SEATTLE — The U.S. national team’s road to the 2014 FIFA World Cup went through Seattle on Tuesday, and a hometown hero helped make it a day to remember.
Sounders FC’s Eddie Johnson, one of two local stars in the U.S. starting lineup, scored in the 53rd minute to help secure a 2-0 win against Panama in World Cup qualifying and move the Americans one step closer to the finals in Brazil next summer.
A partisan and lively CenturyLink Field crowd of 40,847 was the seventh largest for a home qualifier in federation history, and the fans were just as much the star in what was the second-biggest turnout for a U.S. game in Seattle.
“Unbelievable,” said midfielder Michael Bradley, who plays for AS Roma in Italy. “The best crowd I’ve played in (front of) in the United States without a doubt.”
The convincing win jumped the U.S. (3-1-1) to sole possession of first place in CONCACAF qualifying and continued a number of impressive U.S. streaks.
The national team, which also started Sounders FC’s Brad Evans at right back, improved to 22-0-2 in home qualifiers, dating to 2001. The U.S. has won six straight in Seattle by a combined 18-1 score.
“We’re very pleased with our performance,” coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “I think through the entire game we were in control of it. Every area on the field, the guys did their job.”
Klinsmann said the crowd was amazing: “I think it was just a wonderful atmosphere. The players enjoyed it tremendously. We all did.”
Leading by a goal in the second half, Johnson provided valuable insurance when he timed a run perfectly to beat an offside trap and get behind the defense. He collected a sublime pass from midfielder Geoff Cameron before calmly slotting home a left-footed shot in front of his home crowd.
Johnson, whose 11 career goals in qualifying are third in American history, capped the goal with longtime friend Clint Dempsey with their trademark handshake-turned-salute celebration.
“It’s just a dream come true. ... I couldn’t have asked for a better feeling,” Johnson said.
Dempsey nearly tacked on to the lead in the 66th minute, but his shot off his own rebound bounced off the crossbar. U.S. defender DaMarcus Beasley also was denied by the woodwork, when his shot after a long run from the back clipped off the post in the 79th minute.
The hosts opened the scoring in the 36th minute on a fine counterattack goal by forward Jozy Altidore, his third goal in as many international games and eighth in this qualifying cycle. The reward was deserved for Altidore, who just two minutes earlier was hacked down in the penalty box but didn’t get the call.
The hosts were the aggressors throughout the first half, and looked immediately at home with a 7-2 shot advantage before the break.
And maybe Seattle, which hadn’t hosted a qualifier in 37 years, will be more of a permanent home going forward.
“Now that it’s here, you better believe that it will be more to come in the future,” Evans said. “Hopefully it becomes a venue like Columbus or things like that where it’s every World Cup cycle you get a good game because the crowd was absolutely insane tonight. The guys had nothing but positive things to say.”