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.

Super sub Roland Alberg putting on potent show for Union

Super sub Roland Alberg putting on potent show for Union

CHESTER, Pa. -- Roland Alberg has been a terror for opposing teams. 

The latest attack from the Dutch bomber happened Saturday, while the Union were gridlocked in a scoreless draw with Sporting Kansas City. Alberg entered the match in the 65th minute and ended it in the 67th, when he launched a volley that beat goalkeeper Alec Kann. 

“I have to be patient, but when I come on the field, I have to do my thing,” Alberg said. “It’s a great team performance. We did a great job, got three points and we are happy with it.”

He added an assist for the 2-0 win (see game story)

“He’s a wonderful player,” said Union left back Fabinho, who assisted on Alberg's goal. “He came on and changed the game. I saw him and I know what he likes. I give the ball to him and he scores. He has nine goals. It’s nice for him. I hope he scores more.” 

That type of impact hasn’t been irregular for Alberg. With nine goals on the season in just 925 minutes played, the 26-year-old leads MLS in goals-per-90 minutes with 0.88. Only New York City FC’s Frank Lampard is close with .85.

“He’s far and away the leader in our league,” said Union manager Jim Curtin, who originally cited Alberg’s goals-per-90 stat. “He has a special quality.”

Yet, despite that “special quality,” Alberg remains a super sub, buried behind Tranquillo Barnetta at the center attacking midfield spot. He has two goals in his last four games — all coming off the bench.

“I have to show it every training, and then it’s the coach’s decision,” he said. “If [Curtin] uses me as a sub, I’ll do 100 percent my best. And if it’s as a starter, it’s the same thing for me. Of course every player wants to play as a starter, and me too. But it’s a long season. Playoffs, they are coming. So I’m patient.”

Alberg’s potency isn’t lost on Curtin, even if the manager doesn’t switch his winning formula. Though Alberg is pushing for a starting spot, the Union might just be more dangerous with him off the bench.

“He’s a starter on most MLS teams,” Curtin said. “It’s just a matter of having depth at that spot. He’s a very valuable player to our team and shows we have a deep squad. I can’t say enough about how well he’s played in any role. As a starter for us, he’s won us a bunch of games, and his role off the bench, he’s won us some games now, too.”

Roland Alberg's goal, assist propel Union past Sporting Kansas City, 2-0

Roland Alberg's goal, assist propel Union past Sporting Kansas City, 2-0

BOX SCORE

CHESTER, Pa. -- Roland Alberg entered the game at the perfect time.

With his club holding the man advantage as a result of Jimmy Medranda’s second yellow card in the 57th minute, Union manager Jim Curtin tapped Alberg off the bench to replace Fabian Herbers in the 65th minute. 

Two minutes later, the Union took the lead. From the left side, Fabinho found Alberg at the top of the box, where he teed off a shot at that ripped past Alec Kann to open scoring in the eventual 2-0 Union win over Sporting Kansas City on Saturday at Talen Energy Stadium.

It was Alberg’s ninth goal of the season.

The Union now have wins in back-to-back games for the first time since March, pushing their record to 11-9-7 and temporarily jumping them over the New York Red Bulls for third in the Eastern Conference. SKC falls to 11-12-5.

Facing Sporting Kansas City at Talen Energy Stadium for the first time since the 2015 U.S. Open Cup title game, the Union, who lost that game in penalty kicks, wanted to dictate tempo. However, the club was unable to break down SKC’s stout midfield until the red cards started flying.

Already down a man, things began to unravel for SKC in the 87th minute, when Roger Espinoza was shown a straight red for tossing what appeared like an inadvertent elbow to the midsection of Alberg. 

In stoppage time, up two men, the Union put the exclamation point on the win. Alberg found Tranquillo Barnetta in an open pocket of the SKC defense, and with space, the Swiss veteran placed his shot to the right and in, sealing the 2-0 win.

