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Analysis

Altidore, E. Johnson lead U.S. past Panama, to first in qualifying group.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

(Wednesday, June 12, 2013) -- Behind clinical finishes from striker Jozy Altidore and midfielder Eddie Johnson, the United States men recorded a dominant 2-0 victory over visiting Panama, vaulting to the top of the CONCACAF World Cup Final Qualifying Round standings at the halfway point of the final, 10-match hexagonal.

Before a capacity 40,847 last night at Seattle’s Century Link Field, Altidore scored in the 36th minute and Johnson found net in the 53rd minute to give the U.S. a 3-1-1 record and 10 points, in solid position to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

“We were very pleased with our performance,” Klinsmann said. “I think throughout the entire game we were in control of it. Every area on the field, the guys did their job. We prepared them for doing certain things and they executed it 100 percent.”

The top three finishers in the final round robin earn berths in the World Cup. The fourth-place nation face New Zealand, the Oceania champion, in a two-match series for the right to play in Brazil.

In other matches last night, Costa Rica traveled to Mexico for a 0-0 draw and Honduras blanked visiting Jamaica 2-0. Costa Rica (2-1-2) is second with eight points, while Mexico (0-1-5) also has eight points, but has played an extra game. Honduras (2-2-1) is fourth with seven points, followed by Panama (1-1-3) with six points and Jamaica (0-4-2) with two points.

U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann made two lineup changes from the team that defeated host Jamaica 2-1 Friday in Kingston. He inserted Geoff Cameron in the defensive midfield in place of Jermaine Jones, who was sidelined by a concussion suffered Friday, and Johnson on the right side of midfield in place of Graham Zusi, who served a yellow-cards suspension. Both logged strong efforts.

While this was the Americans’ most dominant win so far in the final round, it was a match played primarily in the midfield. Panama was held to just two shots on goal with the midfield pairing of Cameron and Michael Bradley breaking up most of its forays well before they got to the defense. The U.S. back-line remained well-organized all night, in part because it was not put under much pressure.

Throughout the first half and well into the second, Panama was in a defensive shell, managing to get nine and sometimes 10 men behind the ball whenever the Americans brought it over the center-line. It pushed forward a bit after the first U.S. goal and a little more in the final half hour, but not with much effect.

The Americans also had trouble breaking Panama down with but three shots on goal, two of them scoring. Only three corner kicks were awarded over 90 minutes, two for the U.S., the least for a game in the final round.

The U.S. went ahead 1-0 as a result of beautiful, one-touch passing. Following a Cameron take-away, Bradley carried the ball on a long run down the middle and he led midfielder Fabian Johnson with a ball into the left side of the penalty area. Johnson sent an immediate pass to the right post where it was met by Altidore for nice one-touch, right-foot execution into the near side for his third international goal in the last three matches, a first time feat for him.

Only moments earlier, Altidore made a deft move into the box and in prime position to score when he was clearly knocked over by Panama defender Roman Torres, but no penalty kick was given.

Altidore “is such a physical presence and sometimes he doesn’t use it,” Klinsmann said. “I think he is just now starting to use it, to shield the ball and to do a lot of work for us. It’s really nice to see that coming along.”

The second U.S. goal came after Cameron sent a long pass from the back over the top for Eddie Johnson, who expertly held the offside line and then had a breakaway. He carried into the right side of the box and finished perfectly into the far corner of the net under advancing Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo.

“It’s a dream come true,” said Johnson, a member of Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders. “To play in the U.S. jersey, first of all, is an honor, but to play in front of my fans that I play in front of week in and week out, I couldn’t have asked for a better feeling after the goal tonight”

The U.S. nearly conceded a goal in the closing moments when central defender Omar Gonzalez was caught ball watching and Panama reserve striker Rolando Blackburn ran by him to receive a pass in the right side of the box. U.S. keeper Tim Howard slid out to stuff Blackburn’s one-on-one attempt. Conceding a goal there would not have cost the Americans the game, but could have become a factor should goal differential ever come into play as a tiebreaker.

