101212_bradleymichael_isi_usmntjt1012123517 John Todd/isiphotos.com
Post Mortem

The United States Wins, But There Is No Joy in Mudville

When does a huge win feel a bit like a deflating loss? When everybody is left wondering why the U.S.' dramatic 2-1 victory over Antigua and Barbuda had to be so difficult.
BY John Godfrey Posted
October 13, 2012
5:00 AM
ANTIGUA—At the end of most soccer matches it’s easy to distinguish the winners from the losers. One group of players tends to hang their heads in a defeated posture, or perhaps stare around with a glazed expression thinking about what they could have done differently.

As the final whistle blew on the United States’ 2-1 World Cup qualifying victory over Antigua and Barbuda, all 22 players on the pitch looked as if they had lost.

There were no outward displays of exuberance or joy from the victorious Americans—just a lot of slumped shoulders. The team had won an incredibly important match—on Eddie Johnson’s dramatic stoppage-time goal, his second tally of the night—but the mood within Sir Vivian Richards Cricket Grounds was anything but celebratory.

United States Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati sat slumped in a chair a few minutes after the match, clearly drained from the experience. Asked if he wanted to make a comment, Gulati looked up and quietly declined. “Maybe after my B.P. comes down a bit,” he said.

Even Jurgen Klinsmann, one of the most upbeat and affable people you will ever meet, was not willing to sugarcoat his team’s performance. He did not crack a smile at the post-game press conference.

“Do we have to play better?” he asked. “Absolutely. We are not happy with what we saw. There will be a couple of things we will discuss internally that we need to do much, much better in Kansas City.”

Foremost among those objectives: creating a sense of urgency within the squad that begins at the opening whistle and continues until the end of the match.

“It’s something you always try to reinforce but it has to develop within the whole group,” Klinsmann said. “And especially in away games. We just need to be better than that. We were winning in Jamaica after one minute and then suddenly we dropped back. And we had said from the outset, ‘Don’t drop back! Stay high up! Keep playing the same game!’”

It was more of the same against Antigua and Barbuda.

“At halftime we said, ‘Guys, we have to step it up here. We have to play faster. We have to play 1-2 touches more often and find spaces behind their fullbacks. That’s something we have to work on, mentally.”

There is plenty to work on physically, too. Herculez Gomez, usually deadly with his chances, had an awful game. (And, to his credit, he admitted as much via Twitter.)

Clint Dempsey, typically the biggest offensive threat on the team, was a non-factor throughout the match. “The middle of the park was just a mud pit, really,” Dempsey said after the contest. “So it was a frustrating game to try to play football in—quality football.”

Graham Zusi started strong but a series of poor crosses in the second half quashed many U.S. advances and he was taken out of the game in the 78th minute. Danny Williams, so strong against Jamaica a few weeks back, did not control the midfield in his No. 6 role. In fact, aside from Michael Bradley and Johnson, none of the American starters made a truly positive impression.

But the U.S. defense had a particularly tough time of it. The back line gave away too many easy chances Friday, and on a different night the numerous gaffes might have led to an embarrassing, and costly, defeat.

“First half, we have to win our duels in the backline,” Klinsmann said. “We told both center backs, ‘Guys, you’ve got to step it up here. We can’t lose the individual battles.’ They knew it. They were not happy with their own game. We gave away too many balls there.”

Klinsmann, always gracious in victory, made a point of congratulating Antigua and Barbuda for their strong showing.

“[We knew] they would take this game as the game of their lives, and that’s what they did,” he said. “We mentioned it to the players many, many, many times. And we had the game we expected. It was difficult. They have quality players on the side and they can surprise you.”

But the fact remains that the U.S. should never have let it get this close. They were lucky to escape with a win, and they know it.

The team faces Guatemala in Kansas City on Tuesday, and the consensus within the squad is that they will have to do much, much better.

What did you think of the U.S.’ performance Friday? Thrilled? Frustrated? Disgusted? Energized? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below. And be sure to graph your feelings about Jurgen Klinsmann in our interactive Infographic. It’s a great way to tell the soccer world how you feel.

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