Jurgen Klinsmann. Jurgen Klinsmann. Klinsi. Jurgen Klinsmann. Did we mention Jurgen Klinsmann?
Whatever happens over the next couple of games for the US men's national team, the decisions made by Jurgen Klinsmann in the lead up to them have defined the news agenda. Depending on your viewpoint, Klinsmann has either a) neglected to pick at least one of the top American strikers for the most important squad gathering of his reign so far b) made a decisive decision that may be a potential tactical masterstroke c) drawn the focus and some of the pressure away from his squad prior to two tough games they cannot afford to slip up on.
Whether you believe that last statement to be true (and there's an argument that Klinsmann draws focus/pressure from his squad much as Barbara Streisand does for her backing band), we can say for sure that Klinsmann has omitted Jozy Altidore, the in-form striker (8 goals in 8 games in the Eredivisie) who had previously played in 17 consecutive World Cup qualifiers, citing issues with the players recent national team performances, particularly in the recent brace of road and home games against Jamaica, but also unspecified incidents within the national team camp in May-June. We can also say that that omission, along with those of Chris Wondolowski, whose 25 goals for San Jose this year have made him a fringe US contender but not yet a regular, and Terrence Boyd, who has been a recent regular under Klinsmann, has put the focus squarely on the coach coming into the two games that will determine whether the US make it into the six-sided "Hexagon" tournament that will determine final CONCACAF qualification for the 2014 World Cup.
Between the US and the Hexagon, Guatemala — who still harbor hopes of qualifying themselves and who pulled out a 1-1 result against the US last time out — and tonight, Antigua and Barbuda. The US opened their qualifying campaign against Antigua, and despite a 3-1 win, were given more than a fright by the Benna Boys in Tampa. Tonight they're on the road, and despite the fact that Antigua are out of contention, the US cannot afford to sit back, as Klinsmann's opposite, Englishman Tom Curtis, gave his side license to get forward when they had the chance in the first game and they know they can score against this team, while also knowing that other than the five goals they crashed past Scotland, this has been a US side that has struggled for goals of late.
Anyway, I'll be back soon with more build up and team news. In the meantime you can watch what happened when these two sides met last and start getting your tweets coming in to @KidWeil or your emails to firstname.lastname@example.org or tuck into Elliott Turner's account of Jurgen Klinsmann, Jurgen Klinsmann, Jurgen Klinsmann and his relationship with the US.
We're about to kick off:
Fancy new blogging system acting up, so I'm back sooner than I thought, kicking it old school style, and we're about to kick off. I'll save you all my wonderful build up contact for half-time. You lucky people.
Peep: We're off, with a bracing round of head tennis in the light rain that's falling at the Sir Vivian Richards cricket ground.
Bradley sends a long ball out wide to Eddie Johnson, back in the team after a considerable absence, but the move breaks down.
Some sloppy passing early on from a somewhat changed USA side, who are now stroking the ball around the half way line and looking for an opening. Very sluggish tempo so far. Not what Klinsmann would have been hoping for from the whistle.
Here's that US team by the way: Howard; Cherundolo, Goodson, Cameron, Bocanegra (c); Zusi, Williams, Bradley, E. Johnson; Dempsey, Gomez
Another long ball is sent over the top by the US, but Zusi runs out of space on this small field and the ball runs out for a goal kick. Pitch is 70 x 100 yds - the minimum allowed. Antigua want to keep the game tight.
US still trying to pick the lock patiently. A lot of possession in not particularly dangerous areas. Bradley gets turned, and tries again to get something going but Antigua holding their line ok. The US finally get a corner. What can they do with it?
...Nothing much. Antigua get the ball clear without too much difficulty. They're not showing much ambition yet, but they're frustrating the US early. Still Antigua 0 USA 0.
Now half a chance for Antigua, but a wild looping shot goes nowhere near Howard in goal. Not exactly a case of the US breathing again, but they won't enjoy any suggestion that Antigua are settling into the game.
Back to that slow build up in midfield. Lots of lateral movement and not a lot of forward progress for the US, who are looking very cautious early on. William picks up a foul in the Antigua half, and maybe they can push up on the set piece...
..the free kick is worked forward to become a corner, that's sent in as a high inswinger. Goodson gets up to meet it with a glancing header - too glancing though and it drifts wide.
Slight break for an Antigua injury in the US box, just as the US were perhaps beginning to pressure a little more. Blackstock down being treated. Now he's hobbling off to the side. He's up now, and needs to be - finally the US upping the tempo of their build up play.
GOAL! ANTIGUA 0 USA 1 (JOHNSON!) Just as I type that johnson picks up the ball and works his way to a very dangerous spot by the byline in the Antigua box. He's blocked out but a minute later he leaps to head the US ahead from a looping cross. And just like that he's back...
US looking more urgent in the wake of that goal - as if it woke them up. As best as the narrow pitch allows they're trying to spread the play and pull this defense around. Now they pick up a corner again. But it's cleared and for a second there's a decent counter on the cards. A poor final touch rather saves the US from being opened up.
