Neil W. Blackmon
It’s here. Ready or not. The United States will begin its qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup Finals in Brazil Friday night in Tampa, Florida. Yes, it’s finally here. Nearly two years after Asamoah Gyan put the Americans down 2-1 and ultimately out of the 2010 World Cup, that highlight can go the way of bitter, last cycle memory.
The old manager? He’s in Egypt, playing his own unique role in the Arab Spring.
The new manager? Well, after almost a year of games the globe calls “Friendlies”, he gets to begin his grand experiment, you know the one where the Americans play a “proactive, not reactive brand of soccer” that “reflects the multifaceted cultural identity of this great country.” The stakes are… well, the games matter. They have “stakes.” The scrutiny, given the ever-increasing popularity of the game in this country, is set to be the highest we’ve ever seen during a qualifying campaign. And here’s the thing– I don’t think Jurgen Klinsmann would have it any other way. It’s finally here, and when toe meets sphere Friday night, for the first of up to sixteen matches necessary to secure qualification, we’ll finally begin to see if indeed the United States are ready to write a new chapter, a new beginning, to their soccer story.
Last week, in an at-the-least entertaining Grantland article discussing the U.S. progression under Jurgen Klinsmann, Brian Phillips described CONCACAF as “a corrupt, thrown together federation of cruise-ship destinations, action movie drug-lord havens, and fading hemispheric hegemons.” We think that’s funny, because of course, its partly right. He left out tiki bar dotted hideaway islands, ageless political despots, and of course, pirate outposts. As such, it’s fitting that the CONCACAF qualifying regime for the United States should begin in an old pirate town, Tampa, against a tiki bar dotted hideaway island famous for being a haven to pirates, in a stadium that’s home to a group of Buccaneers, and sports its own pirate ship. Hard to believe famed British pirate Captain John Fenn, whose final stop was St. John’s, Antigua, or Tampa’s most famous pirate, Jose Gaspar (of Gasparilla fame), would have it any other way. Arrghh!!
As for the match itself, we’ll break things down in the usual way,all while acknowledging that we’d just look plain silly if we claimed anything resembling “expertise” about Antigua and Barbuda and their footballers. Yes, we’ve seen a player or two of theirs play a game or two. And yes, we’ve done enough research to have a general idea of who they’ll put on the field Friday evening at Raymond James Stadium. But as is the case with many of the tiki bar, cruise ship destination sides that dot the early stages of World Cup qualifying in CONCACAF, Antigua and Barbuda are relative unknowns in the world of global football.
Given that background, we’ve brought in just a little help, in the form of Dwayne Simien, a cruise-line marketing employee, competitive deep-sea fisherman and former collegiate club soccer player who now resides in Ft. Lauderdale, but who grew up in St. John’s, Antigua and has actually seen the A & B outfit in action on more than one occasion. In fact, Dwayne was at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium with 8,000 or so of his closest friends for the crucial second round, Group F qualifying match against Haiti last October– a 1-0 Benna Boys victory that sent the ABFA through to this, the Third Round of the Group Stage.We figured bringing Dwayne, whose seen these guys play together, might be better than lots of words on things we noticed in Youtube videos. Dwayne is looking forward to making the trip to Tampa about as much as we are, and while he’s proud to call the States home, he’s got, in his words, a “sleek Benna Boys shirt” and “plantain crumb tossed chicken with three citrus marinade sauce recipe saved up for the tailgate.”
Here then, with a little help from Dwayne, is what we’ll expect from Antigua and Barbuda.
In the second round, Antigua and Barbuda, now ranked 100th in the World by FIFA, proved to be (albeit against drastically less impressive competition), an effective counterattacking side that often threatened to run the other sides in their group off the pitch. Like most of the island sides, there wasn’t anything particularly complicated about their formations or tactics– a standard 4-4-2 where nine men mostly stay behind the ball unless the opportunity presents itself to unleash the counter. Given that the Benna Boys tallied 28 goals in the group stages and conceded only five, it is difficult to argue with that formula.
For the most part, Antigua and Barbuda do not, as you would expect, have players remotely of the caliber of their American opponents Friday night. But there are two things they do particularly well with the players they do have, and at least one of those things, according to Simien, “was absolutely integral in our advancing even to this stage of the competition,” which, he says, “for a country that hasn’t ever even reached a Gold Cup, is an absolute dream.”
The first thing that Antigua and Barbuda do well, which is certainly not unique to the islander sides of CONCACAF, is run. We’re not positive if this is unique to the Benna Boys, but in Group F play in the second round, the Benna Boys had three midfielders (Quinton Griffith, Akeem Thomas, and Mikele Leigertwood, who is the only member of the side that plays top division football in Europe, for recently promoted Reading) who averaged over 10,000 meters a match. That’s a classic work-rate statistic, and it’s one that suggests that they may be less susceptible to the “we failed to track back” bugaboo the smaller island nations (who play less friendlies, and work together less as a unit) have when they do counter furiously. 10,000 meters takes a strong work rate, and it takes discipline. Some of that discipline, Simien believes, comes from the fact that “most of these guys play together at Barracudas, the USL professional side”, which gives them a better sense of cohesion and togetherness than you often see with island teams. It should also be noted that another Thomas, midfield-forward hybrid Tamarley, was just short of the 10,000 meter mark.
