Crisis was averted for the United States on Tuesday night as the grim specter of a long spell in the soccer wilderness was brushed aside in Kansas City.
Still, there was a reason why the celebrations from head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his players told a tale of relief rather than jubilation after the 3-1 victory over Guatemala booked a spot in the next round of World Cup qualifying.
The semifinal round of the CONCACAF qualification process shouldn’t have posed any concern for Klinsmann's side. Yet it did, from the frustrating night when it lost in Jamaica to a narrow escape against Antigua and Barbuda all the way to the first five minutes on Tuesday when Guatemala's Carlos Ruiz scored the opening goal that briefly cracked open the door to disaster.
Defeat could have sent the U.S. crashing out and left it with at least six years before it would appear again on a global stage. A strong response was needed, and so it materialized with three first-half goals, including two from Clint Dempsey after an equalizer from Carlos Bocanegra.
Opponents like Guatemala and Antigua and Barbuda aren’t exactly of the ilk that should trouble a team with serious aspirations for Brazil in 2014. At this point, despite some positive friendly results, the Americans would go into a World Cup as a team not thought likely to progress past the group stage.
That assumes, of course, that it will get past the ‘Hex’ – the final hurdle of the CONCACAF formula, which will take place next year and feature other regional heavyweights such as Mexico and Costa Rica.
There are plenty of issues to be addressed despite Dempsey's ongoing blossoming into a truly world class player, the exciting emergence of youngsters Danny Williams and Fabian Johnson, and the surprising reinvigoration of Eddie Johnson's career.
Defensively, Klinsmann's squad has yet to find its pattern, and the mix-up that allowed Ruiz to score early would have had more accomplished foes drooling.
With Brazil 20 months away, the U.S. is a solid international team, no better, no worse. The FIFA world ranking system is often ridiculed but it seems to be about right in this instance, placing the Americans at No. 32. That is not to say it would be the weakest team in a World Cup field, as several higher-ranked squads will likely miss out and some underdogs will force their way in.
But since 2010, the U.S. has largely trodden water.
The good news for Klinsmann is that he still has time to work with this group, and it is one that is not short on talent. Qualifying headaches or no, there is one primary target right now and the U.S. remains on course for it.
"We want to get to the World Cup," Dempsey said. "It is good for us to get out of the first group and this is the first step getting there. For us it is just about being able to manage the travel, some of our guys are traveling back from Europe. If we can improve our away form and carry on our home form, then we will be in good shape."
Dempsey helped set up the tying goal after just 10 minutes with his fine run and glancing header that fell neatly into the path of Bocanegra, who was left with little more to do than deflect the ball into the net.
Eddie Johnson set up Dempsey for the second soon after with an excellent cross from the right, prompting Klinsmann to launch into an entertaining and hyperactive celebration on the sidelines. With the pressure lifted, the U.S. took a stranglehold and effectively killed the game off before half-time, when Michael Bradley did the hard work to tee up the grateful Dempsey for his second of the night.
With their semifinal CONCACAF qualification now behind it, the U.S. turns its attention to the ‘Hex,’ but it’d be wise to take the occasional backwards glance and remember all the little hiccups of this little adventure that became a near-nightmare.
Brazil feels a little closer now, yet the road south is not clear of obstacles just yet.
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