Let's set the scene: The US, Guatemala and Jamaica are level on seven points atop Group A, from which only two teams will advance. Jamaica is third on goal difference (+1) while the US and Guatemala are dead even (2-1-1, 6 goals for, 4 goals against, +2 difference). The US travels to Antigua & Barbuda on Friday before returning home to host Guatemala in Kansas City next Tuesday. Advancing to the next round of qualifying is still well within reach for the Yanks, but recent events have complicated matters and left some fans with a sinking feeling.
US coach Jurgen Klinsmann set eyebrows fluttering across the American soccersphere when he left Jozy Altidore out of the squad for the final two qualifiers. Altidore is one of Europe's leading scorers at the moment, having found the net nine times in 10 games for Dutch club AZ Alkmaar, and leaving an in-form forward out of a team in dire need of goals is -- at best -- an odd decision. He also left out Terrence Boyd, a zippy 21-year-old who has seven goals for Rapid Vienna this season, and Chris Wondolowski, the San Jose Earthquakes forward whose 25 goals have him streets ahead in the MLS Golden Boot race. Instead, Klinsmann summoned the Seattle Sounders' mercurial Eddie Johnson (12 goals in 42 caps at age 28, compared to 13 goals in 52 caps at age 22 for Altidore) and Alan Gordon, a bruising, uncapped 30-year-old with 14 goals for San Jose this season.
Barring something strange, Johnson and Gordon will start on the bench while Herculez Gomez -- who flew under the radar for years but is now something of a fixture in Klinsmann's team -- and Clint Dempsey lead the US attack. Still, it's more than a little odd to leave out any player seeing consistent time and playing well in Europe, let alone a goal-scorer. Klinsmann took great pains to express his unhappiness with Altidore's recent performances with the national team, but it's worth pointing out that any striker would struggle to make an impact with service from a midfield that features at least two and sometimes three defensive midfielders. The US midfield in Kingston had Jermaine Jones, Maurice Edu and Kyle Beckerman -- all fine destroyers who will never be confused for playmakers -- and a half-fit Dempsey, leaving makeshift fullbacks Fabian Johnson and Michael Parkhurst to provide both width and attacking impetus (and falling short on both counts). It would take a pretty special forward to thrive in a lineup sent out solely to nullify the opponent and take home a point (falling short on that count, too).
So why Johnson and Gordon? Klinsmann offered up this reasoning:
"Both are really strong in the air,'' Klinsmann said. "We need to here and there probably force things with crosses coming over the wings and get really strong in the air."Playing to the strengths of your opponent, especially when they're 74 places below you in the FIFA rankings, doesn't sound like a recipe for success. Most of the A&B squad either plays in England or with Antigua Barracuda FC in USL Pro, after all, so they'll be familiar with a physical, aerial approach.
For argument's sake, let's say the US goes with that approach. Even if Gomez and Dempsey aren't particularly strong in the air, Gordon (6-foot-3) is built to be a target man and at least half of Johnson's 14 goals in MLS have come from headers. But who's going to provide those crosses into a penalty box likely packed with eight or nine defenders? That's a whole new problem. Klinsmann called up Brek Shea and Landon Donovan despite both carrying lingering injuries from MLS play, and that gamble fell through on Tuesday when both players pulled out of training camp. With Jose Francisco Torres already out with a foot injury and Klinsmann not calling in any replacements, the US is perilously thin in the creativity department. Jones, Edu and Beckerman are in the squad, as are fellow defensive midfielders Michael Bradley and Danny Williams. Prying open the A&B defense looks likely to fall on the shoulders of Dempsey, Sasha Kljestan -- who returns to the national team for the first time since February -- and Graham Zusi, who impressed in the home game against Jamaica with his work down the right and link-up play with Steve Cherundolo.
Could Klinsmann really repeat his mistake from Kingston and set out another negative, fearful lineup designed not to lose? Even if A&B doesn't appear as challenging as Jamaica or Guatemala and has just a point to its name so far, it still has enough to be a concern. It drew 0-0 at home with Jamaica and lost 1-0 at home against Guatemala, and it led 1-0 in Guatemala until the 60-minute mark. It's not hard to picture a narrow, conservative US side struggling to generate clear chances against a massed A&B defense. As we saw in Jamaica, playing not to lose all but obviates the chance of winning and leaves a team open to one or two quirky twists blowing those best-laid plans all to hell. Failing to win would then pile that much more pressure to win on the Guatemala match, and the US historically struggles when it's forced to dictate play rather than counter-attack.
