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 remember.
Sounders FC’s Eddie Johnson, one of two Seattle-area 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 seventh largest for a home qualifier in federation history. Attendance was second biggest for a U.S. game in Seattle.
The big win and jumped the U.S. to sole possession of first place in CONCACAF qualifying and continued a number of impressive streaks for the red, white and blue.
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.
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.
Dempsey nearly tacked onto 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 U.S. improved to 3-1-1 (10 points) at the midway point of qualifying in North America, Central America and the Caribbean. Mexico and Costa Rica are tied for second on points with eight.
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.
The play was set up when Fabian Johnson, after receiving a pass on the left wing from Michael Bradley, skipped a picture-perfect cross to the far post where Altidore slammed it in for his eighth goal in this qualifying cycle.
The reward was deserved for Altidore, who just two minutes earlier was hacked down in the penalty box. Despite irate protests, a penalty kick wasn’t awarded by Mexican referee Roberto Garcia.
The hosts were the aggressors throughout the first half, with a 7-2 shot advantage.
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Bradley nearly put the U.S. ahead in the 22nd minute, but while his shot from the top of the penalty box appeared bound for the back of the net, it was inadvertently blocked away by Dempsey.
The temporary grass surface, a key talking point in the game’s lead-up, did no favors to Panama in the 23rd minute, when left back Carlos Rodriguez slipped with no one around him before he could make a cross behind the U.S. defense.
Panama would continue to press into the final minutes, ultimately suffering its first loss in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, falling to 1-8-1 all-time on American soil.