FOX Soccer Exclusive
USA is on the road to Brazil 2014
SAN PEDRO SULA, HONDURAS
The World Cup journey that begins anew for the United States here in Honduras on Wednesday last ended in a chilly press tent outside of the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, South Africa, more than two and a half years ago.
Under the glare of the bright lights affixed to the rafters, U.S. men’s national team head coach Bob Bradley’s face looked a little more gaunt and his hair a little greyer than usual. In his post-game press conference, he mournfully spoke of his team having given up an early goal one too many times.
His son Michael, who was one of the team’s breakout players in central midfield, stomped through the mixed zone some time later.
“How do you feel?” I asked him.
He looked down, gave it a second and then stared daggers at me. “How do you think I feel?” he snapped.
It was a stupid question. The U.S. had just been bounced from the 2010 World Cup in the Round of 16. A series of blunders in their own half had given Ghana a 5th-minute lead. The Americans clawed their way back into the game through a Landon Donovan penalty kick in the 62nd minute. But in the 3rd minute of extra time, the U.S. burned itself on defense once more, allowing Asamoah Gyan to slip between two men and volley in the winning goal. That killed off the American campaign in a town teeming with undertakers catering to casualties of the surrounding mines, ironically.
“The finality of it is brutal,” said Donovan after the game.
It was a seminal World Cup moment, brief but unforgettable. The road to such moments is much longer, sometimes lulling us into just how abrupt the end can come. In fact, the road usually runs out early for the U.S.: this team yet to advance past the quarterfinals in the modern era. Yet the Yanks will venture out on it once more, kicking off the final phase of World Cup qualifying – called the “hexagonal round,” or simply “hex” – in hopes of emerging as one of three or four teams from North and Central American and the Caribbean (the CONCACAF confederation) that will enter the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Over the next eight months, the U.S. will play Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, Jamaica and Panama twice – once at home and once on enemy turf. The three teams with the best record qualify automatically. Failing that, the fourth-placed team can still secure a spot in Brazil by winning a two-game playoff with the winner of the Oceania confederation’s own qualifying mechanism, which would most likely be New Zealand.
Qualification technically started last summer with the third phase, but getting through it was a mere formality for the U.S., or should have been anyway, in a soft group with Jamaica, Guatemala and Antigua & Barbuda. Now, the slog starts in earnest.
On paper, there isn't team aside from Mexico that should be able to beat the U.S. But in CONCACAF qualifying is more complicated than simply overmatching your opponents. At away games, the surroundings are invariably daunting, with hostile fans going out of their way to intimidate the gringo visitors before and during games. While at home games crowds are often partisan to the away team when they are played in areas inhabited by high concentrations of Hispanics, something the U.S. Soccer Federation now works to avoid.
Other challenges are internal. Landon Donovan, the long-time face of the team who has scored a great many more goals for his country than any other American, is on a sabbatical of sorts, and if and when he will return is unclear. New pillars have emerged, like Bradley, who is now indispensible in midfield. Clint Dempsey has accomplished more amid pro soccer’s European elite than any other American forward and is central to anything the Americans hope to achieve. Recently recruited German-Americans like midfielder Jermaine Jones and wing backs Timmy Chandler and Fabian Johnson add technique and savvy to the mix. But the U.S. is thin up front and out wide, and question marks are abundant in central defense.
The system employed by head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who succeeded Bradley in July 2011, meanwhile, is ill-defined and ever-changing. His stated hope was to implement a high-pressure, up-tempo system but progress on that has been slow and fraught, and at many times, his team has looked like the antithesis of that. The U.S., in short, has been somewhat adrift since that night in Rustenburg.
Still, the Americans are expected to make it to Brazil without incident. But in the process, they will have to forge a cohesive team, devise a coherent playing style and best a series of teams who think no method too grotesque to end the Americans’ run before it’s even begun.
Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for the New York Times, the Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderOnFOX.
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