Eddie Johnson sprinted to CenturyLink Field’s south end zone and subtly beckoned the frenzied crowd to raise its decibel level, casting a dramatic glance he’s offered routinely in his two seasons with the Seattle Sounders. The striker scored in the 53rd minute, taking a precision pass from midfielder Geoff Cameron, and the U.S. Men’s National Team was on its way to a convincing 2-0 win over Panama in a World Cup qualifier Tuesday night.
To score on the home pitch was big.
“To play in front of the fans I play in front of week in and week out — I couldn’t have asked for a better feeling after the goal tonight,” he said. “I’ve been telling the guys all week, ‘Wait ’til you see what the fans are like.'”
The crowd of 40,857 — seventh-largest in U.S. qualifier history — writhed and chanted throughout the evening as they implored the U.S. team to continue its improving play. The Americans appear on their way to gaining one of the three berths from the CONCACAF region that will be part of the 32-team World Cup field in Rio.
The score was his 11th in international play, moving him past Brian McBride for second all-time in USMNT history. It also pushed him closer to making a trip to the 2014 FIFA World Cup with Jurgen Klinsmann’s surging club (3-1-1), even if the head coach wouldn’t pronounce him a starter just yet.
“He’s done tremendous and serves as a huge complement,” Klinsmann said after the Americans moved into first place with 10 points in their qualifying pool. “I’m constantly talking with (Sounders coach) Sigi (Schmid) to see how he is doing. We have a feeling we can follow him and help him.”
If he continues his torrid offense, Johnson won’t need more assistance.
He has three in his last seven Cup qualifiers after starting in place of midfielder Graham Zusi, who sat out thanks to a yellow-card suspension.
“We always try to have someone behind (a player) who is as good as a starter,” Klinsmann said.
As encouraging was Jozy Altidore’s goal in the 36th minute. The striker cleanly fielded a left-to-right cross from midfielder Fabian Johnson and placed it into the back of the net, his third in as many matches. It put further behind him the 12-match scoreless streak which, prior to a goal two weeks ago against Germany, dated to Sept. 5, 2009.
“I think he knows he has our full support,” Klinsmann said. “Often I think we forget about how young he still is. We have to allow him a bad game but you also have to kick him in his backside when you think he needs it.”
The absence of a dominant striker has kept the U.S. from making a deep run in the past two World Cups. Altidore, at his best, could fill the void, given his aggressive style.
“He’s learning to use his body well,” said Klinsmann. “He’s such a physical presence and sometimes he doesn’t use it.”
He did in the first half, sealing a Panama defender inside the box. After receiving a pass, he turned and dribbled to the goal but was taken down from behind with a slide tackle. No penalty was called. TV cameras captured Klinnsman slapping the bench and berating the official.
The moment was the only frustration he showed all night. USMNT dominated possession and pressured a historically tight Panama defense with 12 shots on goal. The defense was clean too, helped along by another Sounder, Brad Evans, who did well again in his second start at right back.
— Brad Evans (@brad_evans3) June 12, 2013
The temporary grass sod laid over the Clink’s turf didn’t seem to be a large issue. A heavy morning downpour softened the sand-based surface and made for a smoother, faster roll.
“The field was totally fine, and the players were fine with it,” Klinsmann said. “They watered here, they watered there. They rolled it again this morning. I give them every compliment.”
He heaped similar praise on his own club as they surpassed Costa Rica and Mexico with 10 points in the hexagonal qualifier.
“Every area on the field the guys did their job. They executed 100 percent.”