TAMPA — The U.S. national soccer team’s journey to the 2014 World Cup commenced Friday with the first — and surely least worrisome — of the expected 16 qualifying matches over the next 16 months.
But early authority gave way to a tense and embarrassing situation midway through the second half: a one-goal advantage against Antigua and Barbuda (population 89,000).
Herculez Gomez relieved the unexpected pressure with a 72nd-minute goal, leading to a 3-1 victory before 23,971 at rainy Raymond James Stadium. The overall display, however, was not what Juergen Klinsmann wanted in his first consequential game since accepting the coaching helm last summer.
“We know after an evening like that,” he said, “we have to step it up a lot.”
The Americans remain heavily favored to finish atop their four-team, semifinal-round group and advance to the final stage of regional qualifying next year. But looking to the harder matches that lie ahead, starting Tuesday at Guatemala, this demonstration was not reassuring. Mexico, the region’s other titan, also labored at home Friday, defeating Guyana by the same score as the U.S. match.
“It wasn’t our best performance — everyone knows that,” U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra said. “But it’s the first game of qualifying and we’re not peaking right now, which is normal. The biggest thing was to get a win. We can’t take much from this game.”
Bocanegra scored in the eighth minute and Clint Dempsey converted a penalty kick just before halftime.
But Peter Byers answered in the 65th for the ambitious visitors, whose roster includes 16 players competing in a U.S.-based third division. Gomez then capitalized on a scramble in the box to all but secure the three points.
Already without top options at left back, Fabian Johnson and Edgar Castillo, Klinsmann lost their replacement, Jose Torres, who underwent X-rays after injuring his left ankle in the 57th minute.
Klinsmann is hopeful Johnson (calf) will play in Guatemala City.
After a sluggish start on the slick surface, the Americans went ahead — thanks in part to Landon Donovan’s stalling tactic. Bocanegra’s shoe fell off on a sequence that resulted in a corner kick. With the captain fixing his footwear, Donovan placed the ball down and picked it up.
As the Benna Boys protested, Bocanegra returned to play. Gomez headed Donovan’s service on target. Molvin James made a reflex save, but Bocanegra swept in the rebound from inside the six-yard box for his 13th international goal, tying retired Marcelo Balboa for the most by a U.S. defender.
The Americans hoarded possession but were too cute with the ball and didn’t shoot enough. Under intense pressure, Antigua could only venture out of its end for occasional counterattacks. With a golden chance to equalize in the 39th minute, Dexter Blackstock had his 17-yarder blocked by a defender.
The Americans added a second goal in the 44th minute after Marvin McCoy tripped Donovan running onto Dempsey’s feed. Dempsey fired the penalty kick into the center of the target for his 26th U.S. goal.
The second half offered much of the same: control without goals. After Gomez hit the crossbar in the 58th minute, the match turned when Byers touched the ball past slow-footed Oguchi Onyewu, Torres’s replacement, and beat Tim Howard with a cool finish.
After James made two fine saves, Gomez collected a loose ball in the box and tucked it into the left corner for his fourth U.S. goal.
“You know going into this, it’s a long process,” midfielder Michael Bradley said. “It’s a long 16 games. You know there are going to be ups, there are going to be downs, good games, bad games, but the most important thing is the commitment to do whatever it takes to get results and to make sure at the end of it all, you’re in the World Cup.”
Mexico opened World Cup qualifying with a 3-1 win over Guyana. Mexico got goals from Carlos Salcido and Giovani dos Santos during a five-minute span early in the first half.
Salcido put El Tri in front in the 11th minute at Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium, and dos Santos doubled the lead in the 15th with his 14th goal in 58 international appearances.
An own goal by John Rodrigues gave Mexico a three-goal lead in the 51st, but Mexico’s Hector Moreno had an own goal nine minutes later.
El Salvador was at Costa Rica in the other Group B match in North and Central America and the Caribbean’s semifinal round.
In Group C, Olivier Occean scored on a header off a cross from David Edgar in the 55th minute to give Canada a 1-0 win over Cuba in Havana.
The Canadians played a man short after goalkeeper Lars Hirschfeld was given a red card in the 64th minute for handling the ball outside his penalty area.