So finally, we have seen (or heard) (or heard about) Juergen Klinsmann's United States playing games that matter. And I feel more like Professor Candyfloss than Captain Bringdown. First game boiled down to one thing. It was raining.
That's not an excuse for why the United States looked substandard for long marches of the Antigua game. (Yea, and the Barbuda game as well. Just be happy Antigua and Barbuda aren't separate federations in CONCACAF. Although I think I just gave someone an idea.) Winning teams don't need excuses, after all.
We're used to chalking up US-Mexico results in qualifiers to home field climate conditions, but I don't think we realize just how much weather affects how the game is played. And this wasn't some little drizzle, neither - Florida gets rained on now and again, and even they were saying, "Wow, it sure is raining." Everything about the game gets slower and heavier. If you want one single factor of why the US didn't put up a touchdown over the weekend, that's your reason.
In retrospect, Antigua forming their national team largely around a single club has paid off wonderfully, much like the US national team of the early 90's. They may be second to last at the moment, but ask the Columbus Crew how much the Dayton Dutch Lions suck. It has now become clear that the USL is nursing anti-American vipers in our midst, and is dedicated to destroying both MLS and the US national team.
Now that Antigua has shown themselves capable of drawing at home with Jamaica, any lingering shame about merely beating them by two goals should dissipate entirely.
That may sound silly and simplistic...but then, so is wanting your team to win by more, when you think about it.
"Hey, but what about goal differential?"
Don't interrupt me.
"I wasn't. You typed this in yourself. You could have just erased it. Or not typed it at all, seeing as how this is an imaginary conversation."
Shut up. Goal differential isn't what you need in a group setting like this. Especially as the favorite. Especially at the beginning of a two-year (hopefully) journey to Brazil (hopefully). What the US needs to do is much simpler - win at home, tie on the road. Do that, and there's simply no way to not qualify for the next round. Win at home - tie on the road. This isn't the World Cup, where if you tie your first two games you're probably in third place and crapping a cathedral even though game three is against the Statler Brothers, because what if, man, what if?!
In qualifying, you have time. You have the return leg. You can hit the undo button. Win at home, tie on the road. Survive and advance.
Which means dropping points at home is the sin of all sins, and one that Guatemala committed last night. "Yay, we salvaged a point" means they're now three points back, and have to cheer for the United States to win at the Office in order to have practical hopes of making it to the next round. And that's assuming Antigua and Barbuda aren't good enough to beat Chapinestan.
The US won this same fixture last time around, but keep in mind the context of that game, because some things never will change:
The U.S. Men’s National Team earned their first-ever FIFA World Cup qualifying win in Guatemala on Wednesday night behind a Carlos Bocanegra goal after both sides had been reduced to 10 men in a physical match that produced seven yellow cards, two red cards and 40 total fouls. The victory was the first for the United States in Guatemala since 1988....
One does not simply walk into Mordor.
The driving force of every early CONCACAF qualifying round is to eliminate the Central American team as quickly as possible, so you don't see them again in the Hex. Because playing in Central America is a smashing pain, even for really good teams:
It wasn’t the prettiest game you’ll ever see, but a win on the road in El Salvador is worth its weight in qualifying gold. The Mexicans looked cowed by the intense atmosphere at the Estadio Cuscatlan early on, only settling into the match midway through the first half.
Extremely attentive MLS fans will recall Steve Purdy, Alfredo Pacheco and Eliseo Quintanilla. Those guys gave a game to freaking Mexico. No, that probably doesn't happen on neutral ground, let alone the Azteca. That's the point. Home fields in CONCACAF are the most tilted tables in the sport, outside of maybe Ecuador and Bolivia. Being unhappy with ugly draws in Central America is like being unhappy about seeing the players' knees. I can't tell you not to have that opinion, but I can tell you that you're not exactly following the Serenity Prayer. Contrary to Dan Savage, It Doesn't Get Better.
Now, if Klinsmann and Jermaine Jones grab microphones and say something to the effect that they couldn't tell Guatemala City from Coventry City, then I'll humbly back away from this.
