Philadelphia Union

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's Maurice Edu embracing adversity in 1st-team comeback

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Union's Maurice Edu embracing adversity in 1st-team comeback

Away from MLS game action for nearly two years, Maurice Edu has learned a little something about himself.

“I’ve always felt like I’ve been a pretty strong-minded person and I’ve dealt with other adversity throughout the course of my career,” he told the media on Wednesday. “It’s another challenge. But when put in situations that are unexpected, it brings out parts of you that you maybe didn’t even know you had.”

The veteran midfielder, moving from one year-long leg injury to another, hasn’t played an MLS match since Sept. 20, 2015. But the road back hit a milestone on Sunday, when Edu made a start for the Union’s minor-league club, the Bethlehem Steel. 

He logged 32 minutes and completed all 17 attempted passes in a defensive midfield position.

“It doesn’t make sense to dwell on things that have happened in the past because it takes the energy I need to put into other things,” he said. “So I’m just focused on what’s happening here and now for me, focusing on conquering every challenge that’s put in front of me every day.”

Though he never wavered, no one could blame Edu for losing his spark. The 31-year-old’s mental mettle was thoroughly tested over the last two seasons as he was hampered with leg injuries. In late 2015, Edu suffered a stress fracture that abruptly ended his season. One year later, just as he was ready to make his long-awaited return, he broke his left fibula. He’s been out ever since.

“I felt I’ve always been mentally strong but this has definitely challenged me in ways that are slightly different,” he said. “I’ve kinda had to play a waiting game and just be patient and be smart and also be smart with the thoughts I have in my head and how I channel my energy.”

On Sunday, Edu’s comeback began. And for him, it was just the beginning of something big.

“I’m happy because this year’s been hell,” Edu said. “Definitely happy with that. But the real excitement will be when I walk out on the pitch with the first team. Baby steps. A longer process than maybe I anticipated. Pleased with that but at the end of the day, my focus and my goal is to play with the first team. It’s not to be content to just be back fit, be back training or be back playing with the Steel.”

But that plan won’t be a given. The Union are currently stacked at the No. 6, No. 8 and center back spots, forcing Edu, currently in less-than-preseason form, to work through a number of players on the depth chart to make his dream first-team debut.

“He has some real competition,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “Haris (Medunjanin), (Alejandro) Bedoya, (Warren) Creavalle, Derrick Jones, Brian Carroll, you can go through the list of guys he’s behind on the depth chart because they’re on Week 24 of the season and he’s on Week 1. He has still some work to do to get over that next barrier.”

Getting over that barrier means getting fit and up to game speed. 

“He has to work his way back to 90 minutes of fitness, which is hard for a guy who’s missed almost going on two seasons now worth of games,” Curtin said. “It’s great for him to get that first 30 minutes under his belt, connect his passes, gain the confidence he can do it again. Now he has to work his way to start for 90 minutes for the Steel. From there, we can then talk about being in the 18 for us.”

After two years away from meaningful soccer, Edu is ready for the challenge.

“These are all steps along the way,” he said. “To get to the bigger picture.”

Inside Doop: Blowing a lead ahead of toughest game of the season

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Inside Doop: Blowing a lead ahead of toughest game of the season

The Union traveled all the way across the country, scored a couple of goals, and came within seconds of pulling off a huge win over a team that rarely loses at home.

In the end, of course, that will only make Saturday’s 2-2 draw with the San Jose Earthquakes even more frustrating as Union coaches and players are well aware that stringing together wins is the only way to keep their flickering playoff hopes alive.

In this week’s Inside Doop, we’ll take a look at how a win turned into a draw and the brutally tough week that lies ahead.

Three thoughts about Saturday’s game
1. Anyone who’s watched the Union for the last eight seasons knows one-goal leads are never safe in the final minutes, especially on the road. And in San Jose, some of those old ghosts came back to haunt the Union again as a late penalty called on Josh Yaro allowed Chris Wondolowski’s 95th-minute PK to tie the game and spoil an otherwise positive performance. Afterwards, Haris Medunjanin threw his arms up in the air and stormed off the field, the team’s first-year midfielder perhaps learning some of the many frustrations that comes along with being a Union player.

2. Yaro has now made critical mistakes in each of his last three starts, all filling in for Oguchi Onyewu. That’s surely a tough thing for Union fans to swallow considering Yaro was the No. 2 pick in the 2016 draft and is not really progressing as well as he should be, injuries aside. Contrast that, meanwhile, with Jack Elliott, the 77th pick in the 2017 draft. Elliott continued to build his case for Rookie of the Year with maybe his pest performance yet, scoring his first MLS goal and looking far more comfortable defensively than Yaro, his center back partner.

3. Questions certainly remain about Roland Alberg’s consistency and chemistry with teammates, but we can’t forget that he’s one of the better ball strikers this team has ever had. He showed that again Saturday with a very nice goal that put the Union ahead 2-1 early in the second half. With Ilsinho hurt, some may have thought promising rookie Adam Najem would assume the No. 10 role. But until the team is eliminated from the playoff contention, Alberg will likely still get the chance to show just how dangerous he can be and perhaps keep racking up the goals.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. Any time a team has to play games Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday, it’s a rough stretch. This one is even harder for the Union considering they had to fly back to Philly from San Jose before they quickly turn around to head to Toronto and face the league’s best team Wednesday, and then come back home to host upstart expansion side Atlanta United FC on Saturday. As always, there will be questions as how head coach Jim Curtin deals with minute management to keep everyone fresh. It might be especially interesting to see if he’d consider resting anyone in Toronto considering even a full-strength Union team has little chance of knocking off Toronto FC, who are currently 9-0-3 at home and maybe even one of the best MLS teams ever assembled. That said, if the Union can pull off the upset, it would be a huge boost toward their playoff push and a moment they’ll remember for a long time.

2. Remember Maurice Edu? The Union midfielder hasn’t played an MLS minute in nearly two years but suited up for USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel on Sunday, playing just over 30 minutes vs. Louisville City. Does that mean he’s ready to play for the Union? Not necessarily. Last year, he made three rehab appearances with Bethlehem, before then getting hurt as he was set to play for the Union. So the coaches may still want to give it a bit more time with the Steel, meaning a trip to Toronto is unlikely.

3. Another player who’s probably closer to returning is Andre Blake, who’s now missed eight straight games because of the Gold Cup and hurting his hand in the tournament final. John McCarthy continues to play well in his absence, but getting Blake back in time to face a star-studded Toronto attack could make a huge difference north of the border.

Stat of the week
With his goal Saturday, Alberg is tied for second on the team in goals this season with five. He also finished second on the team last season in that category, and his 14 total goals in nearly two seasons ranks fifth all time.

Quote of the week
“Both teams needed three points to be honest, so a tie kind of doesn’t do much for either of us at this stage.”

— Union head coach Jim Curtin, after Saturday’s 2-2 draw

Player of the week
On top of his goal, Elliott also helped set up the team’s second goal and made a couple of huge clearances in the box. The rookie was, by far, the team’s best player on the night.