TAMPA, FLORIDA – Losing isn't an option. Neither is tying. In fact, anything short of an American football-like score on Friday in the US men's national team's World Cup qualifying opener against Antigua & Barbuda will feel like a reason to worry.
Although a 1-0 victory against the tiny island nation would move the Americans a step closer to qualifying for the World Cup, it would do little to alleviate concerns raised by the team's recent disappointing outings against Brazil and Canada.
No, losing to a team like Brazil shouldn't really come as a shock, but the United States are fully expected to dominate CONCACAF competition not named Mexico, even if history has shown that World Cup qualifiers can be tricky against smaller competition.
"We have to know it's going to be a difficult game, that we can't just go out there and think it's going to be a cruise," said US national team star Dempsey said. "We're going to have a fight on our hands. They have a chance to do something special, they're going to want to upset us. They're a strong athletic team, they can catch you on the counter, they'll get players behind the ball.
"It's about us being sharp and being able to do what we didn't do against Canada," Dempsey said. "Being able to create more chances, clear-cut chances, not just half-chances. Hopefully we'll be able to create those chances and get those goals because we want to start qualifying off on the right foot."
There have been few opponents as small as Antigua & Barbuda, a pair of Caribbean Islands with a combined population of 88,710. The 'Benna Boys' have never been this deep into World Cup qualifying before, having reached the semifinal round by virtue of upsetting Haiti in a qualifying group that included the US Virgin Islands and Curacao.
The 'Benna Boys' have some players to watch for, including Reading FC midfielder Mikele Leigertwood, one-time Montreal Impact striker Pete Byers and England-born forward Dexter Blackstock. However, the onus will still be on the Americans to dominate a team they should be able to dominate, a team that will very likely employ an ultra-defensive approach in an attempt to pull off the upset.
"We'd love them to come out and play an open game, (but) I doubt that will be the case," Klinsmann said. "I think they will get (all) ten field players behind the ball. They will be very disciplined to close the gaps and make it as difficult as possible for us.
"We have to deal with it, and the way we break them down is by playing fast and moving around and keeping the tempo up, until you open up some gaps and hopefully you can create something."
"We know we need to come out fast and put the pressure on them," said forward Herculez Gomez, who is a good bet to play a key role on Friday. "We have the weapons to create chances and this is a game where we need to dictate the tempo."
Antigua & Barbuda will be expected to play the defend-and-counter game that has become standard for smaller CONCACAF opponents, and the team has some speed to make things tough if the US defense gets sloppy. Byers and Blackstock provide speed, while Leigertwood is the best player on the squad and will have the task of trying to unlock the American defense with his precise passing.
Working in the underdogs' favor is the fact the U.S. team will be down to a third-choice option at left back after it was revealed late on Thursday evening that not only was Fabian Johnson slow to recover from a calf injury, but back-up left back Edgar Castillo picked up a hamstring injury in training.
"Every day it's getting a bit better but It will be difficult for (Friday)," Klinsmann said of Johnson. "It's more a no than a yes. We don't want to force it. Hopefully it's working out against Guatemala, but we don't want to stretch it too much."
As for the sudden void at left back caused by Castillo's injury, Klinsmann didn't sound too concerned.
"We always have left backs. Anybody can play left back," Klinsmann said with a laugh. "We had (assistant coach) Andy Herzog play left back, (but) he doesn't have an American passport. We'll figure it out. We'll find solutions."
The most likely solution at left back will be Michael Parkhurst, who has seen time with club side Nordsjaelland at both left back and right back. Captain Carlos Bocanegra has played extensively at left back on the club level in years past, but it seems unlikely Klinsmann will unsettle the central defense position when he can just convert a right back to left back.
Offensively, Klinsmann has preached the gospel of attacking soccer since taking over as head coach ten months ago and Friday's opponent is the perfect opponent for him to unleash the US attack. The big question there will be whether Klinsmann deploys two forwards in a 4-4-2, or chooses instead to trot out a variation of a 4-3-3 with a target forward supporting Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan on the wings.
Either way Klinsmann goes, it is a good bet that Gomez will be in the lineup. The Santos Laguna striker has shown promise in recent matches, and may have edged Jozy Altidore in Klinsmann's current forward pecking order.
Whether the USA uses a 4-4-2 system will ultimately come down to Altidore's fitness. He didn't start any of the three recent friendlies after joining the team late due to club obligations. He has been forced to play catch up ever since, and didn't do much in a cameo appearance against Canada.
"(Three weeks) is a pretty long gap for not training with a team, not doing three training sessions a day like we did in Orlando," Klinsmann said of Altidore. "We can see that in every training session, and we're helping him and we'll work on it. He's working hard and he's positive about it.
"Then you have somebody else jumping in like Terrence Boyd, and like Herculez Gomez against Brazil, they used their chances and made very strong cases for themselves and the competition is open," Klinsmann said.
"It's an open competition, it's always about the moment. How do you present yourself right now and not how you maybe present yourself two weeks from now. It's about today."
In Altidore's defense, nobody did much against Canada, an overall lackluster team effort that could be chalked up to fatigue after playing three games in nine days. With some extra time between the Canada friendly and Friday's World Cup qualifier, the US team should be fresher and players like Dempsey and Donovan should provide more of a spark against an opponent that won't provide the same sort of defensive challenges of the past two friendlies.
Defensively, there has been no word on yet on the availability of Fabian Johnson, who missed the Canada match with a mild calf strain. If he can't go, or if Klinsmann chooses to save him for the pivotal qualifier in Guatemala on Tuesday, Edgar Castillo will get the nod. Castillo had some shaky moments against Canada, but was also good getting forward while also making more good defensive plays than he has in past national team appearances.
Klinsmann must also decide on a starting defender to partner with Carlos Bocanegra, and right now Clarence Goodson is the front-runner after his strong effort against Canada. Oguchi Onyewu's struggles against Brazil have likely cost him a starting role for now.
Whether it's Johnson or Castillo, Goodson or Onyewu, the US will still be heavily favored against an Antigua & Barbuda side that will be hard-pressed to contain a rested United States.; a squad with something to prove after recent disappointing displays, and a team that will be expected to not just win, but to dominate on Friday.