By Jacob Klinger
Around 9 p.m. Friday night 22-28 players will have permanently altered the World Cup hopes of two nations.
Yet Antigua & Barbuda vs. the United States is defined just as much by the players who won't take the pitch at Sir Vivian Richards Stadium. None of Landon Donovan, Fabian Johnson, Break Shea and Edgar Castillo will be available due to injuries, and in Johnson's case, the flu. Antigua suffers too. Needing a win keep their qualifying hopes afloat, the hosts are without Mikele Leigterwood and Marvin McCoy.
The American losses effectively gut the U.S. lineup in its two most outstanding areas of weakness: left back and team width.
Without Johnson and Castillo, Carlos Bocanegra is the closest to a natural left back on Klinsmann's now 20-man roster. Strong arguments can be made that neither Johnson or Castillo is a left back by trade. Castillo almost always looks more comfortable closer to an opponent's goal than his own while Johnson does the job convincingly enough despite his history as a midfielder.
Regardless, Antigua & Barbuda's best chances are set to come on the counter attack, and Bocanegra, 33, will be one of the slowest field players in action Friday night. The U.S. captain is no fool, though, and will temper his runs forward.
It's the correct move, but a costly if not inevitable one.
A lack of attacking width has repeatedly damned Klinsmann's lineups to toil. With the manager likely to stack the center of the pitch with center midfielders, the U.S. constantly depends on overlapping runs to widen the playing field.
Antigua & Barbuda will gladly park the bus and concede the wings at home, looking to counter when it gets the chance. And as the Antiguans showed in their respectable 3-1 loss to the U.S back in June, they will not be easily beaten centrally. The U.S. simply is not creative enough quickly enough to split the defense through the middle.
Instead, the American attack will rely on service from whatever space it can scratch out. The closer to the corner flags, the better. With the loss of right back McCoy, that side of the Antiguan defense is ripe for the picking.
Yet with no wingers in the squad and a third center back likely to man the left back spot, that channel is severly narrowed. Advantage Antigua. Again, Shea's unfair combination of size and speed promised to change this aspect of the game, but he too was a late scratch.
Donovan might have filled in on either flank, providing the pace, vision and experience an at-times sputtering team desperately needs. His knee sent him back to Los Angeles.
So a more central, methodical approach, carries the U.S. into its most important qualfier of the cycle - they only get bigger at this stage. Anything less than complete domination of the midfield and the game as a whole will be a costly disappointment for the Americans.
With Danny Williams coming off the best game of his international career, Michael Bradley returning from injury and the American-rare composure of Sacha Klejstan reinjected into the squad, the U.S. should out-pass, out-tackle and utterly out-play Antigua in the middle third of the field. Never mind the box-to-box prowess of Jermaine Jones and the relative rocks that are Maurice Edu and Kyle Beckerman. They may not see the field.
A thigh bruise to Antiguan midfield ace Mikele Leigterwood only compounds the American advantage.
Still, the U.S. is perfectly capable of dominating possession, only to stall out in the attacking third. Perhaps Steve Cherundolo or Graham Zusi can carve something resembling vertical penetration on the right side of the field and give the American strikers some wide service.
Otherwise the U.S. is in for a long 90 minutes of redundantly centered bunker-busting, and possibly an even longer night of wondering what might have been with a few more healthy teammates.
HAVE YOUR SAY ... You worried about the injuries? Predictions? Have at it in the comments section.
Jacob Klinger is a contributing writer to Soccer 365 where his column "Ready, Set, America" appears regularly. He also writes for No Short Corners and the Daily Orange. Jacob's love for the game goes back as far as he can remember, but was truly christened during the United States' cardiac qualifying campaign for Korea/Japan 2002. Between classes and columns, he still plays. You can follow him on Twitter @MrJacobK or email him at email@example.com.
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