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USA ends successful qualifying run

FOX Soccer's Leander Schaerlaeckens recaps USA's victory over Panama.
FOX Soccer's Leander Schaerlaeckens recaps USA's victory over Panama.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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TRAVEL PLANS

Fans and players can now rejoice. USA books World Cup ticket after a long, arduous journey.

The road began in San Pedro Sula eight months ago, with the dire opening loss to Honduras. From there, it wound slowly through Denver, where the United States men’s national team won three points in the snow storm over Costa Rica. In Mexico City, it ground out a point at the Azteca. Then there were wins in Kingston against Jamaica and Seattle over Panama and Salt Lake City over Honduras. A fetid loss followed in San Jose, Costa Rica. Heartfelt was the win over Mexico in Columbus and easy the victory over Jamaica in Kansas City. And on Tuesday, at length, the weary USA concluded its meandering World Cup qualifying travels with a bizarre 3-2 win injury-time in Panama City that saved its archrivals.

When Panama’s Luis Tejada snuck in front of Kyle Beckerman in the 83rd minute to poke home the low Roberto Chen cross that US goalkeeper Brad Guzan had pushed into his path, it seemed for all the world like Panama would win 2-1. Combined with Mexico’s 2-1 loss down in Costa Rica, that would mean that Mexico would fail to qualify for the World Cup and Panama would be into the playoffs with New Zealand. Panama had never been to a World Cup; Mexico hadn’t failed to qualify (without being excluded) since 1982. Yet an injury-time Graham Zusi header and a subsequent Aron Johannsson rip overturned that result, freeing Mexico of ignominy, leaving the home team inconsolable and its crowd stunned.

It was, perhaps, the most fitting of endings to this strange and twisted World Cup qualifying campaign for the USA. Since February, there were reports of faith suspended and restored in head coach Jurgen Klinsmann as the Americans careened from crisis to recovery, to dominance, to a slip-up, to competence, and finally, to Tuesday’s, well, weirdness.

But for their part, in the end, securing a spot in their seventh consecutive World Cup was fairly straightforward for the Americans, in spite of the inherent trickiness of qualifying from the grueling hexagonal round in CONCACAF. The win over the Canaleros improved the USA’s record in the double round-robin, six-team final stage to seven wins, a tie and two losses, easily clinching their third straight hexagonal title -- if there were such a thing. The Yanks won six of their last seven games and earned their place at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil with two games to spare.

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That’s what emboldened Klinsmann to travel down to Panama with a seriously threadbare side. He was already without Michael Bradley, Fabian Johnson and Omar Gonzalez because of injuries and Clint Dempsey because of low fitness. But following Friday’s 2-0 win over Jamaica, the German coach also sent starters Landon Donovan, Jermaine Jones, Matt Besler and Tim Howard back to their clubs. So the Americans arrived at kickoff with just one probable World Cup starter in Jozy Altidore.

The wisdom thereof seemed questionable. Why not nurse that hard-won momentum? Why not run out as much of the first string as possible when it’s quite clearly in need of more seasoning if it is to become a bona fide contender for the World Cup’s knockout rounds? Why not give them another 90 minutes to work on that pacey soccer Klinsmann envisions?

Then again, utilizing the last competitive game before the World Cup to test the understudies and those on the bubble for the Brazil roster against an eager opponent -- Panama had to win to stand a chance of qualifying, while needed Mexico to lose -- had its merits, too. And if conspiracy theorists might have offered up the possibility that Klinsmann hoped to knock Mexico out of World Cup contention by handing Panama the win on a platter, that notion was quashed by the late rally.

Certainly, then, Klinsmann was vindicated in his odd roster trickery. But whether very many of the second-stringers made their case for a seat on the charter jet to Brazil any stronger is debatable. The makeshift American defense looked disjointed from the outset. That’s how, in the 18th minute, Panama’s Colorado Rapids forward Gabriel Torres could run through the line undisturbed, take Marcos Sanchez’s feed and sweep his shot past the helpless Guzan to make it 1-0. And had it not been for several faulty offside calls, a few more Panamanians would have found themselves one-on-one with the American goalkeeper after sharp passes over the top. With a tad more efficiency on its other chances, Panama could have put the USA further behind than the 1-0 score line they went into the halftime break with.

On the other side of the ball, the Americans could muster only brief spells of fluidity and possession. And save for an early Graham Zusi effort that sailed high, they forged no chances of note in the first half. They really lacked all cohesion and precision on the ball.

The game opened up in the second half, and in the 64th minute Michael Orozco managed to bull in the equalizer off a corner. As Panama chased after the go-ahead goal it needed for survival, the game opened up somewhat and the US got a chance to put together some decent attacks. But save for Altidore’s hold-up and connecting play and some of substitute Brad Davis’s crosses -- one of which fed Zusi his equalizer -- the performances going forward were forgettable.

What the point and upshot of this exercise ultimately was, then, is hard to say. It was always going to be a meaningless game -- for the US, at least. Nevertheless, it concludes another successful qualifying campaign for the Americans.

Now they set off on the final stretch to Brazil.

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