Event: World Cup Qualifying, Group 1: United States vs. Antigua & Barbuda
Date/Time: Friday, June 8, 2012 – 7:11 p.m. EDT.
Location: Raymond James Stadium (Capacity: 65,857), Tampa Bay, Florida.
Broadcast Info: Tonight's World Cup Qualifying match between the United States and Antigua & Barbuda can be seen on ESPN in English and Galavision in Spanish. The game is also available online at ESPN3.com or WatchESPN.com. Coverage begins at 7:00 p.m. EDT with the opening kick coming at 7:11.
Last Meeting: Despite both being long-standing CONCACAF members, the two have never met on a pitch. Part of the reason is that the little Caribbean nation is in the CONCACAF semi-finals for the first time in its history, whereas the United States is attempting to qualify for the World Cup Finals for the sixth consecutive time.
Storyline: For many nations, qualification for the 2014 World Cup Finals in Brazil has already begun, and tonight in Tampa, it will for the United States as well. The US will play the first of eight matches in its CONCACAF semi-final group when it welcomes the little engine that could, Antigua & Barbuda, to Tampa for the very first meeting between the two. In order to advance to the dreaded "hexagonal" next year, the event that serves as the final qualifying event for CONCACAF, the US must finish in the top two of its four team group that also includes Jamaica and Guatemala.
Storyline II: For new US manager Jurgen Klinsmann, there has been a lot of lineup shuffling and teaching in the last year since he took over for Bob Bradley after the Gold Cup, and the results have been mixed. The team has been shut out five times since Klinsmann took over, but has also managed some impressive wins, including a heretofore unheard of win against Italy in Genoa. Now though, the time for learning has come to an end. The goal from here is, in the words of former Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, "just win, baby". Navigating the minefield that is World Cup Qualifying in CONCACAF is always a challenge thanks to the sweltering summer heat of these Central American nations, the anti-US sentiment (and the unruly behavior that follows) among fans, and the grueling style of play that is often employed. Couple that with the fact that Klinsmann has only once managed to put his best four players on the pitch at the same time thus far, and you've got a number of challenges to overcome.
What To Watch For: In that ugly scoreless draw against Canada this past weekend, the US largely failed to generate much of a competent attack because of Michael Bradley being forced to play back in the midfield with the return of star player Clint Dempsey to the line-up. Against sides like Canada or this Antigua & Barbuda squad, who will pack their defense in, the US needs Bradley playing in more of a attacking position where he can utilize his electric passing skills to help unlock a compacted defense. Will Klinsmann move him forward in this match? And if he does, who sits? The US suddenly has a glut of above average forwards and attacking mids, a good problem to have, but that means tough decision will need to be made about who starts and who sits.
Another thing to watch is the fatigue level for the US. They played three matches in eight days against Scotland, Brazil, and Canada and looked gassed by the end of the Canada affair, struggling to do even the simplest of things with the ball. Against a side that the U23 squad could probably beat, will Klinsmann opt to rest some of his older guys like Steve Cherundolo, Landon Donovan, and Oguchi Onyewu or at least limit their minutes?
Player To Watch: For the US, the player(s) to watch will be the back line wing tandem of Cherundolo and Edgar Castillo. Castillo was a late addition to the starting line-up against Canada thanks to the calf strain suffered by rising left back star Fabian Johnson. He subbed admirably and even had a couple of good overlapping runs into the final third to put some pressure on the back line of Canada. Defensively he was a little erratic but didn't make any ghastly errors. With Johnson out again, Castillo will likely be expected to simply hold the fort against the counter attack of their underpowered opponent. Cherundolo on the other hand has had his share of struggles the last two outings. Against Brazil, he and the rest of the defense were nothing short of atrocious in allowing four goals, by far the most in the Klinsmann era. Like Castillo, Cherundolo will need to be alert defensively as Antigua & Barbuda will try and launch vertical counter attacks. Neither can afford to be caught out of position.
For Antigua & Barbuda, despite the gap in talent at many positions, they do have some players that compete at a high level on the club circuit. Midfielder Mikele Leigterwood will the be man to watch for them as he will try and quarterback his squad through this difficult match-up. It was Leigterwood who was relied on to distribute from his central position for the Reading squad that won the English League Championship and a promotion to the Premiership for next season. How he handles the inevitable pressure that will be applied by the US will largely tell the story of how well Antigua & Barbuda can compete.
Prediction: Antigua & Barbuda is in over its head against the United States talent wise, so expect the game to be a grind as the tiny nation packs in its defense in an attempt to mitigate the talent edge. Look for a scoreless first half followed by the US unlocking that defense midway through the second and possibly tacking on a late insurance goal to get an ugly but satisfying 3 points. Final Score: United States 2, Antigua & Barbuda 0.