American soccer fans have only one nightmare and it is common to all of them. Over the next few days, they will discover just how likely it is to turn into reality.
Failing to qualify for the World Cup in Brazil next year would be a disaster of unimaginable proportions for the United States men's national team, depriving the program of its temporary quadrennial status at the forefront of the nation's sporting psyche until a time when the Obama furniture has been shipped out of the White House and Honey Boo Boo is thinking about high school.
U.S. soccer relies on the World Cup more than any other nation to help continue its growth in interest, participation and genuine passion for the sport. Fans of the game set their hopes, dreams and vacations on the global extravaganza that is on par with the Olympics in terms of international audience figures.
Fortunately, given that the U.S. is based in one of the world's weakest qualifying regions, being part of the 32-team field every four years is, in theory, far more likely for the Americans than if the side had to square off against European or South American competition to claim its place.
However, if Jurgen Klinsmann's men continue to take faltering steps during back-to-back qualifiers against Costa Rica on Friday in Denver and Mexico on the road next Tuesday, Brazil will never have seemed so far away.
Without being overdramatic, it is reasonable to suggest that this is the most pivotal week the national team has faced in years. A road loss to Honduras in the opening match of the six-team final qualifying stage (from which three squads are guaranteed to make the World Cup) has put the Americans on the back foot to the extent that anything other than a comprehensive victory over Costa Rica will set the nerves jangling in earnest.
While Klinsmann, who took over from fired former coach Bob Bradley in 2011, led the team to victory in Mexico City in a friendly game last year, heading to the daunting Estadio Azteca for an actual qualifying match is a far more daunting prospect – one that usually ends in defeat.
A scenario of one point or less from its first three games would only increase speculation about problems within the squad, with reports of personality clashes between key players and Klinsmann and alleged complaints that the coach lacks tactical coherence.
On the flip side, though, the feel-good factor in a soccer locker room is always a transient situation, and a pair of positive results would serve to quell any discontent, at least for now. Either way, the last thing the U.S. wants is to be dragged into a qualification dog fight against some of the region's less high-profile combatants.
"You never want to get to a situation where you are worrying and stressing out over the last couple of games," said influential forward Clint Dempsey, who has returned from a calf injury sustained while playing for his club side Tottenham of the English Premier League.
"In an ideal world you want to make a good start and keep going, get qualifying taken care of as soon as you can and just get yourself to the World Cup. We can fight and show as much spirit as anyone, but the best way is to go out and take care of business."
The CONCACAF region's schedule involves 10 games spread over the course of this year, with the top three making direct progress to Brazil and a fourth forced into a do-or-die showdown against the winner of the Oceania region.
It would take a lot to go wrong to keep the U.S. out of the tournament for the first time since 1986, but development under Klinsmann has certainly not been at the level expected when the German was greeted with such enthusiasm following Bradley's unceremonious axing.
The U.S.'s world ranking is now down to No.33, which, given the standard of performance in the Honduras game, could even be generous. The team's style of recent play has not been particularly attractive to watch, the defensive looks unsteady and the group appears some distance away from being ready to match up against the world's best on the ultimate stage.
Klinsmann has often preached patience since accepting the job and the requirement for steady growth. But while this qualifying process is drawn out and arduous, there is a growing sense that eventually there must come a time to deliver, and the coach knows that time is now.
"It is not just a big game against Costa Rica," Klinsmann said. "It is a must-win."
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