KINGSTON, Jamaica – The United States took a significant step toward the World Cup on Friday, beating Jamaica 2-1 as a dull contest took an extraordinary double twist in the dying moments.
Brad Evans struck the winner in injury time, just seconds after Jamaica looked to have grabbed a dramatic equalizer thanks to Jermaine Beckford's header off a free kick.
Until the drama at the death, Jozy Altidore's headed goal from close range after 30 minutes seemed like it would be the difference as the U.S. moved nearer to a seventh straight appearance in soccer's greatest showcase.
With the top three in the CONCACAF regional pool guaranteed to secure passage to Brazil next summer, this result will serve to allay the nerves that beset the beginning of USA's campaign. The Americans will go into home matches against Panama on Tuesday and Honduras on June 18 with a decent level of confidence.
The U.S. sits in second place in the Hexagonal standings with seven points behind Costa Rica and ahead of third-place Mexico.
“We didn’t plan it that way," USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. "But the most important thing was leaving this place with three points in our pockets. It shows how difficult games are in [this group]. Jamaica is a difficult place to come. This makes traveling [home] a bit easier.
However, Friday's victory was far from convincing and the team's defensive frailties under pressure will continue to come under the spotlight despite Evans' heroics.
Too much feel-good factor can be fatal in international soccer, but neither can the value of precious road victories be discounted. Sure, Kingston is not the most hostile of away days unless you have an aversion to loud music or smiling folk bidding you welcome; yet Klinsmann's side still lost here in the previous qualifying round and was grateful to gain revenge.
The doubts over the head coach's methodology that were beginning to surface at the end of last year have not totally disappeared, but his status has returned to a scenario much like many of his predecessors, where his reign will be judged on how he delivers at the World Cup.
Six games remain, so nothing is certain at this point. But it would take a serious collapse for the U.S. to fail to claim one of the 32 spots now.
Friday's performance was solid, if unspectacular, and almost started in the perfect fashion when Michael Bradley fired against the post in the second minute with Jamaican goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts beaten.
After conceding seven goals in a pair of friendly games against Belgium and Germany over the past week, Klinsmann's backline was under heavy scrutiny and pressure to perform. Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler were the chosen duo in the center back positions, yet neither could prevent Jermaine Johnson from going clear on goal midway through the first half and forcing Tim Howard into a fine save.
The U.S. goal came rather suddenly after 30 minutes and was the sort of simple yet effective move that will please Klinsmann. Graham Zusi found space on the right and launched a perfect cross right onto the head of the fast-advancing Altidore, who arrived late at the far post and made no mistake with his header for a 1-0 lead.
The Reggae Boyz, as Jamaica's national team is known, play with spirit and enjoyment that sometimes compromises organization. A more tightly-drilled opponent may not have surrendered so easily, yet the U.S., often criticized for failing to exploit a foe's weakness, deserve credit for the efficiency of the move.
Jamaica kept on coming with Rodolph Austin squandering his team's best chance by hitting the post after gliding through the defense just before the break.
Already mired at the bottom of the group, Jamaica was rapidly seeing its World Cup hopes evaporate and adopted a more urgent approach in the second half. Yet, though influential U.S. midfielder Jermaine Jones was replaced by Geoff Cameron following a nasty clash of heads with a Jamaican defender, the flow of Klinsmann's team was uninterrupted.
With the Americans largely content to nurse their lead, the latter stages threatened to peter out. But such an approach is always dangerous, and Beckford exploited a careless foul just outside the box.
“What we need to do better is once we get into a lead we have to continue to play the same way that got the lead," Klinsmann said. "Here and there, we got hectic. The backline played too many long balls that were gone; we want to play it through midfield. Suddenly after a goal, we forgot about that.”
Jamaica celebrated like it had won the game and was made to pay almost instantly. Michael Bradley is not the sort of character to wallow in disappointment, and his reaction to the Jamaica goal was to surge strongly upfield and take on the defense.
The confusion he induced off a short corner allowed him to find the unmarked Evans, who swiveled on a dime and drilled the ball past Ricketts and into the net.
The U.S. won't be in Brazil for the Confederations Cup warmup event later this month. But now the Americans more than likely will venture to South America next summer, when the true and lasting judgment on Klinsmann and his group of players will be made.
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