They call the Caribbean twin islands of Antigua and Barbuda “Land of 365 Beaches.” Most visitors arrive with flip-flops, swimsuits and sunscreen in their luggage. The United States national soccer team traveled to the Lesser Antilles nation from Miami on Thursday morning with no plans for beach fun.
The Americans are there for serious business, to win a critical World Cup qualifying match Friday night over The Benna Boys, as the Antigua team is nicknamed (“Benna” is a slang for calypso music).
A sold-out home crowd of 10,000 is expected at Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, a cricket ground where the Benna Boys tied Jamaica 0-0 and lost a hard-fought match to Guatemala 1-0.
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In order to advance to next year’s six-team “Hexagonal,” the final round of the regional World Cup qualifying tournament, the United States (2-1-1) needs a win and a tie from the next two matches at Antigua and against Guatemala on Tuesday in Kansas City.
The Americans are tied with Guatemala atop the group with seven points and identical goal differential. Jamaica is third. The top two advance.
On paper, the United States, which has qualified for the past six World Cups, looks like a heavyweight that could win this round of qualifying easily. After all, the U.S. population is 314 million, compared with 13 million for Guatemala and 81,000 for Antigua and Barbuda.
But a tie at Guatemala and a 2-1 loss at Jamaica have made things complicated for coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his team.
The U.S. team will not be at full strength, either. Landon Donovan (knee injury), Brek Shea (abdominal strain), Edgar Castillo (foot injury), and Fabian Johnson (flu) did not make the trip.
Johnson had been starting at left back, and Castillo was backing him up, so their absence leaves a gaping hole on that side. Carlos Bocanegra or Michael Parkhurst are likely replacements.
“Obviously, it’s a difficult situation losing Fabian for the Antigua game and Edgar being unavailable for both,” Klinsmann said. “We were in a similar situation for the first match against Antigua and Barbuda in June, and we will be prepared. Fabian has been ill since the weekend, and we were waiting to see if he would be healthy enough to join us in Miami. At this point, it is in everyone’s best interest to allow him to fully recover from his illness and come into Kansas City ready to play against Guatemala.”
The coach warned his players that Antigua will require their full attention from the first whistle.
“This is a team that has done very well in our qualifying group, even though they only have one point,” Klinsmann said. “We watched very carefully the games against Guatemala and they could have beaten Guatemala in both games. They tied Jamaica. This is not an easy game. It’s going to be a difficult game because, for them, it’s the game of the decade. They want to prove everything against the United States … We have to go in there with the right mindset and with the right mentality and take care of it.”
Klinsmann said he expects Antigua to hang back and pack the box, forcing the U.S. team to rely more on its air game. Forward Eddie Johnson, who has not played for the national team in more than two years, was brought in partly because he has a knack for scoring off headers.
“We need to find ways to score goals and we need to adjust,” Klinsmann said. “If it’s sending in long balls or high balls or whatever it is, we have to get these three points no matter what. We have to build this sense of fearlessness and urgency so we’re not wasting time at all from the beginning of the game.”
The U.S. won their first meeting 3-1 in Tampa, but it wasn’t pretty. The Americans struggled through the first half, and got a scare when Antigua made it 2-1 early in the second half.