As the U.S. men's national team rose to prominence within CONCACAF, its World Cup qualifying journeys took on a familiar pattern. The Americans would win at home, lose at Mexico and Costa Rica, then scrounge up a smattering of wins and draws elsewhere during their travels. That combination was enough to clinch a trip to the World Cup finals with a game or two (or three) to spare. Final-day white-knuckle qualifiers were for the region's lesser lights.
Despite following the familiar script during the current cycle, it now appears that the Oct. 14 match against Costa Rica in Washington, D.C., could well decide whether the U.S. secures one of the three automatic qualifying spots or falls into the purgatory of fourth place. The latter nightmare scenario would result in a home-and-home playoff against the fifth-place team from South America, a prospect that gives American fans everywhere the chills.
The pressure-packed finish has long been expected by the players, however.
"I'm definitely not surprised that it has come down to the final games," U.S. defender Jay DeMerit said via e-mail. "Global soccer is definitely on the rise and there really aren't any easy games anymore."
You have to go back to 1989 to find the most recent instance of a U.S. qualifying campaign's going down to the final day. On that occasion, Paul Caligiuri's "Shot Heard 'Round the World" gave the U.S. a 1-0 win over Trinidad & Tobago, and a trip to Italia '90.
So how did the Americans' usually smooth journey to qualification turn Homeric this time around? As former U.S. international Eric Wynalda put it, "It's really unusual to have four teams kicking the crap out of the other two teams."
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Indeed. Honduras, Mexico and the U.S. all have perfect home records in CONCACAF's final-round hexagonal. The same was true of Costa Rica until it imploded against Mexico on Sept. 5. And this quartet has usually gotten results against T&T and El Salvador, though Los Cuscatlecos has thrown up a few surprises.
It speaks to the fact that for all of the derisive comments about CONCACAF's lack of quality, the region has gotten stronger over the years.
"I think you're seeing more players from Costa Rica playing outside Costa Rica, and more players from Honduras playing outside that country," said former U.S. international and current Seattle Sounders FC technical director Chris Henderson. "I think that has closed the gap a little bit, where the U.S. and Mexico were ahead of everyone. And I think that Central American and Caribbean players are used to seeing American players, and I think that helps their confidence."
That said, had the Americans not missed some golden opportunities to secure more road points, especially against El Salvador and Mexico, they would find themselves with more breathing room. And whether it has been at home or away, the U.S. has delivered some very uneven performances during the final round of qualifying. Hence the questions surrounding how the team might handle the prospect of a tension-filled final day.
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As it stands now, the U.S. finds itself atop the standings with 16 points, one ahead of Mexico and within striking distance for Honduras (13 points) and Costa Rica (12). Among the contenders, the U.S. has the most difficult remaining qualifying schedule. Honduras and Costa Rica have games against El Salvador and T&T, respectively, while Mexico has matches against both hexagonal strugglers.
The Americans face a daunting trip to Honduras on Oct. 10, followed by the aforementioned match against the Ticos. It's conceivable that the U.S. could lose in Honduras, while Costa Rica -- especially now that Rodrigo Kenton has been fired as its head coach -- will right itself and prevail at home over T&T.
That would leave the U.S. needing only a draw against the Ticos to clinch a trip to South Africa, but the pressure in such a match would no doubt be immense. And placing all their chips on one game would leave the Americans vulnerable to a once-in-a-lifetime performance by, say, Costa Rican attacker Bryan Ruiz.
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The fickle whistles of CONCACAF referees could also play a part, and a dubious penalty or red card could leave the U.S. heading to Buenos Aires come November instead of preparing for next summer. For that reason, the Americans will be especially motivated to get a win on the road against Honduras, and thus render their final game meaningless.
"We'll have to be extremely focused to get a result down there in Honduras," DeMerit said. "We can't rely on anyone else but ourselves to get the job done."
The U.S. certainly has the talent to break Honduras' home dominance, but what form some of its players will be in is another question entirely. In particular, the fates of midfielder Michael Bradley and defender Oguchi Onyewu bear watching. Bradley has been consigned to the bench after a bust-up with Borussia Moenchengladbach manager Michael Frontzeck, and with Jermaine Jones' continued injury troubles, the U.S could find itself struggling in midfield. Onyewu, meanwhile, has yet to feature this season for AC Milan.
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If the duo remains idle until the U.S. reconvenes in October, just how much might it impact the Americans' performance, especially given those players' positions on the field? And how much sharpness can be salvaged by training if they aren't getting regular games?
"It can go either way," Henderson said. "There is so much to the psychology of it and your mentality every day. You get away from your club team, and all of a sudden you're in a new environment where you're an important player on a national team, and after one or two training sessions you're sharp again. Some players can go the other way, where they start second-guessing themselves."
Wynalda adds that since both Bradley and Onyewu are in Europe, the accumulated rust that comes from earning scant regular minutes is mitigated somewhat.
"It's so competitive over there," said Wynalda. "I'd much rather have Michael Bradley working his way back into the lineup over in Germany than in MLS, where guys are cruising through the week knowing they're going to play."
Despite the pressures, there is confidence that a talented, youthful U.S. team will find a way to grind out the results it needs, much as it has throughout qualifying.
"I'm not worried about this group," Wynalda said. "I think they'll end up with 20 points, and Costa Rica will end up where they are now."
That way, the Americans' qualifying script won't need a rewrite.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at email@example.com.