For three of the four halves it wasn't pretty, but the U.S. national team did enough to avert catastrophe, winning 1-0 against Jamaica in Columbus four days after losing 2-1 in Kingston. With two games to play in the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying, Jurgen Klinsmann's side is tied for first with both Jamaica and Guatemala in its four-team group. Barring a massive slip-up, the U.S. should advance to the Hexagonal, but despite the absences of Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan, the Yanks were less-than-impressive over the two-game stretch.
Here are three winners and three losers from the qualifying matches against the Reggae Boyz:
Geoff Cameron: Nine months ago, Cameron was part of a group of mostly-untested players called up for Jurgen Klinsmann's January camp. He had just one cap to his name. Now, only seven caps later, the 27-year-old is arguably the team's first-choice defender, even ahead of veteran stalwarts Clarence Goodson and Carlos Bocanegra. At the very least, he's an unquestioned starter. The reason? A combination of positional awareness, athleticism and intelligence, which he again displayed to dominating effect in the two matches against Jamaica.
Graham Zusi: After being drafted 23rd overall in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft, and starting just nine games in his first two seasons with Kansas City, simply becoming a MLS starter seemed a big ask for Zusi. The University of Maryland product established himself as a starter, then MLS All-Star, but many (including me) thought he might be exposed at the international level. Tuesday's game in Columbus went a long way towards dispelling that line of thinking. Playing at right midfield, Zusi effectively linked up with Steve Cherundolo, tucking in to allow the right back space to overlap. He also demonstrated a dangerous attacking streak, nearly scoring when his shot caromed off the crossbar in the early going. With Donovan and Bradley returning, Zusi isn't a starter yet, but his passing and movement earned him a spot on the U.S. roster for the foreseeable future.
Danny Williams: It almost became time to start a #FreeDannyWilliams hashtag on Twitter, such was the frustration level of fans and pundits alike that Klinsmann insisted on playing Williams out of position at right midfield during his first five appearances with the U.S. national team. Predictably, Williams struggled. In a substitute appearance in Kingston, then a start in Columbus, the 23-year-old Hoffenheim man was finally given the chance to play his natural defensive midfield role, and, lo and behold, he was actually pretty good at it. Williams covered a ton of ground, linked defense and attack, and nearly scored on a long-distance pile-driver that almost broke the far post. He seems to have moved ahead of Kyle Beckerman and Maurice Edu in the pecking order for the time being.
Maurice Edu: The Stoke City man brings some good qualities to the national team, but those are mostly cancelled out by his complete lack of passing precision and attacking ability. In Kingston, Edu was part of a midfield that was mostly overrun by the hosts, and rashly gave away the free kick that led to Jamaica's second goal. A substitute appearance in Columbus did little towards dispelling the notion that Edu is overmatched as a starter at the international level. With the emergence of Williams, Edu's path to playing time at defensive midfield now has a significant roadblock.
Jozy Altidore: Despite a red-hot start to the season with AZ in the Eredivisie, Altidore has fallen behind Herculez Gomez on the U.S. depth chart. Given the start in Kingston, Altidore was mostly invisible, though a significant portion of the blame can fall on a lack of service from his teammates in midfield. Still, it was a blow to the striker when he was benched in favor of Gomez in Columbus, in perhaps the clearest sign yet that the Santos Laguna man is currently atop the U.S. forward depth chart. Brought in as an 80th minute sub, Altidore was sluggish, losing the ball on a number of occasions and doing little to win back Klinsmann's confidence. Altidore has yet to score from open play for the national team under Klinsmann.
Jurgen Klinsmann: Give the coach credit where it's due: the U.S. turned in perhaps its best 45-minute spell in the first half in Columbus, though it didn't result in any goals. The German also did well to adjust his lineup from the first Jamaica encounter, trusting Williams in a defensive midfield role, as well as inserting ball-retainers Zusi and Jose Torres.
Aside from that, though, it wasn't pretty. In Kingston, Klinsmann was roundly criticized for starting four central midfielders who offered little width and even less attacking ability. After the U.S. scored its (fortunate) goal in Columbus, Jamaica broke out of its shell and carried the balance of play for most of the final 30 minutes. His substitutions in the win were questionable as well, especially his decision to play Clint Dempsey for 90 minutes in back-to-back games after nearly three months without a competitive match.
In the end, the U.S. did the absolute minimum it needed to do, getting three points from the two games. An ugly loss in Kingston followed by a narrow win that should've been more comfortable will do little to silence Klinsmann's growing number of critics.
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- Jurgen Klinsmann