Photo by John Dorton/ISIPhotos.com
By JASON MITCHELL
SEATTLE – Jozy Altidore has spent much of the last year answering any and all questions about his club career. It would seem he is now answering them for his national team.
Altidore’s third goal in as many matches provided the the U.S. Men’s National team with all the scoring it would need on the way to a 2-0 victory in front of 40,847 at CenturyLink Field on Tuesday.
After a slow start that saw Panama attack early, the Americans eventually settled down and controlled the match, with Michael Bradley taking charge in midfield.
It was one of Bradley’s many surging runs forward that sparked the opening U.S. goal, as he found Fabian Johnson on the left flank late in the first half, allowing Johnson to deliver a perfect ball to the back post where Altidore finished perfectly.
The Americans continued to dominate and found an insurance goal barely 10 minutes after the half when Geoff Cameron sprang Eddie Johnson with a perfectly-weighted long pass on the right flank. Johnson brought the ball down with a deft touch and delivered a left-footed finish in front of his hometown Seattle fans to secure the 2-0 victory.
“I think throughout the entire game we were in control of it,” said head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “Every area of the field, guys did their jobs.”
Klinsmann went on to characterize the match as “a complete performance.”
With Mexico and Costa Rica playing to a 0-0 draw earlier in the evening, the United States now sits alone atop the Hexagonal round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, with three of its remaining five matches on U.S. soil and a game-in-hand on Mexico.
The U.S. hosts Honduras on Tuesday night at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. Honduras topped the USMNT 2-1 in Februaury to open the Hexagonal round.
Panama, missing leading scorer Blas Perez to gastroenteritis, opened the match more aggressively than many expected. But while the Panamanians looked dangerous for much of the half—particularly down the left side—that same aggression gave the U.S. wide swaths of space to work the middle of the pitch.
After half-an-hour, that vulnerability cost the visitors.
In the 36th minute, Bradley—characteristically ferocious in defense and dangerous in distribution throughout the night—charged down the center of the pitch and fed Johnson as he raced into the left side of the penalty area.
“I was able to turn and there was some space and at that point you’re trying to drive forward, and to see as you move forward in the attack what the options are,” Bradley said. “Give big credit to Fabian. He joined in, in a strong way, and the ball he gave to Jozy was perfect.”
Johnson, putting in a solid night of work after a much maligned performance against Jamaica on Friday, deftly one-touched a far-post cross to Altidore, who likewise needed only a touch to beat goalkeeper Jaime Penedo.
The goal was perhaps some form of justice for Altidore, who seemed to have been clearly taken down in the penalty area only minutes earlier.
After the match, both Altidore’s teammates and his coach noted his increased tenacity of late.
“What we demand from him is that when you struggle, [you] fight your way back into the game and do your job for the team,” said Klinsmann, “and how he’s doing that the last couple of games is absolutely outstanding.”
“He’s done extremely well from that Germany game on,” added starting right back Brad Evans. “He’s been just an absolute beast up front for 90 minutes, putting in the work. It’s really impressive to see. I’m happy for him, really showing his ability. He’s still so young, but his talent is just endless, man. He’s an extremely good player.”
It was the national team’s first World Cup Qualifier in Seattle since 1976. Despite missing Graham Zusi to yellow-card accumulation and Jermaine Jones to a concussion, the U.S. would give the crowd more to celebrate, this time with a decidedly home-cooked flavor courtesy of Eddie Johnson.
In the 54th minute, Cameron released Johnson with a beautifully lobbed ball from deep in the midfield as the Seattle Sounder powered behind Panama’s back line. Johnson collected the pass with his right foot and easily beat a charging Penedo with a left-footed shot for the insurance goal.
“I saw that Geoff had time on the ball, and it was on his strong foot,” said Johnson. “I knew if it was on his strong foot, and if it was off his foot…I could make a run in behind.”
“I like my chances running without the ball,” he added with a grin.
The two-goal deficit seemed to take all the air out of the “Canaleros,” as they failed to seriously threaten over the remaining half-hour until forcing Tim Howard into a stoppage-time save.
“That’s why you have Tim Howard,” said Omar Gonzalez.
The U.S. now sits on 10 points from five HEX qualifiers, two points ahead of Costa Rica and Mexico. Honduras sits in fourth place with seven points while Panama has six. Jamaica has been all but eliminated with just two points from six matches.
“We are very pleased, but we still have another one to go,” said Klinsmann.
With the shutout, the U.S. has given up just a single goal in its last four World Cup qualifying matches, topping Costa Rica 1-0, drawing 0-0 with Mexico, and besting Jamaica 2-1 before Tuesday’s victory.
After the match, much of the credit went to the growing chemistry developing between the young center back tandem of Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler.
“I think Matt and Omar are both learning on the job really quickly,” said Bradley, “and they’re picking things up. And they’re understanding what this is all about. What it takes to win at this level.”
“They fine-tune things,” said Klinsmann. “More playing time means better understanding develops.”
Asked what he thought of the night’s events in Seattle and Mexico City, Bradley didn’t mince words.
“I think it’s a big night for us,” he said with a smile.