Antigua perking up a little now after that glimpse of a chance. Free kick to them out wide right...
...well well well. The free kick comes to nothing but a minute later the US defense are carved open and a lovely ball cut back for Blackstock, who gets ahead of Goodson to score!
28 mins: USA have made this hard on themselves, to put it mildly. Now they have to break down Antigua all over again. Bradley, who's looked one of the more likely fulcrums of the attack tries to open up the defense, but the move ends in an offside, then once again Antigua attack down the right side they got the goal from and cause soome more questions for the defense.
Now Antigua fancy their chances of moving the ball around a little - then they launch a long ball over the top to where hopefully Blackstock sticks his foot out just in front of Howard and almost gets a touch to get round the keeper. Worrying for the US. Antigua 1 USA 1
32 mins: Another USA attack, another Bradley cross, another Johnson header. No goal though. A minute later Bradley gets bored of patient build up and lashes a dangerous looking shot just past the right post.
Worryingly for the USA this game is going end to end right now. First a stray through ball almost opens up the US defense again, now the US crash forward with another aerial ball into the box, that James comes out to challenge for bravely, and receives a nasty clattering for his trouble.
Decent free kick chance for the US near the corner of the box. Sent into the space between defense and goal by Bradley but nobody is on the end of it.
Rain absolutely lashing down now by the way. Actually looks like there's a pall of smoke across the screen. Possession stats showing the US with 75% of possession - most of it at the halfway line as far as I can tell.
Now the US up the tempo in the center of midfield and actually get some decent passes cutting open the defense, before a sharp shot flies just wide. A minute later though Antigua mirror the same attack, down to the shot from distance, and Howard has to get down to save. Still 1-1 heading to the half.
It's a physical game, but so far none of the fouls has led to a breakthrough set piece.
Chris (@NerdFi) tweets:
@KidWeil US back 4 lacking positional awareness, physicality, and chemistry...not usually a recipe for success.
Nobody particularly stepping up to change the shape of the game, as the US persist with the sort of ponderous build-up that only really works when you mix it up with changes of pace, and Antigua stick stubbornly to trying to feed Blackstock - who fancies himself in foot races...
US rattled again by a cross that forces a sharp near post headed clearance that could have gone anywhere, but ends up going for a corner. It's sent back dangerously, but can't find a yellow shirt, and with that the half is over.
Antigua 1 USA 1. Half time thoughts in a moment.
Soooooooo sloooooooow. It's one thing to be patient and trust the system, but the fact is that the US showed precious little inclination to change the tempo when necessary and force Antigua out of their comfort zone in the first half. The bright spot of course, was the goal by Eddie Johnson, giving himself the most pleasant of welcome backs to the international scene by heading home. Cue much speculation from the commentary team about whether "Altidore would have got to that". For a moment after the goal it looked like the US might pull away, but almost immediately Antigua had worked their way through a fragile looking US back line for an equalizer and for the rest of the half, there was little sense that the US were going to wrest the initiative back. They have a real ask now in the second half. Can they mix things up a little and force the breakthrough?
One of the strengths Tom Curtis can draw on for this Antigua side is the fact that he is also the coach of the USL Pro (the 3rd tier of US club soccer) side the Barracudas, which is basically the national team playing in league form. It's a smart structural idea to develop technical standards in a country with a small population of only 81,000. That said, the Barracudas finished dead last in the USL Pro standings this year - with just 16 points from 24 games. Still they're doing fine against the US right now
If you'd like to know a little more about the #BennaBoyz (for the Twitterers among you) unique set up, you should have a look at this interview with Tom Curtis carried out by Dominic Bliss, over at the excellently eclectic Inside Left blog.
I'm watching this game at a top secret location with two top analysts, who are in no way just guys eating pizza and swearing at the screen. Still it's a very authentic way to experience what most American fans watching the game at home are probably doing right now.
Peep: OK, we're back under way. 45 minutes for the US to spare their own blushes.
The BeIN Tv are building up the dangers of the Antigua team, in the style of the "there are no easy games any more" trope popular with the previously confident. Burton, who's been problematic for the US sprints down the right and is just shy of getting past the last man as Antigua pick up where they left off.
Gomez given a decent through ball, but his first touch is poor and the keeper claims the ball. James also ends up injuring himself and is down being treated again. He's been knocked around a bit tonight. Still 1-1.
US attacks still very choppy as they struggle to find space through the middle. They're continually getting bogged down in midfield.
Antigua foiled by their own short pitch there as a long throw almost set Blackstock through, but he runs out of space. At the other end Zusi tries to send a cross on but the wind, that's very strong right now, picks up the ball and sends it wildly out of play. Dempsey glances over at Zusi in disgust.
Cherundolo tries to barrel through on the right hand side but he overruns it. Now Jones comes on for Williams to try to inject some urgency into this attack. I'm speaking in short clipped phrases, because that's how this game is being played.
Finally the US find some penetrative passing only for Zusi to drag his low cross behind all the onrushing attackers. Dempsey yelling again. He may be about to pull one of his faces.
