On Sept. 11, 2012, the United States men's national team badly needed a win over Jamaica at home in Columbus, Ohio. The game really meant something. The third qualifying phase in the CONCACAF region for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil was quickly sliding from formality to fiasco. A 3-1 home win over puny Antigua & Barbuda had been unexpectedly labored. An away game in Guatemala had yielded only a draw . And worst of all, the away game to Jamaica had been lost 2-1 , and certainly not undeservedly so.
Half-way through the four-team double-round robin, the Americans were tied with the Guatemalans for the second of the two berths for the fourth and final qualifying round and three points adrift of the Jamaican group leaders. Things were looking perilous indeed. A year into his tenure, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann's stylistic revolution wasn't coming off and the Americans were getting into a bad habit of giving away leads.
But by the grace of a wholly convincing performance -- the first of Klinsmann's reign -- in a rousing Columbus Crew Stadium, the Americans took the 1-0 win they needed and put their qualifying campaign right.
On Friday, in the penultimate game of the final stage of World Cup qualifying, they get to do it again ( live, ESPN, Friday, 6:36 p.m. ET ) , with one major difference: no such pressure weighs on the USA. The Yanks have already secured their seventh consecutive World Cup appearance by winning four of their last five qualifiers, following a fraught 1-1-1 start. It makes no difference whatsoever where you place among the top-3 in the hexagonal round. And the Americans have only the most minute of mathematical chances of leveraging wins in their last two games into a spot among the best seven in October's FIFA World Rankings -- they currently sit in 13th place -- which comes with a seed for the World Cup draw. In truth, there's little tangible to play for.
The challenges, then, by which the United States can measure its performance in this deflated affair come not within the context of this game itself but of the future. A spate of injuries has presented the USA with a different set of problems. Orchestrators Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey are injured; wide player Fabian Johnson and Omar Gonzalez, the pillar in central defense, are too; forward Eddie Johnson, whom Klinsmann admits would have made a start, was a late scratch with a left groin strain incurred during practice on Wednesday; and fellow attacker Landon Donovan, recently reintegrated into the senior selection after a year-long layoff, has been playing through an ankle injury. Steve Cherundolo still hasn't recovered from a series of surgeries whle central midfielder Jermaine Jones may or may not require surgery to his meniscus, delaying it for now.
Throughout his time in charge, Klinsmann has spoken of building depth. Now presents itself an opportunity to test the integrity of his structure, to see just how the United States holds up when you take a handful of columns out of the foundation. Will they wither without some of their leaders, the way the Americans did when Bradley rolled his ankle minutes before the 3-1 loss in Costa Rica in September? This bears watching because no team ever plays through a World Cup at full strength.
Klinsmann is keen on retaining the hard-earned momentum his team has built since the spring. While this game and the final qualifier in Panama City ( live, BeIN Sport, Tuesday, 9:30 p.m. ET) count for little in the standings, they do matter psychologically. Klinsmann knows this well. When his Americans are going good, when their state of mind is optimal, they rise above the constraints of their own talent. And if they are to make it past the first knockout round in Brazil, they have some transcending to do.
Those merely covetous of a spot on the 23-man squad for Brazil, meanwhile, will now have their chance. Playing at home, on a winning but depleted team, against an opponent that's virtually eliminated, the opportunities are ample. The likes of Michael Orozco, Sacha Kljestan, Mix Diskerud, Terrence Boyd and Chris Wondolowski -- a late replacement for Eddie Johnson -- are men either on the bubble for the summer or even a notch lower on the depth chart. They are likely to get a rare shot.
And the best way to accomplish all this -- to prove that the US isn't overly dependent on Bradley and Dempsey, that depth no longer is an issue, that all that progress won't be surrendered easily, and that some players belong -- is to beat Jamaica, even if nobody really needs the points.