Ching saves best for last
KINGSTON, Jamaica -- Without one World Cup qualifier under his belt and only a pair of appearances for the U.S. National Team to speak of, there stood Brian Ching at midfield waiting to enter the match with his team down 1-0 to Jamaica.
In the 11 minutes since the Reggae Boyz had scored, National Stadium -- The Office, as it's called -- had become a living and breathing organism, powered on by the intense passion of what seemed to be an entire nation in attendance.
The noise was deafening. The type of roars that make it difficult to think. The type of atmosphere that caused Bruce Arena to start a 35-year-old in Earnie Stewart whose played in three World Cups, and call-in 34-year-old Cobi Jones, who has been through the rigors of qualifying in the toughest environments all over the region.
So if Ching's knees were buckling and his nerves were causing him to feel a bit nauseous, he could have been excused. But nothing could have been further from the truth as he trotted onto the field to replace Brian McBride in the 60th minute of Wednesday night's opening match of the semifinal round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
"I was more excited than nervous," said Ching, whose 89th-minute goal gave the Yanks an all-important tie on the road in Group 1 play. "I wasn't really nervous at all ... I was champing at the bit to get in."
Despite what he said, Ching sure played the part of nervous neophyte just three minutes into his first qualifier.
Known for his aerial presence in the box due to his powerful 6-foot-1, 195-pound frame and fearless attitude when going after crosses, the 26-year-old striker broke through the Jamaican defense all alone as a perfectly-driven cross from Greg Vanney was heading his way.
But rather than power the ball in the back of the net or even put it on goal from a mere six yards out, the San Jose Earthquakes' standout headed the ball way off the mark, to his right, and immediately clutched his head with his hands knowing that could have been The One.
"I think it was one of those opportunities where I put a little bit more on it than I needed to," he said. "I was a little bit surprised to be so open. But, at the same token, I should've buried it. And I didn't."
Joked Jamaican National Team and Chicago Fire midfielder Andy Williams after the match: "He'd probably score that goal in MLS."
Probably, yes. Having tallied 10 goals thus far for the Earthquakes, he's been one of the constants in an up-and-down season for last year's MLS Cup champions.
Yet, this wasn't an MLS match. Or even a National Team friendly, like the ones he participated in last year against Wales or back in July against Poland. This was a meaningful match, and one the U.S. could not afford to lose if it planned on getting through to the final round of World Cup qualifying. And the team doesn't want to face the do-or-die situation like they experienced in 2000 when Arena's squad went into Barbados needing a win that November.
Getting one golden opportunity is all a striker can ask for in international soccer. To get two is rare, especially in a close match on the road. But fortunately for Ching and the American side, that's exactly what he received in the 89th minute seconds after Jones sent in a cross to the center of the penalty box.
"I heard Landon yell and say, 'Leave it,'" said Ching, as he made a run towards the near post. By not trying to get a head on the driven ball, the Jamaican defense was momentarily frozen.
"Fortunately, it bounced right off of two defenders and right to (Donovan)," he said. "I think everybody thought he was going to shoot it."
Standing within point-blank range, Donovan could have very well slammed the ball past goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts. Instead, he looked for his San Jose teammate just a few yards to his right, and slipped a quick, unexpected pass to Ching's left foot. Before the defense could react, the Haleiwa, Hawaii, native set the ball up for his preferred right foot and rifled the ball in from eight yards out.
"Landon passed up three shots today," said Arena after the match. "On that play, he made the right decision. And what a great finish."
Not only did Ching's goal give the U.S. a 1-1 tie and the one point that goes along with it in Group I that includes El Salvador and Panama, but it also justified Arena's decision to bring on an inexperienced striker for a proven goal scorer like McBride.
"He's a good player, there's no question about that," said Arena. "We're not surprised by it."
In one respect, it's something Arena had planned on doing no matter what the score was since he wasn't sure of McBride's form after only arriving at Fulham a few weeks ago for the start of the season in the English Premier League. The fact that Ching and Donovan play together in San Jose also certainly had something to do with the move.
"He and Landon have a good feel for each other," said Arena.
This time their good fortune helped their home country rather than their club, which is something Ching would like to continue after his heroics on Wednesday night.
"It's a critical time in my career," he said. "So I wanted to perform well and prove I deserve to be here."
Arena concurred, saying, "He certainly earned his selection today."
As qualifying proceeds, the decision that will have to be made will be whether Ching or strikers such as Josh Wolff, Clint Mathis, Conor Casey and surprise call-up Eddie Johnson join McBride and Donovan. According to team captain Claudio Reyna, Ching is a likely candidate because he is a target forward just like McBride, who can serve a role off the bench or in his absence.
"I was very impressed," said Reyna. "We need another target player, and he's one who is going to be around for a while."
Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org