ST. JOHN'S, Antigua -- Last Monday, Eddie Johnson was a surprise call-up to the U.S. national team. After the Americans' 2-1 win over Antigua and Barbuda, there was another label fixed to the U.S. forward: savior.
Johnson scored two goals, the second of which came in the 90th minute, allowing the U.S. to escape with a critical World Cup-qualifying victory that puts it firmly in control of Group A. All the Americans need now is a tie against Guatemala on Tuesday and they will qualify for next year's Hexagonal.
The result was cruel on A&B, which despite its small size has been very competitive in this round of qualifying and put on an inspired performance. That said, the U.S. avoided perhaps the most embarrassing result in the program's history. America is roughly 3,750 times larger than A&B in terms of population. When measured by sheer resources, the comparison is off the charts.
Yet instead of being humiliated, the U.S. can savor a gritty result that has long been its hallmark. The match was played in a driving rain for most of the 90-plus minutes and it looked like the Benna Boys might pull off a historic result. That they didn't was down largely to the play of Johnson, who was playing in his first international match since 2010 and was a surprise starter for the U.S. on this night. Some of this was down to the injuries the U.S. sustained in the buildup to the match, but the sight of Johnson, normally a striker, lining up wide left in a 4-4-2 was a shock. The move made Jurgen Klinsmann, who would -- and perhaps still does -- have some explaining to do as to why the U.S. struggled, look like a genius.
The U.S. can breathe a massive sigh of relief.
As the U.S. had done in its previous encounter with the Benna Boys in June, it dominated possession in the middle third of the field early on but found getting into the attacking third difficult. This put a premium on set pieces, and it was from just such an opportunity that the U.S. broke on top in the 20th minute. Graham Zusi's corner kick was initially cleared straight back to him, and after exchanging passes with Michael Bradley, his inch-perfect cross was nodded home by Johnson for a 1-0 lead.
The advantage proved to be short-lived, however. A turnover by Carlos Bocanegra five minutes later saw the ball played down the right wing to Peter Byers, who, after evading the attentions of Geoff Cameron, squared the ball for Dexter Blackstock to hammer home from 6 yards.
The goal did worse than level the score. It gave the home side an invaluable jolt of confidence, and Blackstock nearly put the Benna Boys ahead six minutes later only for his confident run to be halted by an awkward save from Tim Howard.
The game then began to open up a little bit more, with the U.S. still having plenty of possession and carving some better chances. Johnson threatened with another header and Bradley's long-range shot whistled wide in the 33rd minute. But Blackstock continued to torment the U.S. with his pace, and a near breakaway in the 42nd minute was halted only by a well-timed challenge from Steve Cherundolo.
The Americans came out with a bit more determination to start the second half. Dempsey created a clear opening for Herculez Gomez, but a poor touch saw the chance squandered.
The second half took on a familiar look to the first with the U.S. having most of the possession, but A&B looking dangerous in transition. The Benna Boys twice saw long-range blasts whistle wide of Howard's post and saw a few other chances undone by some poor decisions in and around the box.
But it was the U.S. that pulled out a victory. The Americans nearly won it in the 86th minute when a near-post corner was nodded goalward by Bradley only for Molvin James to come up with a superb reflex save to tip the ball over the bar.
The Americans had one chance left, however, and Johnson made the hosts pay. Alan Gordon, a player for whom these kinds of dramatics have been the norm in MLS this season with San Jose, delivered a cross from the right wing, and Johnson was wide open to nod the ball past James.
Johnson was mobbed as he wheeled away to celebrate. What looked like a confidence-sapping result was turned on its head. Now it's down to the U.S. to take care of business on Tuesday in Kansas City.
Player ratings: (0-10; 10=best)
G Tim Howard, 5.5: Could do little on Blackstock's goal but looked awkward in saving at the A&B striker's feet in the 31st minute.
D Carlos Bocanegra, 5: Punished for a turnover that led to Blackstock's equalizer. Picked things up in the second half and looked more secure.
D Geoff Cameron, 5: Passed the ball decently enough but struggled to cope with the pace of Byers, as well as Blackstock.
D Clarence Goodson, 5: Was his usual dominant self in the air but, like Cameron, came off second-best in footraces with Blackstock.
D Steve Cherundolo, 6.5: Saved the day more than once, particularly with a well-timed challenge on Blackstock in the 42nd minute. He was a bit hit-and-miss with his crosses, but few complaints overall.
F Eddie Johnson, 9: Took his goal with aplomb and should have put another header on target. He made no mistake with his 90th-minute chance, however, and the U.S. can now exhale.
M Danny Williams, 5: Started out strong, but then struggled as the weather turned worse and A&B grew in confidence.
M Michael Bradley, 7: Did what he could to keep the U.S. attack ticking over and nearly pulled off some clever combinations. His late header nearly allowed him to wear the hero's cape.
M Graham Zusi, 6: The Americans' most consistent attacking threat early on, both from the run of play and on set pieces. Delivered a perfect cross for Johnson's goal, but his play petered out a bit in the second half.
F Clint Dempsey, 5: Dropped into midfield continually to get the ball, which left Gomez isolated. Perked up a bit in the second half by working some quick combinations.
F Herculez Gomez, 4: Was barely heard from in the first half. A lack of service didn't help, but even when Gomez was set up perfectly, his touch let him down.
M Jermaine Jones, 5.5: Helped keep the U.S. moving forward after coming on for Williams.
F Alan Gordon, 7: Reprised a bit of the Goonies' "never say die” attitude that has characterized his season with San Jose, delivering the killer ball to Johnson that the Sounder forward nodded home.
M Sacha Kljestan 6" Nearly put the U.S ahead with a rasping drive that was well-saved by Molvin.