U.S. clinches World Cup berth against Mexico

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U.S. clinches World Cup berth against Mexico

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- For more than two hours, the red-white-and-blue-clad crowd stood and sang "Dos a cero! Dos a cero!" over and over and over.

And 2-0 it was.

The United States clinched its seventh straight World Cup appearance, getting second-half goals from Eddie Johnson and Landon Donovan on Tuesday night for the now traditional 2-0 home qualifying win over Mexico.

"It's become its own monster. People want to come to Columbus and see U.S.-Mexico. It's almost like the mecca really for us," goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "You almost feel like it's our destiny to win here."

Noisy American fans stood and sang in Columbus Crew Stadium starting 1 hours before kickoff, and about 1,000 stayed for an hour after the final whistle. The U.S. needed a win or a tie from Honduras against Panama to clinch with two games to spare, and the American supporters watched on the videoboard as the Catrachos held on for a 2-2 draw.

U.S. players crowded around a television in their locker room, and then sprayed bubbly and came back on the field to celebrate with the fans.

"It's great to do it sooner than later, but to get it against your rival is even sweeter," American captain Clint Dempsey said.

Following wins over Mexico in qualifiers by identical 2-0 scores at Columbus in 2001, 2005 and 2009, the U.S. Soccer Federation picked the same venue for this year's match. The capacity crowd of 24,584 taunted the Mexicans with chants of "You're not going to Brazil!"

"Amazing, amazing crowd," Klinsmann said. "Kind of pushed these guys."

Fans were so loud during "The Star-Spangled Banner" that anthem singer Kayleigh Schofield was forced to alter her tempo to match that of the crowd.

"I think it really got into Mexico's head, especially when we scored that first goal. You could see it on Mexico's face. They were really defeated," American defender Omar Gonzalez said. "From that point on we really took control of the game."

After withstanding Mexican pressure for the first 20 minutes, the U.S. settled in the match and got the breakthrough in the 49th minute when Johnson outjumped defender Diego Reyes to meet Donovan's corner kick 8 yards out and head the ball past frozen goalkeeper Jesus Corona.

With Mexican shifting to an offense-minded 3-4-3 formation, the U.S. scored in the 78th following a throw in when Mix Diskerud threaded the ball across the middle. Dempsey got the slightest of touches as he slid into the goalmouth, and Donovan poked the ball in from 2 yards.

"Obviously this is a huge, huge evening for all of us," U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. "It's a huge milestone whenever you make it to a World Cup."

The U.S. (5-2-1) moved into first place in the North and Central American and Caribbean finals with 16 points, one ahead of Costa Rica (4-1-3), which was held to a 1-1 tie at last-place Jamaica and also clinched.

Honduras (3-3-2) is third with 11 points and on track for the region's final automatic berth for the 32-nation field for Brazil next June. Panama moved ahead of Mexico (both 1-2-5) on goal difference for fourth place, which advances to a playoff against Oceania champion New Zealand.

"This a team that could and should play better," said Luis Fernando Tena, who replaced Chepo de la Torre as Mexico's coach following Friday's 2-1 home loss to Honduras. "It has to take a step forward if we want to make it to the World Cup."

Johnson, starting because of Jozy Altidore's suspension for yellow-card accumulation, nearly scored off Donovan's cross in the third minute of the second half, but the pass was just ahead of him.

A minute later, the U.S. took just its second corner kick of the match. Jermaine Jones and Johnson both broke in from behind the penalty spot, and Mexico was slow to react as Johnson scored his 12th goal in 21 qualifying appearances. He was mobbed by teammates near the U.S. bench as fans set off a smoke bomb.

"We've got some good height in the box, and this time I wanted to make sure I kept it down enough," Johnson said. "I was very fortunate it went in."

Donovan, his right eye squinting because of conjunctivitis, increased his U.S.-record goals total to 57, set off a nonstop singalong for the closing minutes of the match.

"You see it when we came in the stadium. It was rockin' already," Donovan said. "That's a real atmosphere. That's what we face when we go away, and it's nice that other teams have to face it when they come here."

And Mexico now has a tough challenge, hosting Panama on Oct. 11 before closing four days later at Costa Rica.

"They looked relatively timid and shy throughout. I've never seen a Mexico team look that way," Donovan said.

Dealing with an injury to midfielder Michael Bradley and yellow-card suspensions that also included defender Matt Besler and midfielder Geoff Cameron, Klinsmann had to make several changes from Friday's 3-1 loss at Costa Rica -- which ended the Americans' team-record 12-game winning streak.

Fabian Johnson shifted from midfield to the back line, and Clarence Goodson was among four new starters, joined by midfielders Kyle Beckerman and Alejandro Bedoya, and Eddie Johnson. Fabian Johnson strained his left hamstring and was replaced by Michael Parkhurst for the start of the second half.

Mexico dominated the first 20 minutes of the opening half and the last five, forcing Howard to make several sprawling saves.

"Once we weathered that storm, Mexico didn't have much in the second half," Gonzalez said.

Now the Americans can take it easy in the final two qualifiers, against Jamaica on Oct. 11 at Kansas City, Kan., and at Panama four days later. Exhibitions are likely at Scotland and Austria in November.

Klinsmann won the World Cup as a player with Germany in 1990 and coached his native country to the 2006 semifinals. He's lived in California for 15 years and understands the accomplishment.

