After missing out on a chance to play in this month’s Confederations Cup in Brazil when it lost to Mexico in the 2011 Gold Cup Final, the U.S. Men’s Soccer team embark on a three-game stretch starting today that might all but determine whether the Red, White and Blue will be in the land of the Samba for next year’s World Cup.
Jürgen Klinsmann’s side will play three World Cup Qualifying Final Round games in June, starting with tonight’s game in Kingston versus Jamaica before coming home for two against Panama in Seattle and Honduras in Salt Lake City, with wins in all three matches all but assuring The States passage through to next year’s World Cup. Anything less, and some tense months will await the team in the fall when qualifying wraps up.
The U.S. is coming off a week of mixed results in friendlies against European squads, losing to a near full-strength Belgium 2-4 before a much better showing last weekend in a 4-3 victory over a shadow squad of a German team. Who knows whether the team should be confident after the Germany win (B-team or not) or still with doubts after being played off the pitch by the Belgians, but it’s imperative that the team comes into this game in Kingston with a must-win mentality. Obviously, the game won’t be easy, because the Reggae Boyz will a) be desperate for points, as they sit in last place in the Hexagonal (two points from four games), and b) have confidence playing the U.S. after defeating them 2-1 last September. Despite that, the U.S. knows a win against the Jamaicans will all but eliminate Jamaica from qualifying – the top three in the Hex automatically qualify for the World Cup while the fourth-place team will participate in a playoff with New Zealand in November for a World Cup spot. For all intents and purposes, it would set up a five-team race for four spots.
One of the bright spots coming out of the Germany win was the play of center back Matt Besler, last season’s MLS Defender of the Year with Sporting Kansas City, who, after an uneven start, was quick to snuff out German threats and active in breaking up plays and being a presence in the back. Outside of the Landon Donovan-Klinsmann rigmarole, the back four may be the biggest question on the team. Honestly, the back line has been in a state of flux for as long as many fans and journalists started following the men’s team, no matter what time you first knew of the existence of American men’s soccer.
The duo of Besler and Omar Gonzalez paired together to start for only the second time in international play in the Germany game; the other occasion was in the historic 0-0 draw at the Azteca vs. Mexico in March. The new partnership probably will have more downs than ups as they develop chemistry (e.g. Gonzalez’s game against Belgium), but continuing to play together can only help them and the team in the long run, given their potential.
Jozy Altidore, the enigmatic forward who was a revelation in the Dutch Eredivisie this season with his 26 goals for AZ Alkmaar, scored for the first time for his country in almost two years with an exquisite side volley into the side netting in the first half to open the scoring against Germany. More important than scoring, he set up another goal (converted by an in-form Clint Dempsey) and was a consistent threat to the German back line. His activity should be able to carry over in these June qualifiers, even against a Jamaican defense that has done well in its first few qualifying games (including holding Mexico to only one goal combined in two games in this final round of qualifying). Alas, we don’t know if it will carry over, given his impotence for his country for so long. Which Jozy will show up for the rest of this month wearing the national colors?
It’s almost been two years since Klinsmann took over the top spot, and this, unquestionably, will be his most important month on the job. The good will he built with friendly wins over the likes of Italy and Mexico was almost wiped clean in that September match when The States blew a 1-0 lead in Kingston in the previous round of World Cup qualifying. He might have hit on something in the Germany win, pushing his forwards and attacking midfielders higher up the pitch in an effort to force the tempo and pressure their opponents – and pressure Germany they did. That same tactic must be employed tonight, and especially in the home games to follow to set the tone – oh, and remind his players that the U.S. has not lost a qualifying game on American soil since 2001 (21-0-2 in that stretch).
June could have been the month where the U.S. challenged itself against the world’s best. But as it turns out, June holds much more at stake for Sam’s Army.