Total Team Effort
A World Cup qualifying campaign is a team effort in every sense of the term. Through five matches in World Cup qualifying, U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has deployed 27 different players. In the last cycle, 43 guys earned a cap and 17 put their name on the scoresheet.
Significant contributions can often be made by the players least likely to get a headline. The latest chapter in the legacy of players rising to the occasion in World Cup qualifying is of a resurgent forward getting a second shot at being a star and a 30-year-old earning his first cap by peaking at the right time and possessing the qualities that precisely matched the moment.
Eddie Johnson might have scored the most important goals of his career on Friday night, powering home two headers to deliver a vital 2-1 win for the United States against Antigua & Barbuda. Having last appeared for the MNT in 2010 and last scored two years before that, Johnson seemed an unlikely candidate to be the hero. He was aided by Alan Gordon, a striker who has quietly put together the two best years of his professional career and personified a “carpe diem” moment by teeing up the game-winner in his first-ever appearance for the National Team.
This pair is just one example from the history books. Steve Ralston scored only four goals in 36 games for the National Team, so he didn’t figure to have a huge part in the annals of U.S. scoring lore. Yet his rebound goal off a free kick from Eddie Lewis in the 53rd minute against Mexico proved to be the one that sealed the USA’s ticket to the 2006 FIFA World Cup after the United States collected another 2-0 victory against their regional rivals.
Fast forward to 2009, when the U.S. traveled to Honduras for the ninth of 10 matches in the final round of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Anything less than a victory would have meant the USA’s fate would have come down to the last game, and it was facing a Honduran team that had yet to lose at home during the entire cycle. In a move questioned by many media and fans, U.S. head coach Bob Bradley deployed Conor Casey at forward. While featuring in several matches that year, the Colorado Rapids striker hadn’t scored a single goal in 15 matches at the international level. A bold challenge on a header and a nifty touch silenced the heavily-partisan crowd in San Pedro Sula as Casey potted the USA’s first two goals, and the team went on to capture a 3-2 victory and a spot in South Africa.
Just when you thought the drama couldn’t get any higher, the U.S. found itself down 2-1 at home against Costa Rica and needing a draw to finish first in the group. With the seconds ticking away in the fifth minute of second-half stoppage time, defender Jonathan Bornstein took the unprecedented step of charging into the penalty area for a U.S. corner kick. Unexpected and unmarked, he made a near-post run and nodded home a header that set off wild celebrations on a truly emotional night in Washington, D.C.
World Cup qualifying is indeed a journey, and it’s never just the 23 players on any given roster. For sure there are key players who are a part of every match, but it’s not always the big boys who make the biggest impact. Sometimes it’s the right player, in the right time and in the right moment that seizes the chance and delivers exactly what the team needs. And just as often as not, those are the moments that make history.