On the positive side, the defense pretty much picks itself. Tim Howard is a no-duh selection in goal and Geoff Cameron's mobility and ability to read the game mesh nicely with the experience of Carlos Bocanegra. Cherundolo and Johnson will have plenty on their plate between defending and lending width to the attack, but putting Bradley and Williams in front of the back four would take some of the creative onus off the fullbacks. Williams showed in the last qualifier how much he could contribute to the attack from the holding midfield spot, and the now calcio-fied Bradley should offer a more box-to-box presence with his new tactical and technical education in Italy. Kljestan plays on the left for Anderlecht and Zusi operates on the right for Kansas City, making them seemingly natural fits for the wide midfield spots. Playing Dempsey in the hole behind the striker allows him to do what he does best (make late runs, link up with forwards, have the occasional pop from distance), which would leave Gomez alone up front as he relies on his excellent off-the-ball movement and work rate to find space for himself.
[EDIT: The hits just keep on coming. News emerged today (Wednesday) that Johnson may miss one, if not both, qualifiers with the flu. With fellow call-up Edgar Castillo -- another naturally left-sided player -- likely out with a foot injury, that either leaves Bocanegra at left back and someone like Clarence Goodson at center back or Klinsmann will have to call in replacements after all. You'd think a replacement would be a must, if only as a back-up in case of further injuries. Bocanegra can do a job at left back, as he showed off an on during his time in France and with the national team, but he's at risk of getting beaten for speed and is better off contributing to the attack by getting on the end of set pieces, not lumping in crosses. The only confirmed alternates I've seen named are Boyd, Wondolowski and Los Angeles Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez, who is a center back. Anyone know what Bobby Convey is up to these days? DaMarcus Beasley? David Regis?]
Best-case scenario: This trip to the Caribbean ends up like the qualifier at Barbados in late 2000 but without the hour-long wait for goals, the US runs up a cricket score (at Viv Richards Stadium, appropriately enough) and there's a winner in the Guatemala-Jamaica game. Boosted by a healthy goal difference, even a draw with Guatemala puts the US into the next round and fans' gnashing of teeth and rending of garments subsides for the winter. Klinsmann's roster gamble is vindicated and his tough-love approach to Altidore has the same effect as the AZ coach's did at club level, unleashing an inspired Jozy on Concacaf defenses just in time for the Hex.
[An aside -- that lineup for the Barbados match? Tony Meola, Gregg Berhalter, Jeff Agoos, Carlos Llamosa, Tab Ramos, Chris Klein, Chris Armas, Eddie Lewis, Earnie Stewart, Joe-Max Moore and Clint Mathis, with Mike Petke, Cobi Jones, Ante Razov, Zach Thornton, Richie Williams, Greg Vanney and Donovan on the bench and Dave Sarachan filling in as coach for the suspended Bruce Arena. Oh, those were the days....]
Worst-case scenario: A&B turns its match against the US into something out of England's lower leagues -- high balls, set pieces and 90 minutes of attrition. Three of the four goals the US has allowed in qualifying have come from set pieces, with A&B scoring the other on the counter in its 3-1 loss in Tampa to open qualifying. Thin attacking options and a bunkered opponent see the US leave A&B with a point (or worse). Any or all of Bradley, Johnson and Zusi get booked and are suspended the Guatemala match, which takes on do-or-die importance after a draw in Guatemala City leaves three teams fighting for two places. Deprived of four or five of its top defenders and desperately needing a result, Guatemala does what it does best -- turn the game into a street fight. Jamaica takes care of business at The Office and beats A&B and, as the clock ticks down in Kansas City, Carlos Ruiz and Concacaf refereeing rear their ugly head with a late, decisive goal that puts Guatemala through and leaves the US missing its first World Cup since 1986. US men's soccer spends the next two years kicking its heels while the love-in between Klinsmann and US Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati collapses under the weight of its own soaring rhetoric and inflated expectations.
All that said, I think the US will do just enough to get into the Hex, grinding out a too-close-for-comfort win on the road and settling for a point with Guatemala after the latter beats Jamaica on Friday. The US should have enough talent and know-how to get results in Concacaf when it absolutely needs them. What's disconcerting is that fans are worrying far more than they should (there's that word again) for games against Antigua & Barbuda and Guatemala. Recalibrating expectations was always going to be part of the Klinsmann Experiment, and US fans are no strangers to the threat of imminent disaster, but the margin of error being this thin this quickly can't help but make even the more sober and sedate among the fanbase wonder just where this project is headed.