KANSAS CITY, KAN. – The USA faces a critical test Tuesday night with a berth in the next round of World Cup qualification on the line.
A win or a draw against Guatemala at Livestrong Park is good enough to get them into the Hexagonal, and final stage of qualification in our region; a loss could eliminate them from the 2014 World Cup depending on other results on the evening.
The USA shouldn't be in this position, but they are after a stuttering qualifying campaign that has seen them struggle to beat lesser opponents. Last Friday night, the Americans stunk out the house against tiny Antigua and Barbuda, and were lucky to come away with a win. It was a low point in the now 14-month-old tenure of coach Jurgen Klinsmann, and it has raised the spectre that this team may be following in the footsteps of the Olympic squad.
In March, a shock loss to El Salvador kept the Olympic side out of the 2012 London Games, a humiliation that exposed the USA's youth program as bereft. Now, the full national team has watched their arch-rivals Mexico prance through this round of qualifying with ease. Some are starting to wonder if Brazil is really in the cards for the USA. Failing to qualify for the big dance would be nothing short of a disaster for the sport in America. And yet, here we are, on the edge.
"Our approach is clear," Klinsmann soberly told the media on Monday afternoon. "We want to win this game. We are going to attack, and we are going to go forward. We are not looking for a tie."
Klinsmann's demeanor -- and his insistence that his team would get the job done -- is because the pressure is well on. Under the coach's reign, the USA has won some impressive friendlies, but have faltered in games that actually count. This round, the Americans suffered their first loss ever against Jamaica, were nearly held to a draw by a nation of just 81,000 on Friday night, and must hope that they do not suffer their first loss to Guatemala since 1988 on Tuesday.
More troubling - despite Klinsmann's relentlessly sunny words - the team doesn't appear to be buying into his program. The former German star and World Cup winner promised to play an open and attacking style; instead, Klinsmann's USA looks constipated, is immobile in midfield, and woefully lacking ideas up top. Star Landon Donovan hasn't been able to feature due to a mysterious knee injury; other players simply haven't shown up. Indeed, Klinsmann ruefully quipped that even he wished a few more goals were falling for the Americans.
These are coaching issues, plain and simple. But it is also clear to long-time observers that Klinsmann doesn't have as much to work with as American fans have conned themselves into believing.
Only one player on the current squad, Tottenham's Clint Dempsey, is a legitimate world-level star. Michael Bradley is a better-than-average midfielder at Roma and Geoff Cameron seems to be defensively adept. After that, the drop-off is steep: despite American fans' howls of protest, these players are, by and large, journeymen. They are wildly overrated by a U.S. fan base, who seem to ignore the fact that not one field player aside from Dempsey would be coveted by a marquee European team. (Indeed: none are.)
There is little support coming up through the ranks either. There is no clear replacement for Tim Howard in goal, no sure-fire playmaker like Donovan, and the strike corps is best described as hit or miss. Klinsmann has been casting his net abroad, but his promises to revitalize a clearly moribund youth program have so fair failed to pay off.
"It is a process," admitted Klinsmann. "It was a blow not to qualify for the Olympics and some of our guys are having to work their way back into the system. But right now, our focus is on getting it done tomorrow, and beating Guatemala and advancing to the next round."
That allowed, this team is markedly better than the likes of their opponents at this level and it is alarming that the Americans are not doing what they should be doing as a regional power. Mexico, already qualified, and efficiently dispatched Guyana 5-0 on the same night that the USA were dimly bumbling out their game on a cricket oval. Ignore anyone who tells you that road games in CONCACAF are "difficult" to win. We're talking about nations that are barely able to field teams, and not one of them would be taken seriously in any other region of the world.
Few expect the Yanks to collapse at Livestrong. Guatemala is sure to give them a game but they haven't been a serious threat to the Americans since Bob Gansler coached the national team. But the Americans do seem to be reverting back to a territory well-trod two decades ago. Then, the Americans played every game by the seat of their pants, always a foul away from giving up a goal, a second away from a heart-stopping collapse.
"We're honest enough to know how we played," admitted Michael Bradley. "We should have been better. But our spirit is strong and the mark of a quality team is to come away with a win when you don't play your best."
Fair enough. But at some point, the USA has to start showing some quality. Right now, that's sorely lacking.