TAMPA, FLORIDA – It wasn't pretty, and it wasn't a game many US national team players will want to remember. Any feelings of disappointment over a lackluster showing in Friday's World Cup Qualifying opener against Antigua & Barbuda were buoyed by the fact the United States started off qualifying with a win .
Normally a 3-1 victory would be seen as a good night, but facing a major underdog and showing flaws in the attack and defense made the result feel about as bad as a win could feel. "We know, obviously, after an evening like this that we have to step it up a lot going into Guatemala, which we will do," said US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. "There were enough chances to score more goals obviously, but then you have to be clinical enough to put those away."
The ugly performance wasn't just about finishing chances: it was also about a team that still hasn't sorted out what the best possible lineup or formation. Klinsmann scheduled the previous three friendlies in order to figure those things out. Yet, his team stood on Friday night, looking very far from being the finished product.
The US attack showed more liveliness after last Sunday's drab scoreless draw against Canada, but a failure to take shots, and an inability to consistently break through a bunkered-in Antigua & Barbuda side.
"The Canada game had a striking resemblance to this game," said US striker Herculez Gomez, one of the few bright spots for the USA on Friday night. "Put ten guys behind the ball to make it difficult on us, and the conditions didn't help us at all. I think it worked in their favor.
"That's the way it's going to be in CONCACAF, that's the way it's going to be in qualifiers," Gomez said. "We definitely have to pick our heads up and learn from this."
The wasted chances and lack of offensive efficiency diverted attention away from a defense that is far from a settled unit. Injuries to Fabian Johnson and Edgar Castillo forced Klinsmann to start midfielder Jose Torres at left back. Torres did well at the new position, in part because Antigua & Barbuda didn't offer much of a threat on the right flank. Nonetheless, Torres' night was ended early by an ankle injury that will now likely rule him out of Tuesday's qualifier against Guatemala.
Torres' injury led to Carlos Bocanegra making a move to left back, which then led to Oguchi Onyewu coming into central defense, where he was promptly torched by Antigua & Barbuda's Pete Byers for a goal.
Now Klinsmann is stuck with a worrying quandary. If Johnson isn't able to start against Guatemala, and Bocanegra is forced to start at left back, then Klinsmann will be forced to decide between Onyewu, who has been awful in his past two appearances, and Geoff Cameron, who lacks big-game national team experience.
Klinsmann tried to write off Onyewu's bad night to one mistake. However, Onyewu has looked like a major liability in recent appearances, raising questions about whether he is truly fully recovered from the knee surgery that forced him to miss a chunk of the second half of the Portuguese League season.
If Fabian Johnson can't start at Guatemala, Klinsmann will have no choice but to give Cameron a chance to prove himself in a tough road qualifier; not only because of Onyewu's shakiness, but of the national team's need of younger defenders to step up and gain experience.
Friday's victory won't give the US team much momentum heading into Guatemala. A team with as many veterans as the United States shouldn't need momentum. The Americans could wind up fielding as many as seven starters on Tuesday who started against Guatemala when these teams met in World Cup qualifying four years ago.
The feeling among the US team was almost unanimous that Friday night wasn't good enough. On Tuesday, in what should be a sold-out and frenzied stadium in Guatemala City, an opponent will be waiting that will be much better equipped to punish the Americans if they don't play well.
If the US national team is going to win in Guatemala City the way it did four years ago, they will need to improve their performance and approach.
"We still have to move the ball quickly and we still have to take our chances when they come," said US midfielder Clint Dempsey. "We're still a work in progress. We're still trying to figure out what our best formation is. What our best 11 is. We've got the games coming up to prove it.
"We've got to win away from home if we're going to qualify for the World Cup and that starts with the next game."