DENVER – All World Cup qualifiers come with pressure. The home matches come with extra helpings; everyone knows the recipe for World Cup qualification means picking off points on the road, but it demands wins at home.
So there’s always a load to bear in these things.
But the weight of this one feels different. The United States may not be wearing the heaviness as a burden, not just yet, but it’s there.
I wondered when the last the United States marched into a home stadium for a qualifier with as much pressure attached? Because it has surely been a while.
More than a decade, it seems.
Every round has a match or two where a result is needed or even required, or very bad things will happen. Heck, there was even a scenario last fall where a loss in the semifinal round finale could have seen the American’s (gasp!) tumble completely out of the World Cup. As in, “out!” No Brazil 2014, no chance at World Cup glory – but firings and recriminations surely arriving in force, at military grade strength.
But even then, at home against Guatemala, the United States players and staff had a certain assuredness, and media members who were not prone to dramatic overreaction understood the true odds, which still leaned heavily the U.S. way. Sure enough, Jurgen Klinsmann’s team rolled into the final round with a comfortable win that night outside Kansas City.
A loss tonight does not mean elimination. But … Lose tonight and lose Tuesday in Mexico (likely) and things could unravel completely inside a camp already showing fissure. Hard questions about Klinsmann and whether he needs immediate replacement will pepper the U.S. camp, and federation president Sunil Gulati would be forced to think seriously about making a huge move prior to the next team gathering in mid-May.
I talked to Kasey Keller during yesterday’s U.S. practice. The longtime U.S. goalkeeper remembers the qualifier back in October of 2001 as having an enormous weight attached.
The team had lost three in a row, including one at home (the last qualifier loss on U.S. soil, in fact) and were sitting a meager fourth in a six-team group with two contests remaining, perilously close to not qualifying for World Cup 2002 in Asia.
(Plus, no team carrying the United States banner had participated in a major event since 9/11 the attacks, so there was added patriotic weight, as well.)
Before that, the qualifier in Portland back in 1997, where Tab Ramos came through with an enormous lift toward France ’98, started with so much on the line. (Still one of the best atmospheres I’ve seen and felt for a U.S. World Cup qualifier.)
The weight is always there, but rarely is it as massive as this one.