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USA understudies fail to make case

World Cup Qualifier: United States claim top spot with 2-0 win over Jamaica.
World Cup Qualifier: United States claim top spot with 2-0 win over Jamaica.
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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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Review the best images from USA's victory over Jamaica at Sporting Park.

If the point of the United States men’s national team World Cup qualifier against Jamaica was ultimately to retain the winning momentum towards next summer’s bonanza in Brazil, with the Americans having already secured their berth there, it was just as well that they achieved it with their 2-0 win in Kansas City on Friday. Because they had little else to show for a game that was equally an opportunity to build depth, tinker with an alternative formation and find a familiarity and rhythm.

If the result was ultimately respectable, courtesy of two late goals by Graham Zusi and Jozy Altidore, the performance was nevertheless a far cry from the United States’ larger body of work during qualifying in terms of both the creation of chances and entertainment.

Other than a ball that US defender Brad Evans nearly bundled over his own line before clearing it early and a very late Theo Robinson look, Jamaica forged no real chances. The US, meanwhile, produced a mere handful of only somewhat promising looks, mostly emanating from full debutant Aron Johannsson, before a late offensive burst put the game away. No serious threats to breach Jamaica’s goal materialized until Zusi found Alejandro Bedoya up the right in the 77th minute. His low cross was deflected back into Zusi’s path for the hometown hero to slip past goalkeeper Duwayne Kerr. Some four minutes later, a Jamaican clearance rolled right into the feet of the streaking substitute left back Edgar Castillo, who calmly picked out the wide-open Altidore in front of goal, who doubled the score.

That was really all the good news for the Americans on the night though. Bereft of several regulars like wide player Fabian Johnson, central defender Omar Gonzalez and forward Eddie Johnson, not to mention orchestrators Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann had hoped that the drop-off to their replacements would be small. He’d been hammering home the importance of depth and competition for positions for his two years and change in charge, after all.

RED, WHITE AND BLUE

USA supporters steal the show in win over Jamaica in Kansas City.

But Mix Diskerud wasn’t able to replicate Bradley’s distribution, nor could he establish much of a partnership with Jermaine Jones in central midfield. Ahead of them, Johannsson didn’t mesh with a mostly underwhelming Altidore either. With little traffic flowing through Landon Donovan or Bedoya on the wings, the attack lacked the necessary sting to push through an athletic Jamaican side and forge the requisite chances.

They probably weren’t helped any by the flat 4-4-2 formation Klinsmann reintroduced after shelving it quite some time ago. And the high playmaker -- typically Dempsey -- in the customary 4-5-1 lineup was much missed. The backs hadn’t the room to overlap with the wingers ahead of them staying wider, rather than coming underneath to support the lone striker. It was, simply put, a failure.

After initially being pinned back by the Reggae Boyz, whose speed far exceeded their skill, the Americans found room to play higher upfield. But they had little use for that freedom. The defense wasn’t entirely coherent and failed to feed the midfield much. The lines were set up too far apart and lacked cohesion or connection with one another. Sloppy on the ball, the attack lacked punch. The Americans mostly looked insipid and uninspired, leaving no real positive imprint on anybody’s memory. A game that was slow and static and stale, that was the impression that will linger in the mind.

From the looks of it, the intensity Klinsmann had hoped to retain has long since faded. The urgency simply wasn’t there. As it turns out, there is no replicating the pressure to qualify for the World Cup artificially, once it’s been secured.

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Little was learned with an eye towards next summer. No understudy made a real case for a more prominent role at the World Cup. And for many of those players, that was an opportunity missed.  It also implies that the Americans, like many countries, are overly reliant on their core players and could find themselves in deep trouble if any of them suffer an injury or drop-off in form at an inopportune time next summer.

Still, the reserves will get another crack at making an impression away to Panama on Tuesday in the final qualifier. But thereafter, no more than three friendlies remain to upset the status quo.

And that was perhaps the real shame in Friday’s events -- nothing was lost, nothing was gained. It might as well never have happened.

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