In the end, there were plenty of smiles from the United States national team. Tired, relieved smiles, but smiles nonetheless. The Americans, with a huge assist from the enthusiastic home crowd at Kansas City's Livestrong Field, reached the final round of CONCACAF World Cup 2014 qualification with a 3-1 defeat of Guatemala. Jurgen Klinsmann's Stars and Stripes finished on top of Group A with a record of four wins, one tie, and one loss. In the end, that's all that matters. They had to qualify.
But did it have to be so difficult?
Five minutes into the match, Guatemala forward Carlos Ruiz got behind the American backline — he just ran a streak route between defenders Geoff Cameron, who didn't bother to cover him, and Carlos Bocanegra, who didn't have the pace to keep up with him. Ruiz, who doesn't have a club right now and has been practicing at the Guatemalan Federation's training ground, dribbled around Tim Howard and tapped the ball into the net. It was a terrible breakdown. If there was one player who had the potential to score and send the Americans home, it was the Little Fish.
Shockingly, the U.S., who needed a draw to ensure they would reach the six-team "Hexagonal" from which three teams are guaranteed a place in the 2014 World Cup, was behind to a Guatemala squad that specializes in stalling and killing time. The USMNT's 18-game undefeated streak against the visitors and its run of 21 straight home World Cup qualifiers without a loss was in jeopardy. The good news: Guatemala scored too early. The U.S. had time to respond against a side playing with its fifth- and sixth-choice center backs.
And respond they did. On the Livestrong surface, the Americans were a better team, able to show their class. They didn't panic, stayed calm, and stayed comfortable. The equalizer came only five minutes later. Herculez Gomez, showing the hustle that's helped him find his way back into the American jersey, raced for a ball that was going over the touchline and turned a goal kick into a corner. Graham Zusi, Major League Soccer's assist leader, playing in front of his home fans, delivered an in-swinging ball that Clint Dempsey met at the near post and redirected onward. Bocanegra, Captain America, redeemed his poor defensive effort by sticking out his left foot and hitting the ball past a helpless Ricardo Jerez.
Instead of sitting back after scoring — a bad habit of this U.S. squad — they continued the assault. Goal no. 2 came courtesy of a sliding Dempsey.
Klinsmann, looking suave on the sideline with a blue button-down shirt and black pants, celebrated like he had scored in the World Cup. Say what you will about his tactical acumen; the man's enthusiasm is real and unbridled. The American Outlaws began chanting "You're Not Going to Brazil" at Guatemala near the half-hour mark, which was too early until suddenly it wasn't. Dempsey, virtually invisible against A&B, doubled up in the 36th minute, and the game was essentially over. After a scoreless second half, they were through.
The USMNT, under their $2.5 million per year German manager, is far from a finished product. The good news is that they don't play another match that matters until February 6, 2013, when the Hex begins. The bad news is that it might take that long — perhaps longer — to figure out what ails the squad.
Finding some lineup consistency would be a nice start. On Tuesday night, Klinsmann used his 20th different lineup in his 20 matches as head coach. (He is a respectable 11-6-3 during that stretch.) Part of that is due to injury and part can be blamed on the new manager learning what he has in his player pool, but the constant tinkering needs to stop. The constant flow of faces in and out of the lineup makes gaining momentum from game to game difficult, especially in a national-team scenario where players have so little time to train and play together. Balancing the introduction of new talent versus building a team with what you have is one of the most difficult aspects of a coach's job. Klinsmann, to his credit, brought new men like Graham Zusi, Danny Williams, and up-and-comer Joe Corona into the program. But with the Hexagonal and, hopefully, the World Cup approaching, it's time to pull back on the meet-and-greets and get down to business.
Klinsmann also needs to figure out his back line. After a strong start against Mexico, and solid performance in the home-and-home with Jamaica, the Geoff Cameron Center Back Experience went off the rails a bit against Antigua & Barbuda and on the first goal in KC. He's still in the pole position for one of the two starting roles, but his partnership with Bocanegra needs work. As for the American captain, he's also valuable but, at 33, on the downside of his effectiveness. And how much will he slip before Brazil? Does Klinsmann give a young guy like Sporting Kansas City's Matt Besler a shot? Or maybe Oguchi Onyewu finds his form at Malaga? What about Jay DeMerit? My money: Yes to the first one, perhaps to the second, and no to the third.
There are questions, and maybe three matches — one against Russia in November and potentially two in January — before the Hex begins.
The USMNT have proved, time and time again, that they can raise their game at home when it matters the most (blip against Mexico in the 2011 Gold Cup final notwithstanding). They beat the Reggae Boyz in a must-win on September 11, and didn't let Ruiz's early strike on Tuesday night faze them. In CONCACAF, as in everywhere else in the world, the road to the World Cup means winning at home and squeezing out a few results on the road. That's it. Maybe the Americans should be better than that, but right now that's not the case.
One of the difficulties of the international game is that the World Cup is far and away the most important metric for measuring success. It's the only time the entire world is paying attention. For the U.S. to gain international respect, they need to perform well in Brazil. A trip to the quarterfinals, for example, will undo the damage caused by a million Carlos Ruiz fifth-minute goals. Of course, you have to actually reach the World Cup to show off your talent. The red, white, and blue didn't qualify Tuesday night — far from it — but on the perfect green grass in Kansas City, the Americans took a step toward 2014 in more ways than one. Today that is what's important. Tuesday night was for getting a point, not fixing problems. That's why there's tomorrow.