball for Johnson to guide past Antigua & Barbuda goalkeeper Molvin James.
To those other than hardened MLS fans, Gordon was a relative unknown, some perhaps recognizing him as a former teammate of David Beckham's at the Los Angeles Galaxy. Yet the 30-year-old has improved dramatically as a player since the days back in 2008 when his penchant for falling over led some Galaxy supporters to invent a drinking game whereby shots of liquor had to be taken whenever he hit the deck. The game, according to soccer's urban legend, was quickly abandoned as such a heavy intake of alcohol could be deadly.
The choice to include both Gordon and Johnson on the U.S. roster was highly contentious, especially with regular first choice Jozy Altidore, in hot form in the tough Dutch league, left out after failing to transfer his domestic form into national team duty.
"It had been two years since I was in the mix," said Johnson, after being engulfed by his relieved teammates at the final whistle.
When his unproductive stints in England and Greece came to an end, Johnson was at a crossroads. But he was offered a fresh opportunity with the Seattle Sounders, whose coach Sigi Schmid used his close friendship with national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann to push Johnson's case.
"[Schmid] told me from day one he has a good relationship with Klinsmann and he put in a good word, " Johnson said. "Talk about dreams becoming a reality."
A draw against Antigua would have required a victory over Guatemala in Kansas City on Tuesday. As it stands now, even a narrow defeat could still be enough to complete passage to the final phase of CONCACAF's qualifying process. Gordon's cross and Johnson's header was a simple and direct play, yet its ramifications for the national team could turn out to be seismic.
In reality, it shouldn't have gone down to the closing moments. With the USA dominating possession, Johnson's opener should have been the first of many. However, Dexter Blackstock equalized for the hosts after 25 minutes and from that point on things got decidedly tricky. The rain kicked in, a strong wind flared up and it soon became apparent that the standard of the field at Sir Vivian Richards Oval was not fit for international play.
None of those factors would have been a valid excuse if the USA had not clinched its late victory, and there must still be concerns over the way the team has failed to gain the expected stranglehold on this group.
For now, though, it can breathe a little easier thanks to a pair of players who grabbed their opportunities – just like any self-respecting striker should.
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