The United States’ schedule for final round 2014 World Cup qualifying looks like a panini sandwich on hard, crusty bread: It’s tough and a little abrasive on the outsides but softer and more inviting in the middle.
It starts with a relative high degree of difficulty and finishes roughly the same, but the run of four home games over five match dates in the middle provides the more inviting part, where manager Jurgen Klinsmann’s men surely must make their move.
The “wheres” remain TBD, but the “whos” and the “whens” for final round CONCACAF World Cup qualifying are out.
The region’s governing body held its draw last night in Miami, filling in the skeleton schedule for the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama and Jamaica. The top three qualify for Brazil 2014; the fourth-place finisher goes to a home-and-away play-in.
For Klinsmann’s team it begins in San Pedro Sula against a strong and confident Honduran team boosted by a recent series of successes. That’s the first of a slate where the early rounds threaten to leave U.S. fans in a state of high anxiety.
Here is the schedule … then we’ll go over several important points and considerations:
Alas, there will be no La Guerra Fria Tres (The Cold War III). That was the branding for a previous pair of very chilly winter matches against Mexico. As the draw approached, U.S. fans in the know wanted nothing more than to open on Feb. 6 against Mexico at home. That match almost certainly would have gone to Columbus, site of triumphs in La Guerra Fria and La Guerra Fria Dos.
Don’t be shocked it things look a bit bleak after four rounds. In fact, everyone might just brace for it. Opening in Honduras and then playing away at Mexico and Jamaica in Rounds 3 and 4 leaves the United States facing a real possibility of resting with some worry near the bottom of the group nearing the halfway pole. In that case …
The June 11 contest at home against Panama at home will be an absolute, no-questions asked, gotta-win, white knuckler.
Generally speaking, all home games can be classified as such. And generally speaking, the United States gets its business done: The United States has not lost a World Cup qualifying match at home since 2001.
Klinsmann admits that opening on the road is hardly ideal. “But if you don’t have the first game at home you make the best out of it,” he said.
Finishing on the road at Panama is a tough spot. If the United States needs a result in that one, look out. Panama is a tougher side than past years’ versions. Remember last year’s Gold Cup, when the Panamanians became the first team to defeat the United States in the tournament’s group phase?
Former Arsenal striker Bendtner drops appeal, will serve time
COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) Former Denmark forward Niklas Bendtner will have to serve a 50-day jail sentence after dropping his appeal against an assault conviction.
Early this month, Bendtner was found guilty of beating and kicking a cab driver in the Danish capital on Sept. 9. The 30-year-old Dane admitted to hitting the man but said he had acted in self-defense after a quarrel over the fare.
GENK, Belgium – On a freezing evening in a Belgian town close to the border with Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and France, the performance of the U.S. men’s national team summed up that they are, quite literally, at a crossroads.
Playing against Italy in Genk to finish off their 2018 schedule was a beautifully apt, if not cruel, metaphor.
The U.S. conceded in the 94th and final minute to lose 1-0 to Italy, and the neutral venue for this game reinforced the gear the USMNT are currently stuck in.
Due to many factors, most notably the 2018 World Cup qualifying debacle but also a U.S. Soccer presidential election, the Americans have been stuck in a strange place the past year with no permanent head coach and no clear plan.
There isn’t much optimism around this program right now. Even the youngest side in USMNT history seems bemused as to why veterans aren’t being called in and why they’ve not been told what the plan is and who the coach will be moving forward.
Lacking direction after a year spent dishing out caps to 50-plus players (which included 23 debutants) as they went 3-5-4 since their World Cup qualifying debacle, this is not the fault of interim head coach Dave Sarachan.
The U.S. lost to England, Italy, Colombia, Brazil and the Republic of Ireland, they drew against Portugal, Peru, Bosnia and France, and beat Mexico, Bolivia and Paraguay. This young team was stretched to its limit and the hope is that these tough experiences, in games they were they were largely dominated, will hold them in good stead in the years to come.
After 13 months (yes one, three) in charge on a temporary basis, what progress has been made since the USMNT failed to qualify for the World Cup last October, if any?
“It was my last game. I haven’t been told that, but it is evident there is going to be a change in the very near future,” Sarchan said. “I feel as though this has been a very good year for the program and I feel as the leader over the last 12 months of the program, I feel as though we have moved it forward. It may not look like that to everybody on the outside but to look back on the games we played, the players we’ve exposed to this level, that we brought forth. I am certain it is going to pay dividends down the line. For me, I feel as though when the next person comes in, they are going to have a great starting point. That makes me feel good and the program feel good.”
In other words, the transition period is over and whether or not these kids have developed and learned in these games, it is no longer Sarachan’s problem.
There’s no more experimenting. This is where it all begins.
As U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro (elected in February) and new USMNT GM Earnie Stewart (appointed in the summer to start on Aug. 1) stood on in the press conference room in Genk and watched Sarachan deliver his final comments as USMNT head coach, the attention has switched to them. They’re on the clock.
They have to not only appoint a new head coach but usher in a new identity to this program which is focused on one thing: making the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. That journey, with or without most of these kids, begins now.
Michael Dovellos, a lifelong USMNT fan, travelled to Europe from Chicago along with his parents to watch the final two games of 2018. Like many fans, he is extremely optimistic about what this young team can achieve in the coming years but there’s no doubting they need extra direction.
“It would have been great to go into 2019 now, finishing these last two games playing against England at Wembley and Italy here in Genk with a brand new coach,” Dovellos explained. “Take these guys, tweak the system, play these two games against great oppositions and make them your team. It is frustrating not to have that happen. We’ve waited all year, there’s no coach. We waited until after the World Cup, there’s no coach. Here we are now, at the end of 2018, and we don’t have a coach yet.”
