Tension will be high Wednesday in Honduras, where the United States soccer team launches its final push toward World Cup 2014, as security concerns and the grave consequence of failure hang heavy over coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his U.S. 24-man assembly.
Should the United States be expected to qualify for next summer’s World Cup in Brazil? Absolutely.
Is it a slam dunk? Absolutely not.
The United States national team, under the direction of its enthusiastic, enigmatic German coach, meets an improving and confident Honduras as the “money round” of qualifying commences. Small though it is, Honduras advanced to its second World Cup finals in 2010 and qualified for the 2012 Olympics (when the United States did not).
Wednesday’s match in San Pedro Sula, the most violent city on the planet according to the U.S. State Department, is the first of 10 final-stage qualifying matches in the CONCACAF region (North and Central America and the Caribbean). Final round qualifying runs through October.
The Hondurans hope to maximize any edge against the more experienced Americans by kicking off at 4 p.m ET, when the heat and humidity could become problematic for the majority of U.S. men who make their living in Europe.
The United States must finish top three in the six-team group (along with Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Panama) for automatic passage to Brazil ’14. The group’s fourth-place finisher gets one last chance, a home-and-away series in November against the Oceania winner (probably New Zealand) for the 32-team tournament’s final spot.
Mexico and the United States are favorites to advance, and qualification certainly has become habit here in domestic soccer’s modern era. The country last failed to qualify in 1986, so this would be U.S. Soccer’s seventh consecutive World Cup finals appearance.
While the odds favor a U.S. side blessed with Tim Howard, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey – not headliner “stars” in Europe, but easily in the next tier of talent, highly valued men for solid clubs in esteemed leagues of the Old World – nothing can be taken for granted. The tension here lies solidly in consequence of failure.
Such a thing would be viewed as catastrophe in U.S. Soccer, a crash in the ongoing ascent of the sport domestically.
Not all is perfect in the U.S. cause. Midfield creators are scarce and the back line still has questions as a new generation, led by center back Geoff Cameron and two young German-Americans, transitions in.
Landon Donovan, responsible for single-handedly rescuing a couple of the potentially wayward matches in the 2010 World Cup qualifying cycle, can’t quite untangle his career mid-life crisis. Donovan, 30, remains on extended break and not with the U.S. team in Honduras.
Semifinal stage qualifying was bumpier than expected, beginning with a draw in Guatemala and then (egad!) a loss at Jamaica. Eventually, Klinsmann and Co. righted matters by taking good care of business at home and qualifying for the final round atop the group.
A recent 0-0 draw with Canada didn’t help assuage any concerns, never mind that Klinsmann’s “B” team was minus its top talent.
Those semifinal road wobbles raised red flags of concern among media and supporters, especially as Klinsmann (pictured above, Tuesday in Honduras along with Michael Bradley) had been recruited – at almost five times the salary of his predecessor, Bob Bradley, whose base was less than $500,000 annually – to move the United States forward, off a plateau.
The United States made it to World Cup 2006 but looked immediately unsound and exited quickly. Only a dramatic, late Donovan goal in 2010 helped the United States slip into the second round. But a subsequent Round-of-16 loss left the bitter, incomplete taste of opportunity lost.
Now it’s on Klinsmann, who guided Germany to a third-place finish in 2006 but is going through his first qualifying campaign as a manager. (Germany was invited automatically in 2006 as hosts.)
“There is no easy way, not for Mexico, not for the United States, not for anybody,” Klinsmann said via national teleconference Monday just before charter departure into Central America. “You have to get your points, you have to win your games and you have to get the job done. You have to go into every game with the expectation that it’s going to be difficult, that it will challenge you to the limits.
“That’s our approach: take it seriously every time you go out onto the field, very seriously, and be very awake and then we’ll see how it runs out through those 10 [final round] games. I told the players it’s all about alertness, commitment and determination. The way they train, the way they presented themselves already this morning, it looks like they are ready.”