By Jon Levy
The Yanks head into their last two matches in this round of qualifying in a good position, tied for first in the group with Guatemala, and just ahead of Jamaica on goal differential. It’s not the dominant position in the standings the team had hoped for at this point, but it’s a hell of a lot better than what might have been had Herculez Gomez not scored to beat Jamaica in what amounted to the second leg of a home and home series.
So going into these all important matches, Jurgen Klinsmann’s latest roster selections made a lot of sense. Sure it’s easy to take issue with the manager dropping Jozy Altidore, but America’s best true forward didn’t look like he was “getting it” in his last few outings with the national team. It’s tougher to take issue with dropping the oft-injured José Francisco Torres in favor of in-form Anderlecht midfielder Sacha Kljestan. Under Klinsmann “Gringo” Torres has underperformed and been played out of position, both independently and simultaneously, while Kljestan’s club form has been consistent enough to warrant questioning why it took Jurgen so long to call him back up.
That was about it for the controversial personnel decisions. That is until players started dropping like flies. Shea out. Donovan out. Castillo out. Fabian Johnson out … but maybe for only one match. And as for replacements? We don’t need no stinkin’ replacements? Really?!
What to watch for from the Yanks:
First off, expect an adventure at left back, what else is new? Not that starting a healthy Edgar Castillo out there isn’t usually an adventure anyway, but without a quick call-up for the idle and capable Eric Lichaj, we’re most likely looking at an aging Captain Bocanegra running the wing. Boca is still an important player for the USMNT, but I think we’d all rather see him pairing with Geoff Cameron or Clarence Goodson on the inside. Still, starting the captain at a position he’s played for years is a safer bet than crossing your fingers and hoping Maurice Edu or Danny Williams can do an unfamiliar job.
Meanwhile, the injuries to Brek Shea and Landon Donovan will severely hamper the Yanks in creating the width that’s so dear to Coach Klinsmann. Jurgen stresses said width as a means of keeping possession and creating chances, and in the last match against Jamaica the team proved that with the right personnel they can even establish this productive width within a 4-4-2 formation (not quite Bob Bradley’s 4-4-2 mind you). But Brek and Lando being out screws everything up, especially if you don’t bring in the likes of Josh Gatt or DaMarcus Beasley to deputize. Whether he’s playing as a wing forward or a wide midfielder, you’ve got to expect Graham Zusi to start on one wing, but what about the other side? We’ll probably have to hope for a breakout performance from a player who’s either relatively untested at national team level (Joe Corona), or not natural a winger (Kljestan and Williams). Kljestan often plays on a wing for his club, but it’s a skinny wing role that allows Sacha to cut inside often, with a fullback overlapping. And Danny Williams is coming off his best performance in the shirt, in which he cut out Jamaica attacks and effectively helped start the offense from a lone defensive midfielder position. That said, Jurgen is inexplicably under the impression that Danny can play any spot on the field. So count me as unsurprised and unimpressed if the manager starts Williams on a wing again. The most natural winger still on the roster is Joe Corona, and depending on what he’s shown in training, Joe might be the smart start opposite Zusi.
And what will we see out of Antigua and Barbuda?
The Benna Boys will look at their second half goal in The States, along with the entire USMNT/Jamaica match in Kingston for their blueprint. Antigua knows they can’t dominate possession and routinely pick the Yanks apart in the final third, but they might not have to. Jamaica took their chances and scored two goals to win 2-1 over the US just two matches ago, and they didn’t get the win because their play was bright and dynamic. They won because the US was flaccid and The Reggae Boyz were opportunistic. If Antigua and Barbuda can sit back and soak up the pressure, they might be able to pull off the same feat. It’s not very complicated actually.
Antigua and Barbuda Player to Watch: Peter Byers
This part’s even less complicated. Peter Byers will always be my player to watch when the US takes on Antigua and Barbuda. Until he retires from international play anyway. After starting qualifying with Nottingham Forrest’s all-energy forward Dexter Blackstock up top, manager Tom Curtis returned to his senses and restored Byers to the lineup; Antigua’s all-time leading goal scorer has since scored both of his team’s two goals in this round, one against the Yanks in Tampa.
Not only does Byers have more goal scoring quality than any of his compatriots, he also moves with and without the ball well. Some of this probably stems from playing for this manager and with the vast majority of these players at club level for USL side Antigua Barricuda. That formula isn’t a bad one for a small nation whose players aren’t dominating foreign leagues, and it helps to have a baller like Peter Byers on your side.
US Player to Watch: Graham Zusi
In the know U.S. Soccer fans have marveled at the body of work and consistent quality and productivity that Graham Zusi brings to the table, but in the first half of the last match against Jamaica, Zusi was a couple near misses away from having a proper “Kljestan vs. Sweden” USMNT coming out party. I’m talking multiple goals and an assist. Or the other way around. Either way he would have taken it.
But instead of making “who is this guy?!” appearances on Pardon The Interruption and Around The Horn, Zusi will have to settle for being well on his way to becoming a Jurgen Klismann favorite. And that’s a good thing to be, just ask our German dudes. In this match Zusi will have to be the primary attacking/creative force out wide for the Yanks; thankfully that’s nothing out of the ordinary for him. And if he gets just a little more space in the attacking third than he had against Jamaica, bet on Zusi’s quality actually leading to goals this time around.
As a side note, we here at TYAC are also big fans of the Zusi family. We have confirmed reports that Graham’s Mom dropped off a delicious batch of fudge cookies for the University of Maryland student broadcast team during her son’s senior year playing for the Terps. Media coverage never tasted so good.
Prediction: Antigua and Barbuda 0 – 3 USA
Goals from the old “future of American soccer” get it done. Michael Bradley strikes early, and Kljestan hits late. The Yanks Are Coming home offices go wild! Take your pick on the third goal scorer, but credit Zusi with an assist or three.
Enjoy the match, and Go USA!