Union-Sporting Kansas City 5 things: Looking for back-to-back wins

Union-Sporting Kansas City 5 things: Looking for back-to-back wins

Union vs. Sporting Kansas City
7 p.m. on TCN, Pregame Live at 6:30

The Union kept afloat in the Eastern Conference playoff race last weekend by completing the season sweep of the Columbus Crew. Now, they have an opportunity to do something they’ve only done once this season — win back-to-back games. The Union (10-9-7) face Sporting Kansas City (11-11-5) Saturday night at Talen Energy Stadium.

Here are five things to know for the matchup.

1. Rookie power
In a surprising move, Union manager Jim Curtin tapped Josh Yaro and Fabian Herbers to accompany Keegan Rosenberry as starters on the road against the Crew. 

And the 2016 MLS SuperDraft trio, starting for the first time together, didn’t disappoint. 

“If you were to tell me before the game started that we’d get goals from Herbers and Rosenberry, I would probably tell you you were a little crazy,” Curtin said. “But we’re happy for them. I think it’s a big step in a tough atmosphere.”

Herbers opened the scoring for the Union by powering home a deflection off his own original shot. The goal was followed by a Rosenberry game-winning goal from a Tranquillo Barnetta pass into the box. 

“For Keegan, for Josh, for Herbers to step up the way they did in what I would call a big boy game, I think it shows them growing as players,” Curtin said. “It’s a real game out there where a team is fighting and is desperate to make a playoff push, we had to be alert for 90 minutes.”

The three had such an impact on last Saturday’s match that Curtin is likely to go to the kids again against SKC. Herbers made the start in place of Ilsinho, who is currently fighting off a foot injury.

“We’re a club that trusts young players and believes in playing young players,” Curtin said. “They rewarded us.” 

2. Bedoya’s impact
Although he won’t make the scoresheet, in three games, Alejandro Bedoya has impressed Curtin with his poise in the midfield and big-game calmness with the ball. 

“To think he’s in his preseason now is a scary thing,” said Curtin, who has played Bedoya 90 minutes in his last two games. “Three great performances and it’s only going to get better. I can’t say enough positives about him.”

What Curtin likes the most is Bedoya’s ability to keep possession and relax the game, something that helps a club overflowing with young players. 

“He has been a great influence on us keeping possession,” Curtin said. “It’s the simple balls that don’t show up in the stat sheet, where he catches it and just plays it to our outside back. That gives us time to catch our breath — it’s so valuable.”

SKC has noticed it, too. 

“They added a very good player, someone with a lot of experience and commitment to the game, especially in the midfield” SKC coach Peter Vermes said. “He poses a problem for any team they play against. For us, we have to be compact, we have to be smart and we have to take our chances really well.”

3. Tired SKC
The Union are catching Sporting Kansas City at the right time. Vermes’ club is winded after just one home match in its last seven. 

“We’ve had a lot of travel these last couple weeks, so going into this Philly game we want to conserve as much energy as possible,” SKC’s Benny Feilhaber said. “They are a really good team this year, so we’ll have our hands full. But we’re confident we can go in and get something out of it.” 

And the club has a right to be tired. In 11 days from Saturday’s match, SKC will have played in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago, home at Children’s Mercy Park, then away at BC Place against the Vancouver Whitecaps, before traveling cross-country to face the Union.

“Every game is very important, so we have to be able to give everything we’ve got, even though we’re running on fumes a little bit here,” Vermes said. “We’re going to have to dig down deep and muster up something with Philadelphia being as good as they are.” 

4. Keep an eye on ...
Union: It doesn’t appear that Ilsinho will return in time for Saturday’s match, leaving Herbers as a starter on the right side of the midfield. He has two goals and four assists in five starts this season.

SKC: Although Dom Dwyer has four goals in his last five matches, Feilhaber has the ability to get everyone involved. The veteran midfielder has a goal and three assists in his last four matches.

5. This and that
• The Union are 4-5-4 against SKC all-time and an even 2-2-2 at home. 

• Despite being in playoff position, the Union have yet to win back-to-back games more than once this season. The only time they’ve claimed consecutive wins was on March 12 and March 20. And that started with a win over the Crew. 

• Each scoring a goal against the Crew, Rosenberry and Herbers were the first two rookies to score in a match since Colorado Rapids’ Deshorn Brown and Dillon Powers did it in 2013.