FOX Soccer Exclusive
USA win amid an emotional backdrop
The national anthem was painstakingly rehearsed ahead of the U.S.’s deserved 1-0 win over Jamaica on Tuesday. The flags lowered to precisely half-mast. An oversized stars and stripes that would envelop two whole sections of the stands carefully folded, taking care not to let it touch the ground. Out in the parking lot, the American Outlaws fan group slipped into all the red, white and blue they could find. As the fans streamed into the stadium, they were handed tiny American flags.
The game was a few hours away, but this would be no mere U.S. national team soccer game. Not on the 11th anniversary of 9/11. Preparations had to be made. The U.S. simply couldn’t lose. Because of the innate significance of the day, and because a loss would have put the Americans’ World Cup Qualifying campaign in serious peril of failing for the first time since 1990. Had Jamaica won, the U.S. would have been stuck on four points while Jamaica had run out to 10 and Guatemala seven with just two games remaining, potentially missing out on one of two slots in the final round of qualifying.
The night before the game, a surviving 9/11 firefighter had spoken to the team for an hour. About sacrifice. About brotherhood. About running into burning buildings and clearing every last room.
“Everyone was aware of it,” head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said after the game. “Everyone knew this was a very, very special day.”
The Outlaws filed in early, starting their singing a full hour before kickoff. Former U.S. and Columbus Crew right back Frankie Hejduk climbed onto the electronic boarding surrounding the field and led the crowd in U-S-A chants after the U.S. finished warming up, whipping an already thunderous crowd into a whirl of noise and flags.
Almost 24,000 people sang their national anthem from the bottom of their lungs, eardrums be damned. A huddle assembled and broke. There was a minute of silence, a sea of people turning haltingly quiet, and then an anonymous voice in the middle of the pack cried out his enduring love for his country.
A U.S. team that had seemed lost found itself, energized by its adoring crowd. From the ninth through the 11th minute of the game, the little American flags waved in unison.
“They got behind us and showed their patriotism and it was one of the best atmospheres I’ve experienced with the national team,” said forward Clint Dempsey.
“They didn’t sit down,” added goalkeeper Tim Howard. “There were a thousand flags waving, it was really awesome tonight.”
Where they stand
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It defied belief that the same team that had turned in such an unsightly and slothful performance in Kingston last Friday – losing 2-1 to Jamaica and giving Tuesday night’s game real consequence – was the same as the graceful and dominant collective we saw on Tuesday. A stodgy team utterly liquefied, against the same opponent, just four days later. Night and day.
An inexhaustible U.S. team hogged the ball during the first half, spreading it wide and moving it deftly, out-passing their opponents by a factor of almost seven to one. And when it lost the ball, the U.S. quickly reclaimed it from a Jamaican side that clearly had no ambitions greater than grinding out a scoreless tie. Chances were bought in bulk, but the woodwork would not reward the Americans for their total dominance, denying three would-be goals in the first half alone.
Jamaica kept its nets clean into half-time, a disappointing outcome for a masterful American display. But in the second half, an increasingly physical opponent coughed up a free kick from 28 or so yards in the 55th minute. Herculez Gomez spun the ensuing kick into the net behind the excellent Dwayne Miller.
With the yearned-for lead finally achieved, the U.S. conserved its remaining energy to stymie Jamaica’s attempts to catch the U.S. out with its speed. If it didn’t look as pleasing as the first half, it was nevertheless effective game management. Except for a swerving shot from the wing from Rodolph Austin from a good 35 yards out in the 80th minute that Howard pushed wide, the U.S. gave up no chances.
A sea of little flags celebrated the final whistle. Central midfielder Jermaine Jones fell to earth exhausted. The Americans took their lap of honor. The flags waved on.
Doubt in Klinsmann’s abilities brought on by Friday’s debacle was somewhat assuaged, even if the squad remains maddeningly inconsistent. Klinsmann’s blueprint for a fluid, up-tempo team might be realistic after all. And if it isn’t, the team is safe in the knowledge that when it backs itself into a corner, its home crowd will forever bail it out.
Following Guatemala’s win over Antigua and Barbuda, three teams are now even in the group with seven points apiece. But if the U.S. beats Antigua and Barbuda away on Oct. 12 and Guatemala at home on Oct. 16, nothing else can go wrong.
“We’re back on track,” said Klinsmann.
The U.S. has seized its own destiny anew.
Amy Lawrence is a contributing writer for FOXSoccer.com who has been writing about the game since USA `94, covering the Premier League, Champions League, European leagues and international soccer.
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