Did we actually learn anything about our team? Let's see...remember how in the aftermath of the 2010 World Cup we took stock of our defense and kind of shuddered? Well, good news - Fabian Johnson looks awfully good. One position down, three to go. The very, very best case scenario is that Bocanegra and Cherundolo stop aging entirely, and that one of Goodson or Cameron makes a serious leap in level that has so far eluded...well, every American since Clint Dempsey (except pre-injury Stu Holden). The All-Seeing Analyst loves him some Geoff Cameron, but I'm starting to think that Omar Gonzalez' injury should be upgraded from club crisis to national tragedy. (And I'm aware Gonzalez was and is an international neophyte as well. We've got a bad case of Mother Hubbard's cupboard in the back.
Maybe we could turn one of our sixteen central midfielders into a central defender. Worked for Thomas Dooley, until it didn't. Worked for Marcelo Balboa, then, how about that. Okay, we tried that with Mo Edu last cycle, and it worked abysmally. It's nice to be deep somewhere. If we stop giving away the ball all the damn time, it won't matter so much that our defense consists of Question Mark and the Mysterians.
Landon Donovan, well...I don't know. Maybe Landon should stop talking to Grant so much.
Q: How do you come back to find the hunger or whatever was motivating you in South Africa [at World Cup 2010]?
Donovan: It's not easy. I think all players reach a point in their career where it's natural to lose some of that hunger, that desire, to sort of break out or be a star. My mindset now is I want to be successful, and I realize now that as I'm getting older I'm not going to be the guy who's scoring goals every game or making a great impact all the time. I'm going to do it as much as I can in that way. But if I can be a part of the team and help lead it to successful times, then that's what I want to do.
I know at some point, and I had a small brush with this with Bob [Bradley] last time at the Gold Cup, at some point the time will come when I'm not a first-choice player. And the challenge then will be how do I still make a positive impact? I want to be a positive influence. I want to be someone who they want to call in and want here consistently, regardless of my role.
Q: What are the goals that you still have for club and country?
Donovan: From a career standpoint, ideally, I'd like to play a couple more years and hopefully get to the World Cup, assuming I'm still enjoying it and passionate about it, and then sort of reevaluate from there and see where I want to go. That would be a perfect world as we're sitting here right now. That could change. Then from the club side about the same: Play the next couple years, this year and next year, with L.A., and then just reevaluate and see what I want to do.
Donovan: In the original plan, yeah. But I try to stay present. So while that's all great, it doesn't mean anything anymore. I'm trying to just be very present and live now. If I want to play another year, then I'll play another year. If I don't want to play another year, then I don't play another year. If I want to play five more years, I'll play five more years. But from when I was a little kid I've done everything I wanted to do.
This was from a couple of weeks ago now, and our fanbase responded with the same reasoned, calm and reflective aplomb we usually associate with extras in Godzilla movies. Seriously, we've now been following this guy since his mid-teens. He's said things like this, or worse, at every turn of his career. Said career turned out to be laden with honors and medals. He really has accomplished everything that it's realistic to expect an American soccer player to accomplish - with the exception of a World Cup medal (ha) and a Champions League medal (which, so what, even Jovan Kirovski has one of those).
And it's been a bad year for him - injured for national team games, watching his club implode under him, and whatnot - but that's no reason to read into things that aren't there. He had a great game against Scotland, and not so much against Guatemala. He'll be fine. We'll play Mexico again someday soon, you want to face them without him?
There's no rational reason to think that Dempsey and Donovan can't coexist, except for this idea that we have to choose between the two. We didn't in 2010, we won't in 2014, and we don't have to now. The cold bitch-goddesses age and injury will do that for us.
The real question is whether Klinsmann is ready for that day. He's found a bunch of new players in Germany, but Germany isn't big enough to field two top-tier national teams. He's going to have to discover some Americans at some point. People are criticizing Klinsmann for failing against Guatemala and Antigua unfairly - his real challenge literally has not begun yet.