In addition to great work rate, the Benna Boys have several players “who can flat out fly,” according to Simien. Again, this isn’t unique to Antigua and Barbuda as an island side– most of those teams have pace– it’s just that Antigua have more of it. Athletics is emphasized on the island nation, and track and field is of course, the prioritized event. The Benna Boys feature two guys with near world class pace: Quinton Griffith and Akeem Thomas. “Griffith could have been an Olympian, but liked playing soccer more,” Simien told us, and “Thomas was a relay anchor in his youth, and is a kid who seems to maintain his pace throughout a match.” Those are two characteristics that give the Benna Boys a bit of an edge, and with Fabian Johnson possibly on the shelf, Steve Cherundolo battling Father Time, and Clarence Goodson and Carlos Bocanegra not necessarily being gazelles– the Americans will need to be careful not to get caught too far out or get complacent. This isn’t just a case of pace and no skill either– Griffith led the Barracudas in assists in the previous campaign, and “most every attack in the critical Curacao and Haiti matches started through one of the Thomas”” (the Benna Boys boast three.) As such, Antigua and Barbuda have a nice blend of skill and pace that aren’t usually found together on a tiki bar dotted hideaway island side.
These players will try to force tempo once they get possession, counter and get the ball to goalscorer Peter Byers, who has an impressive 23 tallies in 36 games– though less impressive considering the opponents he’s scored on, as well as the aforementioned Tamarley Thomas, who “possesses much more skill on the ball than Byers and tends to remain interested in the game too”, according to Simien.
The second thing to look for, and really the only way the Benna Boys can keep the game close and give themselves a chance Friday night, is organization. As noted, the Benna Boys conceded only five goals in six matches in the second round, and this, according to Simien, is “because the backline has managed to stay together, stay healthy, and avoid silly penalties.” That might not seem like much, but given the “counter, lose possession, defend a counter, and counter again” style that many smaller, CONCACAF games are capable of devolving into– that’s more than you see from most of these sides. Discipline can break down quickly in that type of game– the Benna Boys 5-2 shootout with Curacao in qualifying shows it did at least once for Antigua and Barbuda too– and as such, organization and leadership in the back is critical.
Leadership won’t be a problem, says Simien. “George Dublin is our leader. He’s the glue, the man who absolutely must stay in the moment Friday night. He has 40 something caps for country– which given how much less we play than say, a U.S.A. or a Mexico– is an amazing number. He’s the guy the young lads look up to.” That’s strong sentiment for the man with the armband, and he and his other charges in the back (likely Wycombe Wanderers youngster Marvin McCoy, veteran Ranjae Christian, and Luke Blakeley) will have to play the game of their lives against Clint Dempsey, Herc Gomez and the rest of the American attack if there’s to be a shocking result Friday night.
In goal, manager Tom Curtis will choose between Kieta de Castro and Molvin James. James is the # 1 for the Barracudas, and offers more athleticism than the 31 year old de Castro, but neither are going to win this game with a Keller vs. Brazil 98 type performance.
What We’re Looking For From The Yanks:
With four days to get their legs back– and they did look gassed, among other things, in Toronto Sunday night– the Americans should be rested and the fact the game matters should put pep in their step. For all the chatter about seeing the Yanks dictate the game to opponents, the fact is that Friday night the opponent isn’t a particularly formidable one, and the Americans should control the run of play. As such, what we’re hoping to see is a hungry group that is focused and ready to play.
The early stages of qualifying often are a great time for individuals to write their own stories. Brian Ching did so in the qualifying opener in 2008, scoring three against Barbados. Conor Casey did so in the Hexagon stage, earning a spot start and delivering a brace. These stories aren’t uncommon ones. But the moment needs to be right for individuals and given the quality of the opponent, this is a great opportunity for some of the guys with more question marks than answers at this point to build confidence.
When all is said and done– remember that the performance of the individuals who do stand out should do just that– build confidence. Expectations should be tempered because the opponent isn’t strong and the journey is just beginning. With that in mind– here are three players we will focus on Friday night.
First, if the muscle injury is okay and he’s cleared to go– Fabian Johnson gets the chance to shine in a game with meaning. Will there be jitters? As much of a dream the last few games must have been for Herculez Gomez, let’s not forget Fabian Johnson is living his dream too, playing for a team he very much chose to play for, rather than the other way around (which is often the case for dual internationals). Johnson appears to be an answer to supporters prayers at left back. Is he ready to go when it counts? And should he even play, with the more tricky game coming next week at Guatemala?
