ST. JOHN’S, Antigua — Eddie Johnson rewarded his coach’s faith in him — twice.
In his first game back with the U.S. national team, Johnson scored a pair of goals Friday night, including the winner in second-half injury time, lifting the United States to the verge of advancing in World Cup qualifying with a nervous 2-1 victory over Antigua and Barbuda.
“We are not happy with what we saw, but we expected a very difficult challenge and they gave us that challenge and it came down to the wire,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “I’m happy for Eddie, getting this moment back in the team. He was all excited the last couple of days.”
If the Americans win or draw with Guatemala on Tuesday night in Kansas City, Kan., they would move into the six-nation final round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The U.S. (3-1-1) has 10 points and so does Guatemala after a 2-1 win over Jamaica (2-2-1), which has seven points. The top two teams in the group advance.
Johnson connected on headers in the 20th minute and then in the dying moments in his first game for the U.S. team in two years. The 28-year-old forward was added to the squad by Klinsmann, ostensibly replacing the disappointing Jozy Altidore, and the move paid off.
“It was a lot of thinking before the second goal. It was 1-1 and I remember the Olympic team was in a (similar) situation,” Johnson said. “At the end of the day, you don’t want to be a part of a team that didn’t qualify for a World Cup.”
Johnson was on the U.S. roster for the 2006 World Cup under coach Bruce Arena, but was making his first appearance for the national squad since a May 2010 exhibition against the Czech Republic. His previous goals for the national team came in 2008 in an 8-0 romp over Barbados.
“We see a player that is extremely proud to be back in this group,” Klinsmann said. “We see a player that has matured a lot and knows now that he has a point to prove, he gets that opportunity and knows that maybe at his age there might not be that many opportunities coming and he takes that one similar to Herculez Gomez how he took his chance in May and June in these games and put himself back into that team.”
Until Johnson’s second goal, the Americans struggled, particularly with the wind in their face on the wet cricket pitch at Sir Vivian Richards Stadium. The field was exceptionally tight, too, hindering the Americans’ attack.
The wind picked up in the second half, and the footing remained tricky. Gomez crashed into goalkeeper Molvin James in the 49th and James needed several moments before he returned to his feet, holding his chest and left shoulder.
Taking advantage of that wind, the Antiguans several times barely missed shots wide. But the best scoring opportunities in the late going were by Sacha Kljestan in the 81st and Michael Bradley in the 86th before Johnson pounced.
Kljestan’s hard right-footed shot was punched away by James, and then he got his hands on Bradley’s header. Soon after, things got rough and ragged, with Bradley challenging several opponents following a hard tackle by George Dublin, who undercut him.
Then Johnson got free in the box and smartly headed Gordon’s cross back to his right past the sprawling James. Gordon was making his first international appearance.
The Americans broke through in the 20th minute after controlling much of the early play. Off a corner kick, Graham Zusi took the ball on right wing, fed Bradley and got a return pass as he curled outside the penalty area. Zusi’s left-footed cross was met perfectly by Johnson, who headed the ball down, making it skid off the turf past James.
But Antigua’s speed began to pay off and, as has been their tendency throughout qualifying, the Americans got lax on defense. A quick burst by Peter Byers got him free in the area on right wing and when center back Clarence Goodson fell, Byers tapped the ball to an uncovered Blackstock for the equalizer.
“We had our chances and could have won the game,” Antigua and Barbuda coach Tom Curtis said. “I don’t think it went wrong, I think we lapsed for 10 seconds and I’m proud of the guys for their performance against a team full of world-class players.”
As rain intensified late in the first half, the United States again took charge of possession, but couldn’t connect. Bradley was just off-target with a 25-yard blast in the 40th minute, his shot glancing off the right goalpost. The hosts then challenged Howard with a quick counterattack, but the veteran keeper caught the shot from Byers.
Blackstock shot wide in the final seconds of the half with the Americans off-balance in their end.
“It was ugly, real ugly,” U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra said. “It’s three points and sometimes in CONCACAF it’s like this, so on Tuesday night we’ll go out there on the front foot and get a win hopefully.”