Jurgen Klinsmann has warned his United States players that no complacency will be tolerated as the team closes out its World Cup qualifying campaign, even though it has already punched its ticket to Brazil next summer.
The U.S. secured a spot among the World Cup's final 32 by beating Mexico 2-0 in Columbus last month, rendering its final two matches in the CONCACAF final qualification pool effectively meaningless.
However, Klinsmann is adamant that Friday's clash with Jamaica in Kansas City and Tuesday's visit to Panama are an important part of preparations for Brazil 2014. The head coach wants to end qualifying as the No. 1 team in the region.
"Everything we do now sets the tone for the summer," Klinsmann said. "It is important the players understand that this is serious business. You only have to say one word: Brazil. Then you automatically get fired up."
Jamaica is the weakest of the six teams in the final stage of CONCACAF qualifying and needs two straight victories and other results to go its way to stand any chance of remaining in contention.
The U.S. and Costa Rica have already clinched two of the region's three automatic berths to Brazil, while the fourth-place finisher (likely Panama or Mexico) will go into a home-and-home playoff against New Zealand.
Klinsmann, though, is refusing to take Jamaica lightly, especially with key players Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Omar Gonzalez and Fabian Johnson all missing through injury. Furthermore, Jamaica's "Reggae Boyz" showed some of their potential in June when they came within a few seconds of securing a draw against the U.S. in Kingston.
It took Brad Evans' dramatic goal to seal a 2-1 American victory with time expiring.
"We want to finish qualifying on a high note and prove a point in our region," Klinsmann said. "We don't view these games as the end of World Cup qualifying. For us it is the start of preparations for the World Cup, and therefore we have to continue to raise the bar."
The U.S. leads the CONCACAF table with 16 points, one clear of Costa Rica. Its only two defeats came on the road, in Honduras and Costa Rica, and Klinsmann's men have won every other game with the exception of a 0-0 draw in Mexico.
While CONCACAF remains one of the weaker confederations in world soccer, its potential pitfalls have been highlighted by the plight of the Mexicans, who were expected to qualify comfortably and are now in danger of missing out altogether. By contrast, the form of the U.S., whose recent results included a record 12-game winning streak over the summer, has seen the side leap to No. 13 in the world, the Americans' highest ranking under Klinsmann.
But Klinsmann knows as well as anyone that qualifying is merely a means to an end. Both his job and the legacy of this current team will be entirely determined by how they perform in Brazil.
Such is the nature of soccer in America, with the focus on the sport exponentially greater during World Cup time than at any other period.
"Getting to Brazil was just part of the job for us. We know we will be judged on what happens in the tournament itself," defender Matt Besler said. "That is why you prepare in the right way. It is why you don't take anything for granted. Every game is part of the process, a step closer to getting yourself ready to compete with the best."