In the depths of CenturyLink Field, as more than 40,000 happy supporters streamed into the streets of Seattle for a night of revelry Tuesday, U.S. national team players were careful not to get too far ahead of themselves. The World Cup qualifying adventure is only half over. There is still a trip to Costa Rica and several home games that should not be taken for granted.
But with a 2-0 victory over Panama, off in the distance, the Americans can begin to see Brazil. They are atop the CONCACAF standings at the midway point and, since a troubling loss at Honduras to begin the hexagonal, they have earned 10 of a possible 12 points. Another triumph next Tuesday against the Catrachos in Utah, and this chase could end sooner than expected.
“When you look at the other results, when you look at what the table looks like, three points [Tuesday] puts one foot in the door,” midfielder Michael Bradley said. “It puts us in a great spot.”
Said goalkeeper Tim Howard: “If we can get three, man, we set ourselves up for a great fall” when the campaign culminates with four games.
“Ten points, leading the group, having only played two home games, we are feeling good about it, for sure,” USSF President Sunil Gulati said. “Tonight was probably the best 90-minute game we have played.”
Aside from the result, the U.S. squad played in rhythm and continued to build partnerships. The Matt Besler-Omar Gonzalez tandem is strengthening — one goal conceded in the past three
matches qualifiers, and it came off a set piece that appeared offside. Jozy Altidore has regained his scoring groove. In Jermaine Jones‘s absence, Geoff Cameron mixed well with Bradley, who delivered a commanding performance. Fabian Johnson added pace and service, while Eddie Johnson, standing in for the suspended Graham Zusi, scored the clincher early in the second half.
“Throughout the entire game, we were in control of it,” Juergen Klinsmann said. “Every area on the field, the guys did their job.”
Altidore has scored in three consecutive matches for the first time in his U.S. career — and each goal has come in the first half and provided the lead. Remember that scoring rut way back when … ?
“Often we forget how young he still is,” Klinsmann said of the 23-year-old striker. “You have got to give him a bad game or a bad performance as well. But you also got to kick him in his backside when you think he needs it. It’s just normal.
“He’s playing a position I played my whole career for 18 years for big clubs, so I know what’s going through his mind. I know when he struggles, and what we demand from him is when you struggle, just fight for your way back into the game and do your job for the team. How he is doing that in the last couple of games is absolutely outstanding.”
It was also a good night for MLS: Four starters, including three defenders, and for the second consecutive game, the second goal was scored by a Seattle Sounder.
The two issues leading to the match were not issues, after all.
After a lull in ticket sales, a game-day push lifted attendance to 40,847 — not quite capacity of 42,000 but still the seventh-best turnout for a home qualifier. And almost everyone was supporting the home side. There have been larger crowds over the years but often with divided loyalties. (Next door, at Safeco Field, the Mariners played the Houston Astros at the same time as the soccer game and announced a crowd of 10,266.)
The temporary grass, laid out over the stadium’s artificial turf, seemed to hold up well throughout the game.
“We wouldn’t have done it in a lot of markets,” Gulati said of spending more than $100,000 for natural grass, “but this is such a great market, we felt we had to do it. And the crowd tonight was terrific — they are standing, they are sophisticated and they were 95 percent for the U.S.”
For the Honduras match, DaMarcus Beasley will serve a yellow card suspension but Zusi will return from his and doctors may clear Jones to return from a concussion. In Beasley’s absence, Klinsmann may drop Fabian Johnson to left back and start Eddie Johnson on the left wing. He could also replace Beasley with Edgar Castillo and leave Fabian Johnson where he is.
Nine others are sitting on one card: Cameron, Howard, Altidore, Bradley, Besler, Fabian Johnson, Brad Davis, Brad Evans and Clint Dempsey. Another yellow next week would cancel their Costa Rica plans in September.
USA lineup: Howard; Evans, Gonzalez, Besler, Beasley; Bradley, Cameron; E. Johnson (Corona 87th), Dempsey, F. Johnson (Davis 87th); Altidore (Holden 90+1).
United States 3-1-1, 10 points, +3 goal difference
Costa Rica 2-1-2, 8 points, +2 goal difference
Mexico 1-0-5, 8 points, +1 goal difference
Honduras 2-2-1, 7 points, 0 goal difference
Panama 1-1-3, 6 points, 0 goal difference
Jamaica 0-4-2, 2 points, -6 goal difference
Next Tuesday’s matches
Honduras at United States in Sandy, Utah, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN, UniMas)
Panama at Costa Rica in San Jose, 10 p.m. ET
(Mexico and Jamaica have already played six matches apiece)
Altidore goal video:
Eddie Johnson goal video: