CARSON, California (AP) – The United States men's national team road to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil was laid out in a dimly lit room in Miami on Wednesday night. After much needless pomp, circumstance, hot air speeches, rounds of tepid applause and highlight videos set to dramatic music, a draw to decide the playing schedule for the fourth phase of CONCACAF qualifying, which will send three or four North American, Central American or Caribbean teams to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil was conducted. The draw was made necessary because the six countries still standing couldn't agree on a schedule amongst themselves.
The United States was handed a tricky schedule which will take it on the road - where the US has struggled in recent qualifiers - for three of its first four games, and which will twice call for games against Mexico and Costa Rica, arguably its strongest foes, in the span of five days.
Each team will play 10 games in a double round robin, playing each opponent twice, once at home and once away. The first three teams in the final standings will qualify for the World Cup automatically, while the fourth will play a two-game play-in series with the winner of Oceania's qualifying mechanism, most likely New Zealand.
The United States' CONCACAF qualifying schedule will be as follows:
Feb. 6, 2013: Honduras vs. United States
March 22, 2013: United States vs. Costa Rica
March 26, 2013 : Mexico vs. United States
June 7, 2013: Jamaica vs. United States
June 11, 2013: United States vs. Panama
June 18, 2013: United States vs. Honduras
Sept. 6, 2013: Costa Rica vs. United States
Sept. 10, 2013: United States vs. Mexico
Oct. 11, 2013: United States vs. Jamaica
Oct. 15, 2013: Panama vs. United States
The fourth phase of CONCACAF qualifying - better known as the hexagonal - offers Jurgen Klinsmann and his men a clean slate. For history will show that the US won Group A of the third phase by taking 13 points from six games for a 4-1-1 record. In truth, the process was a slog. Where the US should have breezed through, it drew away to Guatemala, lost away to Jamaica and twice failed to discard a dire Antigua and Barbuda side by a more palatable score than the respective 3-1 and 2-1 outcomes. Mathematically, it even faced elimination going into the final rounds.
Unimaginative and erratic, the US has much to put right in the hexagonal if it hopes to convince anybody that it has even a prayer of reaching the knockout stages of the 2014 World Cup, the stated objective.
A continental quirk gives it a better shot of doing so, however. Unlike every other team in its group, the US doesn't have a designated national stadium in which it is more or less obliged to host its qualifiers. That means it can tailor its venues to the weaknesses of opponents. It can opt for the altitude of Denver, Colo., or the cold and noise of Kansas City, Kans. or Columbus, Ohio. And it can pick markets in which opponents don't have a large following, to avoid scenarios like the 2011 Gold Cup final, which was held in Los Angeles in front of an overwhelmingly pro-Mexico crowd.
If inflicting maximum discomfort upon your opponents sounds unsportsmanlike, it's only what every CONCACAF opponent has historically gone out of its way to do to the United States. But the hoped-for opportunity to play Mexico at home in a cold climate was foisted by the schedule draw, however, as the game was set for Sept. 6.
Ultimately, they say, each team has to overcome the same obstacles to qualify for the World Cup. The US now knows where and when it will have to clear those hurdles.
And clear them it must.