Coach or no coach, this last week has been a humbling experience for anyone connected with the USMNT.
Getting spanked 3-0 at Wembley by England’s C team in a game which the Three Lions treated more as a testimonial for Wayne Rooney was the low point of Sarachan’s reign. The U.S. were so far off the pace it was scary. Playing all of your youngsters at the same time will lead to that but was getting this experience for them all together, without much veteran leadership, healthy for their development?
Against Italy — a team also packed with young talent with the likes of Leonardo Bonucci and Marco Verratti sprinkled in – they had 26.6 percent of the ball and only a string of fine saves from goalkeeper Ethan Horvath kept them in the game.
Will Trapp, who has captained this young U.S. side for much of the past 13 months, was honest after the defeat to Italy.
“We talked about it in the locker room afterwards, a few more choice words, as you can imagine. Yes, it is about competing and defending, but we can’t defend every game 90 minutes,” Trapp said. “The point that was brought up is ‘the talent is there’ but it is just having a culture of confidence that we can step on the field and play alongside these teams. That is the difference in terms of what Italy was able to do and what we weren’t able to do. They move and want to get on the ball. That is something with a coach and a style we will see how that develops. It is certainly an area to be improved.”
It is clear that just being able to qualify for the 2022 World Cup will need a huge amount of improvement from this group of players.
We all knew there was a long road ahead for these USMNT youngsters to gain the experience needed to navigate the CONCACAF gauntlet in the coming years, but the past 12 months has taught us one thing: this process will take longer than we thought.
Christian Pulisic, the undisputed star of this team who also became the youngest USMNT captain in the modern era on Tuesday at 20 years and 63 days of age, knows they have a long way to go.
“They [Italy] came out a lot more confident than us and they dominated the game,” Pulisic said. “In the end, we can keep learning things but again it wasn’t good enough. All we can do is look back at our mistakes and learn from them, and now look forward to this new year and we have to become a lot better.”
U.S. supporter Eric Sarno echoed Pulisic’s views, as he took part in what almost became a group therapy session with other American fans ahead of the game against Italy. They pointed to the changes at the top and how Cordeiro and Stewart now needed to deliver, but only one thing matters to these fans.
“We are in CONCACAF. We have to qualify for the World Cup. There are no excuses,” Sarno said. “We have 300 million people, we have millions of soccer fields, tons of coaches, tons of facilities. It is not okay for us to be passed by Trinidad & Tobago and Honduras. I like that the game is growing in our region but we absolutely have to qualify no matter what, every tournament out of CONCACAF. This year was about shock and sadness.”
It all hinges on one thing: U.S. Soccer hiring the right head coach to take this young group to the next level. Is that even possible without at least a few more experienced heads around?
“That would be up to the coach, but I don’t think it would be a bad idea,” Pulisic said. “Some guys need the direction and to see where this team is going to go. Veteran guys can always help that.”
Gregg Berhalter is the USMNT’s heir apparent but you would excuse the current Columbus Crew coach if he has cold feet after these demoralizing, rather embarrassing friendly defeats.
A dank, cold, miserable night in Genk summed up the mood hanging over the USMNT. Nobody knows what has been gained from 2018, and nobody knows if the majority of these young players will be called in again.
“The only improvement that we’ve made is that we’ve gone younger,” Steve Crump, a U.S. fan who had travelled to Genk from Colorado, said. “But we are still in constant tryout mode. 25 players are different than the last 25 players every single time. Why can’t we just have a lineup and get on with it?”
Crump, who declared his anger to the group outside the stadium in Genk, has a fair point. The time for experimenting is over. The youngsters who have taken their chance over the past 13 months should remain but the best 23 players available should now be selected.
“Whoever the new coach is, they need to come in and start making things happening,” Dovellos said. “Make this team theirs, make the captain theirs, make them play for him and make them play for their country. Make them play well. At the end of the day, if a player doesn’t play well, they should then make way for another young guy to make a name for himself and make the team the best this country can have.”
Dishing out caps for the sake of it has to end.
Only time will tell if 2018 was a ‘lost year’ or one that handed young players vital experience to push on and become stars on the international stage.
Right now, the latter seems a stretch and the former more realistic.
“From last October there has just been turmoil, man,” Sarno said, scratching his head. “Not knowing who the coach is, who is going to be on the roster, the transition time. Turmoil. We are positive, we have a lot of support for our youngsters who are hopefully going to make Qatar. But it has been rocky to say the least.”
Martin O’Neill, and his bombastic, fiery assistant coach Roy Keane, are out of a job.
The pair, along with another two assistants, left their jobs with the Republic of Ireland National Team by mutual consent on Wednesday morning, one day after a scoreless draw in Denmark. The result ensured that the Republic would be relegated to League C in the next UEFA Nations League, earning just two points in four matches against Denmark and Wales.
O’Neill and his staff were in charge for 55 games since he took over on November 5, 2013. O’Neill nearly led his side to the 2018 World Cup, falling in the UEFA qualifying playoffs to Denmark over two legs. O’Neill’s Ireland squad was one of the darlings of Euro 2016, in part because of the fan support in France and because of Ireland’s 1-0 victory over Italy In the group stage, which put the Republic in the knockout round for the first time.
The future is bright for the Republic. O’Neill gave 28 players their first caps, including exciting 18-year-old Southampton striker Michael Obafemi, who could lead the line for the Irish in the years ahead.
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