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Dec 18, 2007

Beware the dangers of complacency

The details of regional qualifying for World Cup 2010 seemed to come and go with curiously little discussion or debate among U.S. soccer fans two weeks ago.

Can it really be that qualifying is something we already look past with utter disregard, like some nondescript end table? Is it just something to set our drink on until the party really cranks up, say, in the summer of 2010?

Maybe something that happened a few days later can prick the balloon of infallibility before it gets fully inflated: We learned that livewire U.S. flanker DaMarcus Beasley would miss the remainder of Rangers season in Scotland with a severe knee injury. That's horrible luck for Beasley.

But it may be the cue for U.S. fans to take a deep breath and contemplate the concepts of complacency and expectations as they relate to World Cup qualifying. The long process begins in June, and Beasley's misfortune weakens the effort a smidge.

Do the odds still favor Bob Bradley's men? Of course. But the injury subtracts some margin for error and illuminates the danger of any creeping complacency.

It would surely be unwise to regard qualifying as some quaint little process we used to fret about, back before the U.S. Soccer colossus serially towered over the CONCACAF region like Godzilla over the valley.

Regional qualifying remains a perilous process that demands vigilance, a certain organizational adaptability and some collective stamina. Plus, a little good fortune never hurts. Because a little bad luck here and there and Bradley's men could find themselves in deep guacamole.

This business with Beasley and his injury reminds us: nothing is guaranteed.

Bad things do happen to good teams reaching for a prized berth. Ask England, which crashed and burned en route to Euro 2008. Ask the Dutch, punched out before World Cup 2002. Ask France, which couldn't qualify for World Cup USA four years before winning the darned thing.

Now think about how sadness would leak from our very ears if the United States stumbled en route. Wasn't it Bruce Arena who warned us that it would happen one day?

There aren't many "automatics" right now as Bradley pens his lineup. Beasley was among them, however, along with Landon Donovan, Steve Cherundolo and probably Tim Howard.

After that this team has some, uh, "options." Some people might call them "holes," depending on perspective. It's a side that looks vulnerable in the middle. Michael Bradley and Benny Feilhaber are coming along, but still privates in rank without the stars and bars earned in meaningful conflict. Ricardo Clark and Pablo Mastroeni? Some upside and some downside to each.

Clint Dempsey is playing out of place as a target forward, presumably holding the spot until someone better suited grabs it. But will that happen?

Who's your choice for right back if the dependable Cherundolo falls?

This isn't to suggest that the cupboard is bare. It's not. But it's no blessed land of plenty in depth, which underscores Beasley's loss. He should be healthy in 14 months as final round qualifying begins. But athletes cracked by a serious knee injury often require 18 months or more to fully regain confidence and maneuverability at top speed, vital tools at the game's top level.

Beasley rarely dominates matches. But he usually provides something positive in effort, offensive push and defensive cover on the left -- an absurdly ill-timed funk in the summer of 2006 not withstanding.

So who fills in for Beasley? Eddie Lewis? He may be a young 33, but that's still 33, and those trans-Atlantic flights can be buggers. Freddy Adu? He's doing well in Portugal. But can anybody really predict how he'll react on sweltering night in hostile Guatemala City? Want to stake your World Cup spot on the inconsistent likes of Bobby Convey or Justin Mapp?

The U.S. talent pool is stacked with potential. Gaze into the crystal ball and show me a team in five years powered by Dempsey, Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Maurice Edu, Brad Guzan, Michael Parkhurst, and I'll show you a team that might smite a giant come World Cup 2014.

But heading into 2008, they're really just a bunch of promising kids, some with significant liabilities at the top level: Bradley's propensity to foul in dangerous spots, Parkhurst's skinny stature against big goons, etc.

And this isn't just about the final qualifying round, either. Even the regional semifinals have a couple of trap doors. Think failure is too implausible for consideration? How would you like to swap spots with Mexico? The Tri-Color's semifinal group will likely include Jamaica, Honduras and Canada, all of whom have been to a World Cup. Mexico does have the elevated, formidable and famously smoggy fortress Azteca as a security blanket.

The United States has no such safety net, nothing to offer some protection for that off day. Remember that in 2000 the United States was 27 minutes from elimination in the semifinal round. Joe-Max Moore and Clint Mathis combined for a goal that would launch a belated Barbados rout. But that match could have easily gotten away.

The margin for error is inexorably linked to the enormous stakes. Think of the blowback from a World Cup qualifying fiasco: the ammunition for jingoistic soccer bashers and the ignorant media faction that's largely been beaten back into their caves. Think of the forfeiture of world prestige. And never underestimate the glee that would wash over the world masses, so many of whom detest that a land of such excess is now enjoying its slice of the soccer pie, too.

Maybe they see this Beasley injury as a reminder that even Godzilla can't swat away the little airplanes forever.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.