Suddenly an hour has come up and Jurgen may be twitching on his seat a little as this scenario unfolds. There are a lot of short passes being played that look more like passing the buck than genuinely trying to change the game. US looking very very tentative. Still Antigua 1 USA 1.
Gomez, who's been knocked around a bit, picks up a free kick. It's crossed in and Goodson looks to have been flattened in the six yard box, but the referee isn't interested. To make matters worse Jones gives up a stupid yellow card 35 yards out and will miss the next game. Griffiths wasted the resultant free kick, which at this point counts as a small mercy for the US.
Jones tries to switch the play to make the most of his remaining contribution to this part of the campaign. From the switch the ball is lotted through to Gomez, who again has a poor final touch and the ball reaches James. Gomez off his game tonight.
Patrick Sheehan tweets:
"@KidWeil Anyone else yearning for the three d-mid system right about now? #GallowsHumor"
US being kept around 40 yards from the Antigua goal and seeing most of the balls they try to play through the defense repelled easily.
Alan Gordon being warmed up - his particular brand of directness would be welcome here.
Elliott, fresh from his Guardian debut (see preamble) writes in about my half time pizza:
Lots of American fans are eating tacos, drinking tequila, and swearing at the nice big screens at Cuatros in Austin, Texas right now. = Equally Authentic
20 minutes to go. We're being told that a "draw is not the worst case scenario, but it's the neighbor."
Never mind a draw, Thomas picks the ball up on the edge of the box, turns like Dalglish and fires a shot juuuuuussst wide of Howard's left post. Antigua looking very happy with events right now. No wonder. Antigua 1 USA 1
Gomez lofts a ball from the edge of the box that Demspey gets up to, but can't direct his header on target. Last throws of the dice for the US. Gordon on for Gomez. Somewhere in Holland Jozy Altidore just kicked his TV screen in.
A little pinball on the edge of the box sees the ball break to Bradley who only has a quick instant to try and snap a shot off, but it's charged down and now the US can break again.
I can reveal that one of my viewing companions is a member of the Lalas family, and he is baying for the introduction of another San Jose striker. Not Wondolowski by the way. Steven Lenhart. Lenny. You heard correct. Lenhart is not actually in the squad, but nobody in the squad looks like making a difference at the moment anyway. Zusi comes off for Kljestan. quiet night for the Kansas City man.
So we've reached the ten minutes to go mark, and it's still 1-1. The latest attempt to change that comes from Antigua, who spring forward at pace again on the counter, only for the final shot to squirm wide from Blackstock. No subs for Antigua. USA have used all theirs.
Sideways, sideways, sideways, then finally Kljestan seizes the iinitiative to send a dipping awkward shot from distance that's on target till James parries it. But no sooner have the US made progress than a minute later Howard is diving to his left as Antigua break and crash another shot just past his post.
James has to be down sharply again to cut out a low cross, which he grabs at the second attempt. Johnson has been pushed up alongside Gordon, but there've been exactly zero crosses in the air since the San Jose man's introduction.
CHANCE! Bradley is furious as he is tackled when about to pull the trigger inside the box. He was caught hard but probably fairly by Dublin, but wants a penalty. A minute later he crashes a header goalward that James gets to with a reflex save to push off the bar and away. More direct at last from the US and now they have another corner...
...Antigua clear the ball at the first man and sprint forward on a break of their own. Blackstock races free but the final ball can't reach him and the US...plod forward again. Antigua make their first sub: Smith for Byers.
Andrew Houten (@andyhou10) tweets:
@KidWeil Praying for a USA pen because that sounds like the only way they're goona win!
Think the Bradley shout was as close as we're going to see. On the replay it looked like the defender got the ball, but also caught Bradley hard with his trailing leg.
GOAL! ANTIGUA 1 USA 2 (JOHNSON!) Gordon hits a great cross on the half volley and Johnson heads back across the keeper for his second goal to get the US out of jail in injury time!
Advantage MLS on that last goal by the way. Can the US see this one out? Who would have thought we'd be wondering about that at kick off time. Antigua have a corner...
Heart in mouth time for the US as there's a scramble in the box that ends up with Smith crumpled on the floor of the US box. No decision given. Now the US are hoofing the ball clear when they can.
Final score: Antigua 1 USA 2 Final thoughts in a minute.
Well you could hardly say that the US got what they deserved for that performance. They were nervous, labored and curiously anonymous all over the field. Antigua had a simple game plan that they executed very effectively - breaking at speed and causing the US all sorts of problems when they did so. Meanwhile the US midfield was more of a bottleneck then a hub of creativity.
Klinsmann will be thanking his stars for Eddie Johnson, who popped up twice to give the US a vital three points going into their decisive game against Guatemala. The coach's decision to pick Johnson over Altidore was a controversial one earlier this week, but right now if anyone's still complaining about it, they'll probably be drowned out by the other complaints about the overall US performance. They got the result tonight, but they need to step up their game at Livestrong park on Tuesday night.
Hope you'll join me for that game. For now, thanks for your tweets and emails - sorry I couldn't get to use them all. Good night.