The U.S. defense is “trying to slowly, but surely, each game, be a little bit better,” Howard said. “We’re trying our best. It’s not going to always be pretty, but we’re striving for perfection.”

Overall, the U.S. game had a much better flow than in the previous qualifiers. Then again, the Americans did not face much pressure. In addition to the three shots on goal, left back DaMarcus Beasley sent a close-in shot off the left post after a long run, but the Americans need to get more shots on net.

Next Tuesday, the U.S. hosts Honduras at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah at 9 p.m. (ET), a gane televised on ESPN and Spanish-language UniMas. Jones is expected to play, but Beasley received his second yellow card tonight last night and will be suspended.

Moreover, Altidore, Cameron and Tim Howard were cautioned against Panama, joining six others already carrying yellows -- defenders Matt Besler and Brad Evans, and midfielders Bradley, Brad Davis, Clint Dempsey, and Fabian Johnson -- and would be suspended for one match should they receive a yellow card against Honduras.



U.S. Player Ratings

Starters

Goalkeeper Tim Howard - 6: Not much to do until stoppage time, when he made his one difficult save of the night, a really good one.

Defender DaMarcus Beasley - 5.5: His pace makes him a potential offensive weapon out of the back, but his one-on-one defending still needs quite a bit of work. He was beaten again tonight, but without any damage. He will lose his place when Timmy Chandler returns from injury.

Defender Matt Besler - 6: Right now, he looks to be the stronger of the duo in the center of the U.S. defense. He has pace and is rarely caught out of position. Again, he had some problem with balls in the air, but was never really pressured.

Defender Omar Gonzalez - 5: He still tends to get caught out of position from time to time and relies on Besler or the midfielders to be there. That’s fine on nights like tonight, but down the road made become a problem. He didn’t react to Blackburn’s run in injury time, an error that would have cost a goal, but he was saved by Howard.

Defender Brad Evans - 5: He really isn’t a defender and plays the position like a midfielder with defensive responsibilities. He had trouble getting back after pushing forward and had trouble with the pace of Panama midfielder Alberto Quintero.

Midfielder Geoff Cameron - 7.5: He was only a fill-in tonight, but had a terrific match. Defended well and went forward well, and made the terrific long pass to Eddie Johnson for the second goal. He shows he can fill in on the back line or as a midfielder. This should cement his spot on the roster all the way to Brazil.

Midfielder Fabian Johnson - 6: He is just returning to match fitness and was able to go almost the entire way. He had a solid match with a lot of good defensive work and some contribution to the attack.

Midfielder Michael Bradley - 7: He is settling into his role of running the midfield. He had some strong moments, such as on the first U.S. goal.

Midfielder Eddie Johnson - 6.5: He had a beautifully place goal and should get high marks for that. Beyond that, he had just a so-so outing. He did not see the ball all that often and could have done more to get into the offense.

Forward Clint Dempsey - 5: He is still a marked man and struggled, holding off two and sometimes three Panamanians. Intended or not, he served as something of a decoy, pulling defenders away from Altidore and Eddie Johnson. He is longing for the day when Landon Donovan returns and defenses will have to play him straight up.

Forward Jozy Altidore - 7: He is expending a lot of effort in these matches and his goal was the result of that effort. His job is to score and he’s on a hot streak. He is also holding the ball better and helping others.

Reserves

Midfielder Joe Corona (87th minute for Eddie Johnson) - 5: Nothing bad happened to him, which under the circumstances was good enough.

Midfielder Brad Davis (87th minute for Fabian Johnson) - 4: In to kill off the match, he never got up to speed.

Midfielder Stuart Holden (91st minute for Altidore) - no rating: First U.S. appearance since 2009. A feel-good moment.

SoccerTimes U.S. Player of the Match: Geoff Cameron


Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.

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