ST. LOUIS — In a quest for a 2018 World Cup berth, the U.S. men’s national team will shuttle between home venues and hot spots in the Caribbean and Central America over two years. It will face seasoned foes from the region and island nations with jazzy nicknames and overmatched players.
The trek began Friday in a baseball park on a cold Friday night against a Caribbean opponent nicknamed Vincy Heat. And after the visitors from St. Vincent and the Grenadines (population 103,000) scored a stunning early goal, extending Manager Jurgen Klinsmann’s misery a little bit longer, the Americans roared to a 6-1 victory before 43,433 at Busch Stadium.
“It’s always important to start with three points in the qualifying campaign,” Klinsmann said. “It’s a long run that we have ahead of us.”
The first of 16 matches on the qualifying odyssey began poorly before unfolding as expected, a lopsided affair featuring two goals by Jozy Altidore and one apiece by Bobby Wood, Fabian Johnson, Geoff Cameron and Gyasi Zardes.
Experimentations seemingly behind, Klinsmann presented a starting lineup that made tactical and positional sense. He continued integrating young players and, with the outcome decided, introduced two newcomers: defender Matt Miazga and midfielder Darlington Nagbe.
“It was our wish, if things go accordingly, to give [them] their first and get them connected with this team,” Klinsmann said. “Over time and over camps, they will integrate and become part of that group going forward. It’s nice it worked out so well.”
This was a breeze. The next match, at Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday, will not be. The Soca Warriors opened with a 2-1 victory at Guatemala on Friday. The visit to Port of Spain will provide a better measure of the U.S. squad, which had sputtered to a 1-4-1 record in its previous six matches.
Two teams from the four-nation group will advance to the final round of regional qualifying next year.
The Americans have not lost a home qualifier in more than 14 years, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines had little hope of ending the streak. Only five players ply their trade outside the Caribbean: two in the U.S. third division, one in Finland’s second division, one in Finland’s third tier and one in England’s semipro sixth level.
In the fifth minute, though, the Vincy Heat went ahead. Oalex Anderson pounced on Cameron’s stray clearance, turned inside and curled a 13-yard shot to the far corner of Brad Guzan’s net.
Was this real? It was.
Anderson, a forward who turned 20 on Wednesday, is employed by a third-division club operated by MLS’s Seattle Sounders. He was recruited by Sounders II Coach Ezra Hendrickson, a former St. Vincent and MLS defender assisting the national team staff.
Amid a sea of red — U.S. and St. Louis Cardinal — a cluster of visiting fans wearing bright green and yellow danced in disbelief.
Their joy was short-lived. The Americans drew even in the 11th minute when DeAndre Yedlin crossed to Wood for a six-yard header.
In an otherwise troubling period for the U.S. team, the Hawaiian-born, German-based forward has excelled. He has scored four times in five months, beginning with friendlies against Germany and Netherlands, then an extra-time equalizer against Mexico in the CONCACAF Cup.
Order was restored. The Americans scored twice in two minutes for a 3-1 halftime lead.
In the 29th, Johnson’s free kick from the edge of the penalty area struck the head of a defender in the wall. As goalkeeper Winslow McDowall went one way, the ball caromed the other.
Johnson then swung a corner kick toward Jermaine Jones at the near post for what was supposed to be a flick in front of the net. Instead, Jones’s marker, Seinard Bowens, deflected the ball to the back side for Altidore’s unobstructed header.
“We had our mind-sets right,” Johnson said, “and kept going.”
Indeed, the goals continued to flow after halftime, the last coming when Altidore held up the ball in the center of the penalty area, turned and scored on a deflected shot in the 74th minute. Another corner kick (Johnson), another near-post touch (Wood), another header (Cameron from 10 yards).
Seven minutes later, Altidore slid the ball ahead to Zardes for a 12-yard finish under the stressed keeper.
With the outcome decided, Klinsmann called on Miazga (New York Red Bulls) and Nagbe (Portland Timbers). Coming in official competition, both are now tied to the U.S. program. Miazga had been wooed by his parents’ homeland, Poland.
The final goal came in the 74th minute when Altidore held up the ball in the center of the penalty area, turned and scored on a deflected shot.
“It was a very professional performance,” defender Matt Besler said. “We were sharp. We moved the ball well. We did all the things necessary.”
Jones strained a hamstring late in the match, but Klinsmann said he expects him to be available Tuesday.