As he spoke during his postgame news conference, he had a Starbucks cup in front of him, presumably filled with champagne.

"It's not Aquafina," he said, laughing.

Union trade up in 2nd round to draft Marcus Epps, also add Aaron Jones

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Union trade up in 2nd round to draft Marcus Epps, also add Aaron Jones

With no first-round picks in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft on Friday in Los Angeles, the Union were still able to add what they were looking for. 

“We got two players today that we want to be with the Philadelphia Union for a long time,” Union manager Jim Curtin said.

The club made a splash early in the second round by trading the 42nd overall pick, originally acquired by the Union, sending Zac MacMath to the Colorado Rapids, and $50,000 in 2018 General Allocation Money to the Minnesota United for the 25th overall pick. 

With that selection, the Union plucked Marcus Epps, an athletic right wing midfielder out of the University of South Florida. 

“We didn’t want to wait any longer,” Union sporting director Earnie Stewart said. “We were afraid Marc would go sooner, so we made sure we were ready to do a deal and creep up the board so we could get him.”

Epps admitted he didn’t know much about the Union. He wasn’t in attendance at the draft but was thrilled at hearing his name called over the MLS live stream.

“I’ve been on the phone with family and friends,” he said. “I was huddled around the laptop, streaming in and hoping to hear the good news. 

“I was definitely surprised and excited.”

Epps, listed by MLS at 5-foot-10, is 22 and a native of Jackson, Mississippi. According to both Stewart and Curtin, Epps is an adept one-on-one player and a skillful attacking winger that fits the Union’s style. He’s also right-footed and stated that he has experience on both the left and right wing in the midfield.

“He has speed, he has agility, he’s a big boy,” Stewart said. “The combination of those factors and the philosophy that we have at the Philadelphia Union, we believe we can develop this kid to be something very special. If you have the ability that he has on the ball and the speed that he has, that can create a lot of chaos in the opponent’s half. That’s something we look forward to developing in Marcus.” 

However, while Epps’ numbers at USF aren’t eye-popping, Stewart isn’t worried. The young player spent most of his senior season with an iliotibial band injury but scored eight goals and nine assists in 75 games over four seasons with USF. 

“We bring players in to develop them,” Stewart said. “If they had all the numbers in college or youth teams, they would have gone one or two. He has certain qualities that not every player has. Keegan Rosenberry (current Union right back) didn’t have the numbers other people had at the same time. I think we made a good choice with Keegan.” 

Even with their move up in the second round, the Union still possessed their original second-round pick — the 33rd overall selection. There, they added depth by drafting aggressive 5-foot-9 right back Aaron Jones out of Clemson. 

“I’m delighted to join the Union and excited at the direction that franchise is moving,” Jones said. “I’m extremely proud of what Keegan was able to do last year. It’s [what] I want to emulate in my career. I want to push him and try and play as many games as I can next year. Injuries happen in sports, so if the chance is given to me, I’m going to take it.”

Jones, who hails from Great Yarmouth in the U.K. and claims to be a set-piece specialist, transferred from Georgia State to Clemson for the 2015 and 2016 seasons. Like Epps, Curtin, who noted Jones’ soccer IQ and tenacity, sees the right back fitting in nicely with the Union style.

“He really impressed us,” said Curtin, who noted that Jones will compete with Rosenberry and Ray Gaddis for playing time. “He’s a kid who will compete from Day 1. He wins his one-on-one battles defensively, he embraces the defensive part of the game and he’s a guy that wants to get better every day. He has a Union mentality and will be a guy our fans will be high on.

“He has an impressive skillset.”

The Union will take part in the third and fourth rounds of the 2017 draft on Jan. 17, in which the club owns the 55th, 77th and 82nd pick.

Union's 2017 schedule released, includes early challenges

Union's 2017 schedule released, includes early challenges

The Union’s 2017 MLS regular season schedule has been released. 

Like 2016, the start to the Union’s new campaign will be a test. After opening their season at BC Place against the Vancouver Whitecaps on March 5, the Union head home to Talen Energy Stadium on March 11 to host defending Eastern Conference champion Toronto FC in the home opener.

It’s the Union's only home game in their first four matches.

But that’s not the only concern. Following that difficult start, the Union face a five-game gauntlet between April 8 through May 6. Despite hosting four of those five games, the run begins against the Portland Timbers and ends with the New York Red Bulls. In between, the Union take on 2016 playoff sides New York City FC, Montreal Impact and challenge the LA Galaxy on the road.

That difficult stretch is potentially outdone only by a deep summer three-game road swing from July 6-22, in which the Union will visit Sporting Kansas City, the Impact and Columbus Crew.

When it comes to rivalries, the Union visit DC United twice — on April 1 and May 13 — but host the Red Bulls twice, on May 6 and June 18. The Union take on NYCFC only twice in 2017.

On the expansion front, the Union’s first match against a new MLS side happens on Aug. 26, when Atlanta United comes to town. One week later, the Union travel to TCF Bank Stadium to take on Minnesota United, and eventually make the trip to Mercedes-Benz Stadium to visit Atlanta on Sept. 26.

The Union will get to test themselves against the reigning MLS Cup champs, as the Seattle Sounders come to Talen Energy Stadium on Oct. 1. The match will be one of four on ESPN, with one match on FS1.