With the World Cup qualifying standings a mess, the U.S. national team has found a way to simplify things: win and win.
There are other ways the U.S. could reach the final round of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, but the Americans are fixating now on the route that sounds easiest but will be the most difficult.
If the Americans win their next two games, starting with a road test against Antigua and Barbuda tonight, they will move on no matter what happens in the other remaining Group A matchups.
Sputter in those games, though, and the Americans could be ousted long before anyone expected.
“I never had, as a player or as a coach, any issues with pressure,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “And I know that if the players realize what this week is about, then we’ll get the job done.”
It’s been a challenging few days already for the Americans, who summoned 24 players into camp for these matches – the game at Antigua is followed by one in Kansas City, Kan., on Tuesday night against Guatemala. By the time the plane left Miami for Antigua on Thursday morning, that group was pared to 20, after Landon Donovan (knee), Brek Shea (abdominal), Edgar Castillo (foot) and Fabian Johnson (flu) were ruled out by injury and illness.
Johnson should be healthy enough to play Tuesday. Donovan, Shea and Castillo will not play in either match.
The U.S., Guatemala and Jamaica all have seven points in the standings (three for a win, one for a tie, none for a loss) through four matches. Antigua and Barbuda has one point, and if the qualifying round ended after four matches, the Americans and Guatemalans would advance based on goal differential.
No matter what happens Friday in either the U.S.-Antigua or Guatemala-Jamaica matches, nothing will be decided until Tuesday.
None of the three teams jostling for the two spots can advance or be eliminated Friday. However, with a win, any of those three teams would control its own fate heading into the final match.
“That’s World Cup qualifying,” Howard said. “Very few teams cruise through, no matter what region of the world you’re in. World Cup qualifying is hard. It doesn’t surprise us that we’re here. It’s never easy. I think we’ve qualified for the last five or six World Cups, whatever it’s been, and I don’t think we ever walked through qualifying. That’s just the way it is, and we always seem to get the job done.”
The U.S. beat Antigua 3-1 at Tampa, Fla. in its qualifying opener in June, a match that was hardly one-sided. It wasn’t put away until the latter portion of the second half, when Herculez Gomez scored to wrap it up for the Americans, who acknowledged they were tested.
“You learn out of your mistakes,” Klinsmann said.
And with Antigua having nothing to lose now, plus fueled by being at home, another challenge is expected this time.
“They could have beaten Guatemala in both games. They tied Jamaica. This is not an easy game,” Klinsmann said. “It’s going to be a difficult game because, for them, it’s the game of the decade. They want to prove everything against the United States.”
U.S. Soccer officials said it’s their understanding that the 10,000-seat venue in St. John’s, Antigua, is sold out. About 80,000 people live on the island.
“We’ve got to come out with momentum,” Gomez said.
It’s equally important to leave with momentum. The Americans tied Guatemala 1-1 on the road in June, so that would suggest the game in Kansas City on Tuesday will be far from easy.
Klinsmann said he welcomes that part.
“This week, it’s about points,” he said. “It’s about six points and moving on.”