You may have noticed a new theme emerging recently from U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann following a rough run through his first four CONCACAF World Cup qualifying matches.
“I think everybody familiar with CONCACAF can tell you that it is not an easy qualifying campaign,” Klinsmann told U.S. Soccer's official website last week. “It’s very tricky, especially the first group stage where only two teams out of four are going forward. In every group you have three very strong teams, like we have in our group.”
Klinsmann is certainly right when he says that qualifying from the region isn't easy, but that's not really the issue at hand.
When Klinsmann says making the World Cup out of CONCACAF is tricky, there is only one proper follow-up: compared to what?
Of course, winning international soccer matches is hardly a slam dunk, and grabbing points away from home in CONCACAF is never a foregone conclusion. But is Klinsmann's task comparable to similar nations across the world?
The U.S. is ranked 32nd in the most recent FIFA World Rankings. Let's compare and contrast its qualifying road with four similarly ranked teams from the other four major regions: 31st-ranked Ghana (CAF), 33rd-ranked Serbia (UEFA), 34th-ranked Australia (AFC) and 37th-ranked Peru (CONMEBOL).
Ghana: In the semifinal round of qualifying, The Black Stars must finish first in a four-team group featuring Sudan (FIFA ranking: 100), Zambia (41) and Lesotho (158). Should it advance, Ghana will then face a two-legged playoff against one of the other group winners to advance to Brazil 2014.
Serbia: The Serbs are drawn in a six-team group featuring Belgium (FIFA ranking: 30), Croatia (11), Scotland (56), Macedonia (104) and Wales (57). Finishing first would guarantee a place at Brazil 2014, while finishing second would likely earn a chance to qualify via a two-legged playoff against another group runner-up.
Australia: The Socceroos were drawn in a four-team group, from which it needed to finish in the top two to advance to the final round of qualifying. The group included Oman (FIFA ranking: 95), Saudi Arabia (113), and Thailand (139). After advancement, Australia was placed in a five-team group featuring Japan (23), Jordan (78), Iraq (80) and Oman (95). The Aussies are guaranteed a place in Brazil with a top-two finish, while a third-place spot would mean a two-legged playoff against the third-place side from AFC's other final-round group. The winner of that would still face a two-legged playoff against South America's fifth place side for a berth at Brazil 2014.
Peru: Qualification from South America is fairly straightforward in a nine-team group: a top-four finish guarantees a World Cup berth, while fifth-place means a playoff against the aforementioned AFC playoff winner. The main issue? CONMEBOL is tough, featuring Argentina (FIFA ranking: 4), Colombia (9), Ecuador (20), Uruguay (7), Chile (17), Venezuela (39), Bolivia (72) and Paraguay (38). At least Peru is lucky enough to avoid the automatically qualified Brazil this time around.
Which brings us back to the Stars and Stripes. Here's their road: finish in the top two of a four-team group featuring Jamaica (FIFA ranking: 52), Guatemala (81) and Antigua & Barbuda (106). Then, a top-three finish in the six-team Hexagonal means a World Cup berth, while fourth place earns a playoff against the winner of the Oceania region (likely New Zealand, currently ranked 92nd). For comparison's sake, at this moment the other five teams in the Hex would be Mexico (19), Guatemala (81), El Salvador (78), Honduras (66) and Panama (43).
The FIFA rankings aren't without their flaws, but they do give a decent general idea of a team's overall quality. And for all the non-CONMEBOL regions, the teams could have been presented with a different, possibly more favorable draw (though the opposite is also possible).
However, with the benefit of comparative reasoning, it becomes obvious that Klinsmann's claims ring hollow. In the aforementioned interview on U.S. Soccer's official website, Klinsmann said the following:
“Europeans and South Americans may think that this region looks pretty easy because they don’t play here and they never experienced it.”
I disagree. Europeans and South Americans think that this region looks pretty easy because have played and experienced their own regions. Compared to qualifying from CONMEBOL or UEFA, CONCACAF must seem like a Texas two-step to them.
“I spoke with some coaches earlier in the season,” Klinsmann said on a conference call Monday, “and they all said, ‘Oh, you’ll probably go through with no problem.’ And you have to tell them no, it’s not just automatic because those teams you play as the United States or as Mexico, they will give everything they have.”
No, it's not automatic, and yes, the teams the USA play will undoubtedly give everything they have. But the Klinsmann trope of playing up the extreme difficulty of his region is laughable, and mainly serves as a ready-made excuse should the unthinkable happen and the U.S. fails to qualify for the Hexagonal.
Ghana has a harder road to Brazil than the USA does. Serbia and Peru have much harder roads. Only Australia has a reasonable claim that its path is easier, but if so, it's not by much.
Only seven countries have qualified for every World Cup since 1990: Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, South Korea, Spain and the United States. It's a fact the U.S. can be proud of, but also a stark reminder of how hard it is to qualify - especially from other regions.
Let there be no doubt: the USA is lucky to be in CONCACAF. Klinsmann doesn't have to tell the world this fact, but the more he plays up his region's hardships, the more it will appear he's bracing for a failure that hasn't even happened yet.
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- Jurgen Klinsmann