Most pressure on a U.S. World Cup qualifier in a decade

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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.

(MORE: PST match preview with lots of links)

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.

Who is Kenny Saief, and other USMNT Gold Cup personnel questions

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Kenny Saief is an 23-year-old American left-sided player with UEFA Champions League experience.

So why do we know so little about the Miami-born man?

The answer is pretty straight-forward: Saief’s entire career has been under-the-radar. After coming up through a series of Israeli teams, he moved to KAA Gent in Belgium. None of those matches, even adding in his representing the full Israel national team twice, got a ton of play on American soil.

[ MORE: Saul scores stunner for Spain U-21s ]

So when Saief filed his one-time switch to represent the United States, paving the way for a USMNT call-up for this summer’s Gold Cup, even those of us who’d followed his career from afar had put a limited amount of actual observation on match footage.

So here’s the long-and-short:

  • Saief turns 24 in December.
  • He moved to Gent from Israeli second tier side Ramat haSharon in 2014.
  • Played a total of 35 minutes in friendlies versus Serbia and Croatia.
  • Saief has 20 total appearances between the Europa and Champions Leagues.
  • Posted a UCL assist versus Wolfsburg in the 2015-16 Round of 16.
  • Had goal, 2 assists in UEL this season, played 180 mins vs. Spurs.
  • Has 15 goals, 9 assists in 107 apps for Gent.

Saief should get an opportunity to make an impact for Bruce Arena’s USMNT, perhaps as soon as Saturday’s friendly against Ghana in East Hartford.

Who else stands a chance to gain the most from this tournament?

Joe Corona — The 26-year-old made his thirst-inducing name in American soccer circles by scoring a pair of goals in the 2013 Gold Cup, but has just 17 caps to his name. His call-up over veterans like Benny Feilhaber and Sacha Kljestan either shows how high he’s risen or how far those veterans have fallen.

Cristian Roldan — Seattle’s hard-nosed midfielder was playing college ball at Washington just three years ago, and it’s not crazy to think strong performances could boost him onto the radar of bigger clubs abroad (let alone make him a mainstay along Kellyn Acosta with the USMNT).

Dom Dwyer — If Roldan’s rise is surprising, Dwyer’s really is astounding. It’s easy to forget that the Sporting KC star forward was playing junior college soccer in 2010 before spending one season of Division I soccer with South Florida. Now he has 57 MLS goals and a look at becoming the clinical finisher the American side has wanted for some time.

Justin Morrow and Eric Lichaj — The 29- and 28-year-old fullbacks would love to prove their mettle is as good if not better than Jorge Villafana, the current front-runner to start at left back should the Yanks complete their revitalized run to the World Cup. Lichaj, a Nottingham Forest veteran, is also adept at right back.

This isn’t to say that Juan Agudelo and Kelyn Rowe won’t benefit from strong tournaments, but the names above have either been rescued from soccer’s scrap heap or at least Jurgen Klinsmann’s prison.

PODCAST: Bob Bradley talks MLS past, USMNT

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Scott Nicholls and Otis Earle welcomed Bob Bradley to their “Beyond The Pitch” podcast to discuss his time coaching the Chicago Fire, the Fire’s current squad, how MLS has evolved, the new generation of players coming into the USMNT and more.

Perhaps most interesting is Bradley talking about previous losses with stinging emotion that sounds like they happened yesterday, including the 2000 MLS Cup.

[ MORE: Latest Men In Blazers pod ]

Since being fired from Swansea City after less than 100 days, Bradley has been linked with the Norway national team gig as well as a return to Los Angeles. Keep up with the U.S. coach here, and check out the podcast here:

U.S. Open Cup preview: Which underdog has best odds?

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Every dog has its day, and the three lower-tier clubs remaining in the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup are hoping for a second.

Miami FC, Sacramento Republic, and FC Cincinnati enjoyed wins over Major League Soccer sides in the fourth round, and now get further MLS tests in this week’s fifth round.

[ MORE: Lampard linked with manager opening ]

Once FC Dallas and Colorado Rapids tangle on Tuesday, attention turns to the underdogs on Wednesday. Who has the best chance to advance?

  1. Miami FC vs. Atlanta United — Playing an MLS expansion side at Riccardo Silva Stadium will give Miami a bit of confidence, and this is also a side with some good experience in pressure spots. Whether it’s manager Alessandro Nesta or MLS vets Michel, Gabriel Farfan, and Michael Lahoud, MFC won’t shy away. Upset chance: Solid.
  2. FC Cincinnati vs. Chicago Fire — The visitors are having a heck of a season in MLS and don’t have a group which will be worried by a huge crowd, but there’s no debating that 25,000-plus in Southern Ohio give FCC more than a puncher’s chance. Upset chance: Improbable, but possible
  3. LA Galaxy vs. Sacramento Republic — If LA puts something close to its best side out there, Sacramento will struggle to stop its attack.  Upset chance: Long shot.

Elsewhere on Wednesday, New England hosts DC United, Philadelphia visits the Red Bulls, Seattle is off to San Jose, and Houston hosts Sporting KC.

WATCH: Spain’s Saul smashes a shot past Italy’s Donnarumma

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Since returning from a loan at Rayo Vallecano, Saul Niguez has been a somewhat under the radar star at Atletico Madrid.

Coming off his best season with Atleti, the 22-year-old Saul is making an even bigger name for himself at the U-21 EURO this summer.

Spain’s Saul scored a hat trick past Gianluigi Donnarumma and Italy on Tuesday, and the second goal was laced with venom.

Getting onto the ball from 30-plus yards out, Saul smashed his shot with enough power that the ball barely had occasion to rotate.

Saul is under contract at the Vicente Calderon through 2022, and has three caps for Spain’s senior team, too. He was rated Atleti’s third-best performer by WhoScored this season.