KINGSTON, Jamaica – The U.S. national soccer team began a pivotal stretch of its World Cup qualifying campaign Friday with a dramatic 2-1 victory over Jamaica. Cool and composed for much of a hot Caribbean night, the Americans relinquished the lead in the 89th minute and seemed headed for an immensely disappointing draw.
But Brad Evans, a midfielder filling a defensive role, scored from inside the penalty area in stoppage time to silence a once-spirited crowd and severely dent Jamaica’s hopes.
Off a short corner kick, Michael Bradley connected with Evans, who scored his first international goal in just his 10th U.S. appearance.
“You feel as low as dirt and then all of a sudden you feel like world-beaters,” American goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “A point on the road is not the worst thing. We could have been content with that but we hunted for a second goal.”
The Americans (2-1-1) will play Panama on Tuesday in Seattle — where Evans plays for the MLS’s Sounders — and Honduras on June 18 in suburban Salt Lake City.
Long before Evans’s heroics, Jozy Altidore and Graham Zusi reprised their partnership, with Altidore scoring in the 30th minute. But Jermaine Beckford headed in Rodolph Austin’s free kick in the waning moments.
The shocking finish sent Jamaica (0-3-2) to its second defeat in four days.
The Friday morning papers had sounded the alarm:
The Gleaner: “Desperation!”
The Star: “Only A Win Will Do!”
The Daily Observer was more optimistic: “Dream Still On”
In the wake of a 1-0 loss to Mexico, there was some question how many supporters would turn out for the second time in four days. The arena was about two-thirds full. Regardless, the pregame beat went on: a DJ behind a corner flag pumping the decibels, a dance team and military band. The concession stands served up curry goat and beef patties.
Juergen Klinsmann made no lineup changes from the Germany friendly Sunday in Washington — the first time he had repeated starters since his appointment in the summer of 2011.
Altidore, who snapped an 18-month scoring drought against the Germans, served at the top of the formation, supported by Clint Dempsey and Fabian Johnson and Zusi on the flanks. Bradley and Jermaine Jones manned the engine room. MLS defenders Evans, Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler joined DaMarcus Beasley, a natural attacker, on the backline in front of Howard.
Jamaica made just one change from the Mexico game, adding England-based Jermaine Johnson on the flank.
The Americans set the early terms, moving the ball comfortably and maintaining their shape. Bradley’s drive from the top of the penalty area hit the left post and Fabian Johnson cut inside for a low effort smothered by goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts.
The Reggae Boyz turned to Jermaine Johnson. His lively, quick play, starting on the wings and slicing inside, brought the crowd to its feet and put the Americans under duress. In the 17th minute, he tested Howard with a ferocious shot from 20 yards.
The United States went ahead in the 30th on a goal similar to the first strike against Germany.
Like on Sunday, Zusi beat his man on the right side and swung a perfect cross to the six-yard box for a powerful header by Altidore.
Jamaica’s spirit was not broken. Austin slipped inside Evans and stabbed a 15-yard shot off the far post and Jermaine Johnson’s volley sailed over the crossbar.
With the lead, the Americans did not attack with as much vigor as early in the match.
Jamaica seized on that passivity after intermission and mounted three quality threats, including Austin’s 25-yard blast.
The Americans had a quality opportunity in the 54th minute, Zusi’s corner kick skipping to Altidore on the back side, but the forward couldn’t make solid contact inside the six-yard box.
Jones left in the 58th minute with a head injury. Jones was later diagnosed with a concussion, all but eliminating him from Tuesday’s match.
To the U.S. team’s relief, Jamaica’s Johnson ran out of gas midway through the half and departed.
The Americans were in control down the stretch, sending fans to the exits early. But then the mayhem unfolded, and when the final whistle sounded, the U.S. team was rejoicing.
“We didn’t plan it that way . . . but that is what these games are all about — always down to the wire,” Klinsmann said. “They were angry with themselves for conceding that goal and they reacted in a good way. The willingness was there. They were eager to score another one.”