Over the weekend, the American fanbase went through one of its periodic collective meltdowns over the national team's failure to make a satisfying enough "squish" sound when stepping on a minnow. But, as both Antigua and Barbuda have been trying to tell us all summer, they're not just a bunch of sand dollars. Longtime US national team fans will recall the early qualifying round for the 2014 World Cup, when the United States beat Antigua and Barbuda by a mere two goals. That disappointment panicked the fanbase, too, but fortunately Jurgen Klinsmann took steps to see that a mere two-goal victory would not be repeated. The Kansas City triumph has fortunately made this a dead issue, but the Antigua game is still instructive. Want to know why we didn't win by more? It was raining, and the field at Sir Vyvyan Basterd* Stadium makes Spartan Stadium look vast in comparison. Scene.
(The one in San Jose, not East Lansing. Although I don't know off the top of my head if Michigan State can host World Cup qualifiers, either.)
It really is that simple. Crappy fields make great equalizers, which is a small part of why so little of Jack Warner's CONCACAF largesse to the Caribbean has made it onto fields. (A very small part of why.) Except I don't even see how Sir Vivian Stanshall Stadium** would even make a good cricket ground, let alone a soccer field. I suppose I'm probably being misled by how every BeIN highlight makes the Zapruder film look like Lord of the Rings in IMAX.
The other legacy of the Antigua game will be the establishment of Eddie Johnson and Alan Gordon in the player pool for the foreseeable future. One of the things I had forgotten when scoffing at the Eddie recall was that he's only 28 - he's entering his theoretical prime right now. Club and country form are strongly in favor of Sounders partisans being right, and haters like myself being wrong. Do I have any right to sit here and say "It was only Antigua" or "I've seen Eddie Johnson run a highlight reel on some no-names for the US before, so I'm gonna be twice cautious"? Of course not. I would never dream of saying EJ's great for mopping up CONCACAF bottom-feeders, but he's a big pair of empty shorts once you get to the Hex.
I think I can explain the Alan Gordon callup - 6'3", 190. That's two inches taller than, to pick a couple of names, Conor Casey and Brian Ching. To be less charitable, he's in the mold of a typical CONCACAF-beater, designed to dominate in the air. Except he's older than, to pick another name, Kenny Cooper. Hell, he's older than Landon Donovan. Gordon might be a good pick for road games against short defenders where we need a goal and will just launch Patriots into the penalty area and hope for the best. Maybe the two inches of height Gordon has on Jozy Altidore would prove crucial in that situation.
Would I prefer to see someone younger, if a little shorter, take those minutes in that situation? Yeah, of course. For the time being, I think we have to assume that (a) man, there's something between Jozy and Jurgen that's going to need some time to cool down, (b) if Klinsmann is willing to give Eddie Johnson a chance based on Seattle form, then Altidore will get his shot based on Alkmaar form, and/or (c) Jozy's only 22. Assuming he doesn't go completely Szetela on us, he'll be around for a while - no need to panic.
Well, that was more time than I wanted to spend on the Antigua game, and probably more time than it was worth - let's talk about that wonderful game at EVILstrong.
What were YOU thinking about, oh, ten minutes in? Me, I was writing a very different blog post in my head, I can tell you that. I had some models in mind:
Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre have failed to gain a foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.
Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.
Someday, of course, the United States will fail to qualify for the World Cup, bringing to a close the era that Paul Caligiuri inaugurated back in 1989, when the Shot Heard Round the World brought down the Berlin Wall. That day might potentially be some time next year, if we're terribly unlucky or incompetent. It might be another twenty years or more. But I hope that Sunil Gulati, Dan Flynn, or whoever is in charge has a backup plan prepared for when the US channels the spirit of Custer instead of Eisenhower. Because between you and me, I don't think we were ready for disaster yesterday.
After that little heart attack, though, the US played beautifully. The only thing better than watching must have been attending, and I'm envious of those who did. There's not much more fun an American soccer fan can have than a big-time performance by the team in front of a fired-up crowd. Kansas City, Kansas - the town so nice, they named it one and a half times - seems to have taken the role of heir apparent for Columbus Crew Stadium, if and when Mexico ever wins in Ohio. (Crew Stadium deserves it at least until then. Respect the streak.) And whoever brought the Dempseyhead should get a couple of Hall of Fame votes.
Wonderful as it was to see the sharp passing and incisive runs, it was even better knowing that the US didn't have to. Both Guatemala and the United States could have proceeded to the Hexagonal with a draw, including a gutless draw. To both sides' enormous credit, they came to fight. We're used to thinking of CONCACAF as a swirling cesspool, so an actual game instead of a compromise was a relief as well as a joy.
Which is why I had a laugh a lot at the fourth official berating the Guatemala bench for changing a substitution immediately, and not coincidentally, after Jamaica scored against Antigua. Yes, they were altering their strategy based on the result of the other game. Trying to enforce it was as pointless as it was adorable, but the fact that it needed enforcing was very heartening. By cheating, Guatemala proved their honesty, so to speak - if they had been playing for an arranged draw, why keep tabs on Kingston? For Guatemala, all is lost save honor.
Should I be worried that Klinsmann was jumping up and down like a complete zagnut while accomplishing a win at home over Guatemala, something no other...wait, every other American coach had done before? Okay, so he's not Bud Grant. Okay, so his rosters seem nutty. This is the national team that wins in Genoa and Mexico City and loses in Jamaica, and the Hex is going to be a Taser gauntlet no matter who's in charge. A worrisome early round of qualifying has come to a fantastic end, so I will try to enjoy it. Maybe Mexico won't beat the hell out of us after all?
*It broke my heart - and I mean broke, man - that I couldn't make this a reference to the late and terribly lamented Vivian Stanshall (Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band), but I couldn't figure out a way without making it seem like I simply transposed famous male Vivians.
**Decided to go for it anyway. Did it work? It probably didn't. I should show Vivian Richards more respect - he was a fantastic cricketer.