The most critical week soccer in the United States has faced in recent times has arrived, one with little upside and a potential scenario of disaster that no one much wants to think about.
No country in the world relies more on World Cup qualification to maintain national interest in soccer like the U.S. Ever since the U.S. reached the 1990 World Cup, its first in 40 years, qualifying hasn't been a problem. But it is now, and an unavoidable one at that.
Qualifying through the CONCACAF region that incorporates North and Central America and the Caribbean is arguably the easiest passage out of all the international confederations and should have provided little to concern head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and the team's followers.
Except that it has.
And, potentially, everything to lose.
Klinsmann's men visit Antigua & Barbuda on Friday, a clash against the weakest of the four teams in the semifinal group from which two will progress to next year's final World Cup qualifying pool.
It should be simple for the Americans, but a combination of an untimely spate of injuries, including one to Landon Donovan's knee, and the side's struggles on the road has raised the blood pressure considerably.
"It's been difficult, if you look at our history, to get results away from home, but it's something we need to correct," U.S. forward Clint Dempsey said in an interview with British soccer writer Oliver Wilson. "We have to make sure we get the right results and get to the next round."
Even if events at Sir Vivian Richards Stadium near St. John's go to plan, the U.S. would still need to avert defeat in their final group match against Guatemala in Kansas City on Tuesday to be certain of staying alive.
Missing out on the World Cup is a possibility that U.S. soccer chiefs can scarcely bring themselves to entertain. It would be a catastrophic blow, sweeping away in an instant many of the positives that came from South Africa in 2010.
The World Cup is the only time soccer becomes front and center in this country, when it is the dominator rather than the marginalized on the national sports and media scene.
A wait of at least six years until the next potential American involvement in the tournament would have a stymieing effect on growth. And even though Klinsmann's team is still favored to go through, many an American is looking with envy at its chief regional rival and Olympic champion Mexico, whose passage to the next stage is already assured after four straight wins.
The U.S. should be too strong for the Benna Boys, as Antigua & Barbuda are known, but a lively atmosphere is expected in the vibrant Caribbean nation where soccer is only temporarily taking center stage before the important business of cricket resumes.
Furthermore, with Donovan, Brek Shea, Edgar Castillo and Fabian Johnson all ruled out with a combination of injury and illness, the left-side options are severely lacking, with Graham Zusi expected to step into the winger's role.
Zusi, of Sporting Kansas City, is somewhat of a rarity these days, with most national team prospects plying their trade in Europe rather than Major League Soccer. Klinsmann's corps are scattered across a dozen countries, a factor Dempsey was quick to highlight.
"The most important thing is to make sure we're able to come together as a team with the country, which is always difficult for every manager who coaches a national side," Dempsey said. "You've got some people who are playing, some people who are not, some people who are more confident than others. We are just trying to get everybody on the right page, the same page and try to perform at the highest level possible in a short amount of time to try and get results."
The luxury of a margin of error has already been used up, though, and any more stumbles would put the U.S. perilously close to the unthinkable. Now is the time for the U.S. to deliver and avoid the fate of having six long years to think about the unthinkable.
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