Just three games into what ought to be a 16-game World Cup qualifying slog, the United States men's national team faces a must-win scenario on Tuesday.
It has come to that. They are in that much trouble this early on.
Through three games, the Americans have won once (6-1 at home against Saint Vincent and the Grenadines last November), tied once (0-0 in Trinidad and Tobago, also in November) and lost once (2-0 at Guatemala on Friday).
Halfway through the fourth of five rounds in CONCACAF qualifying, the Americans sit third in Group C, while just two teams will advance to the hexagonal round – a six-team double round robin that will mostly take place in 2017.
This makes a win in Tuesday's rematch with Guatemala essential for embattled head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. The Americans will take heart in knowing that they have lost just one World Cup qualifier on American soil in this millennium, and that was back in 2001 against Honduras in Washington, D.C. Of the 28 games that followed, they have won 26. Meanwhile, the U.S. is undefeated at MAPFRE stadium in Columbus, Ohio. And, yes, the Americans started off this stage 1-1-1 in 2012 as well.
But then again, going into Friday, the last time the U.S. had lost to Guatemala Ronald Reagan had a year left on his second presidential term. Lose this game and the Americans will be cast five points adrift with two games to spare – assuming T&T takes care of its fellow ampersand islands. If this, however unlikely it seems historically, comes to pass, the U.S. would need Guatemala and T&T not to tie in their final head-to-head game in September just to stand a chance of surviving – and reaching an eighth consecutive World Cup.
There seem to be some basic precautions – call them best practices – the U.S. can take to avoid such a fate. Fairly simple stuff, really, that should ensure a better chance of getting those crucial points and putting the Yanks back on the right side of the cutoff line.
Let's go over a few.
1. Put players in a position to thrive
Klinsmann insists that he didn't play any of his starters out of position on Friday, even though Mix Diskerud isn't a holding midfielder, Alejandro Bedoya isn't a left winger, DeAndre Yedlin isn't a right winger and Geoff Cameron isn't a right back. His assertion isn't entirely untrue, as positions have become increasingly fluid in modern soccer. And while they aren't their primary positions, all had experience in those spots.
But that isn't to say the team wouldn't be better off if everybody was in their best spots. Klinsmann often shuffles guys around on the national team, meaning they aren't as prepared for their jobs as they could be. That also goes for starting a center back – Michael Orozco – who has been riding the bench for his club for months and a left back – Edgar Castillo – who hadn't appeared for the national team in two years.
2. Get Jozy Altidore into the starting lineup
The striker is mending from yet another hamstring injury but should be sufficiently fit to play at least a good chunk of Tuesday's game after he played 13 minutes for Toronto FC on March 20 and came on in the 66th minute for the U.S. on Friday. His presence up front would help the U.S. establish a presence in Guatemala's third, something which it struggled to do with Bobby Wood and Clint Dempsey up front in the first game against the Chapines.
3. Find some midfield presence
Even though Guatemala played a predictably narrow game, the U.S.'s usage of two holding midfielders – remember, Diskerud is an attacking midfielder by trade – made it hard to take charge in the middle of the park. After halftime, when Darlington Nagbe replaced Diskerud and Klinsmann gave him some freedom, American ball circulation was much improved and the Yanks played their best stretch of the game.
The U.S. will likely take most of the possession again. It needs at least one dedicated playmaker to get the most out of its time on the ball.
4. Backs who can help out
The CONCACAF model is well-established. Most teams the U.S. will face simply sit in deep and lurk on the counter. When they play on American soil, they double down on that strategy. So it would be helpful to have left and right backs who can help out going forward.
Which is to say, not Castillo or Geoff Cameron. The latter is perhaps the team's best central defender and useful as a holding midfielder, but up the flank he offers very little. Ditto Castillo.
Klinsmann didn't call up a left back who is any good offensively – especially with Fabian Johnson scratched because of an injury – but Yedlin would probably do more good playing a line deeper on the right and joining in the attack.
5. Cut down the defensive errors
Telling your players not to make mistakes is like telling a waiter not to drop his dishes. It kind of goes without saying. But when you concede far too simply on a corner and – shudder – a goal kick, that's a real problem. And the U.S.'s habit of conceding first has become a systemic one.
#USMNT has now conceded the first goal in 9 of its last 11 games.
— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) March 26, 2016
The U.S. can't give away soft goals anymore.
6. Don't fear familiarity
The reason Klinsmann's depth chart is such a muddled mess – to the public and press's view, anyway – is that he changes his lineup every single game, without fail. And he doesn't just tweak it; he makes wholesale alterations. That prevents his players from building partnerships and fluidity. Perhaps a few subtle changes would accomplish far more than shaking up half the team yet again.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.