MEXICO CITY – For all the optimism of this summer, when the United States national team came of age under Bob Bradley, suddenly Team USA could find itself in a dogfight for World Cup finals qualification.
Bradley's men are still strong favorites to reach South Africa next summer despite their 2-1 loss to Mexico on Wednesday, yet things are tightening up at the top of the final CONCACAF group.
Heading into this game much of the talk was about how the Americans would fare among the best teams in the world in 2010 after their outstanding effort at the Confederations Cup. The qualifier against Mexico was talked about as another stepping stone toward proving the U.S. as a team to be reckoned with on the international stage.
However, with four games remaining, thoughts must first turn to qualification that is now somewhat less certain.
"I am still feeling pretty good about our position," USA forward Landon Donovan said. "We have got home games coming up that we feel we should win and our destiny is still in our own hands."
However, with six games played, Mexico remains in fourth place at nine points but is only a point behind the USA. Costa Rica still tops the group on 12 points despite losing in Honduras on Wednesday, and the Hondurans now sit alone in second place due to a better goal differential than the third-place U.S.
Mexico was not always convincing in its performance on Wednesday, but it was jubilant after coming away with the result that may have resurrected its qualifying campaign.
Mexican star Cuauhtemoc Blanco did not waste the opportunity to taunt Bradley's side after the latest edition of a rivalry that continues to heat up with every meeting.
"Before this game people were talking about whether Mexico would qualify or not," Blanco said. "Now I think there will be some other teams that might be worrying, including the USA. They are not certain to go through.
"We are confident because we know we have not reached our potential yet. We are right there in contention. We will let other teams worry about us."
There probably won't be too much worrying in the U.S. camp, which has perhaps more confidence in its own ability than ever before. But the Americans should realize that they can't afford any slipups over the coming matches.
A Sept. 5 home game against El Salvador should bring a comfortable three points, but visits to Trinidad and Tobago (Sept. 9) and Honduras (Oct. 10) will be trickier. Last is an Oct. 14 home clash with Costa Rica, which is no easy match either.
"We will stick to our plan," Bradley said. "We are pretty happy with the overall direction we are traveling in."
Overall, Bradley must be satisfied with the last few months which saw his side defeat European champion Spain in the Confederations Cup before squandering a 2-0 halftime lead to Brazil in the final. However, whereas it once looked like he would be able to experiment toward the end of CONCACAF qualifying, with a spot in the finals already secure, the U.S. figures to be in a battle down to the final game.
The USA should have too much know-how, experience and class, but while hopes of a brighter future are flowing through American soccer, first Bradley and his players need to take care of the present.