Second, Jozy Altidore. It’s time for him to deliver on the promise of the Capdevilla turn in the Confederations Cup semifinal, a score it is fair to say has haunted and weighed on him on the expectations front. MB 90 was ready to flash class above his peers against Mexico in Columbus when he was young Jozy’s age. 2012 could be for Altidore what 2008 was for Michael– a shot across the bow indicating he’s for real.
Finally, we are absolutely expecting Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan to play fine together. The questions about the chemistry on the field between the two seem a bit forced. Injuries and club duty have forced their mutual exclusions under Klinsmann, but the two have been fine for over three years playing together, and at times, they’ve been splendid. Friday night should continue that pattern, which tends to be evident when the games matter.
11 We Think Will Take The Field For the First Qualifying Anthems:
D: Johnson (Castillo if Johnson’s a scratch), Bocanegra (C), Goodson, Cherundolo
M: Bradley, Edu, Jones
Wing: Donovan, Dempsey
Again, we are leaning towards it being Jozy Altidore up top and leaning against the 4-4-2. Klinsman has only played with two target men together on one occasion in his tenure, and there’s no reason to think the first World Cup qualifier will be when he chooses to revisit that experiment.
Beyond that, we’ve discussed the “WAR/Moneyball” value of Maurice Edu and are sticking to that account of events. It isn’t that Torres isn’t capable– indeed, against this type of opponent he’d probably spray the ball around the lot like CP 3 — but Edu’s value is bolstered largely by what he adds to MB 90’s value– and that’s too much for Klinsmann to ignore for the time being, in our view.
Finally, given the quality of the opponent, there are some who suggest Klinsmann should rest a few guys, or at least limit them significantly, with an eye towards the tricky qualifier in this pairing at Guatemala next week. We don’t see it that way (with the caveat that Steve Cherundolo probably doesn’t need to play ninety minutes Friday night). Guatemala isn’t a difficult opponent– they are, rather, a tricky opponent in a tough venue, and there is a distinction. The Americans should expect and deliver three points in that match. That said, this is the beginning to qualifying, the first match with meaning under Klinsmann, and a chance for the U.S. to show that throughout this qualifying cycle, they intend to impose their will on opponents. This isn’t the time to field a B Side and say “we’ll let the big dogs go hunt next week.” And imagine the questions if the U.S. didn’t field its best team and struggled? As we’ve written before– this will be the most difficult qualifying cycle since 1990. Let’s treat every game mindful of that fact.
Prediction: Antigua and Barbuda will not be Barbados. The Yanks will not win 8-0. They will win 5-0.
THE SERIES: This is the first all-time meeting between the United States and Antigua and Barbuda.
Weather: 80 Degrees at kick, with a chance of rain. The good news is the tropical system in the Gulf of Mexico broke in half Wednesday and there will not be a tropical storm brewing. The bad news? Nothing, really, except that those of you not from the State of Florida should be prepared for an afternoon Thunderstorm. They are just part of life in southwestern Florida, a nice respite from the brutal heat. If it rains hard enough, it will be a nice evening. If it just spits for a while, it will be sticky and humid from the kick to the final whistle.
Drinks and Food: For Drinks–MacDinton’s Pub gets all the pub, and the American Outlaws will be there tonight and Friday for the pregame and the Euro. They’ll also have a shuttle from the pub (on Howard Avenue in the “South Tampa/SOHO” neighborhood) to the tailgate at Raymond James Stadium (a short ride). The wine bar across the street has a great crowd though, and terrific appetizers. Lounge, a block down the street, has good brunch on the weekend and a pretty diverse and cool crowd on Friday nights- also worth a look. Dubliner is a bartender’s bar, and the live music is excellent.
For food, the South Tampa neighborhood where the bars are has the most options– but a lot of these restaurants are pricey and overrated. You’d be better off getting in a cab or your rental car and seeking something elsewhere– Kojak’s House of Ribs in Bayshore is worth a look, as is The Colonnade on Bayshore Boulevard (great fish, wine list). If you want steak, and can’t wait until Kansas City this autumn, Bern’s Steakhouse is without question one of the finest steakhouses in the world. Good luck getting in Friday night though- it’s almost always booked.
Golf: Florida is a golfer’s paradise, and if the tailgate scene isn’t necessarily your thing, or, like us, you are in town a day early or staying for the meat of the weekend– there are plenty of places to play locally. A word of advice though– most the local places that are public in Tampa aren’t worth the wait or the greens fees. If you’ve got wheels, head an hour north to Citrus Springs and take on El Diablo, which is links golf and has housed U.S. Amateur qualifying and other tournaments. The central Florida foothills are hot, but the golf course is always in good shape and the views are great, as is the chance for shotmaking. Mission Inn, which is also an hour north, is another tremendous golf course in the Florida hill and horse country.
Enjoy, and as always, thanks for reading and GO USA!!
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at email@example.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.