The long qualifying road to World Cup 2014 starts on Friday in Tampa for the U.S. men's national team, and while the first semifinal-round opponent (tiny Antigua and Barbuda) shouldn't provide much resistance, there's always a danger in taking World Cup qualifying for granted. The U.S. is one of only seven nations to reach the last six World Cups -- along with Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, South Korea and Spain -- and at least 16 qualifying games over the next 17 months stand between the Yanks and Brazil 2014. As always, there are no guarantees.
In the 21st century, the World Cup is a big-time event in the U.S., a mainstream attraction that draws TV audiences comparable to those for the World Series and the NBA Finals. But the World Cup isn't just a 32-nation tournament that takes place over the span of a month every four years. In fact, most countries call that event the World Cup finals to distinguish it from the marathon global qualifying campaign that lasts 29 months and involves more national teams than there are members of the United Nations. FIFA has 208 national associations, and 204 entered the Hydra-tentacled bracket for World Cup 2014. The first match was played on June 15, 2011 (Belize 5, Montserrat 2), and the tournament will end at the World Cup final on July 13, 2014, at the Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro.
Only Brazil, as the host, receives an automatic World Cup finals berth. The other 203 nations will play what will eventually be 824 qualifying games on the Road to Rio, far and away the planet's most expansive and competitive sporting saga. Already 79 countries comprising 56 percent of the world's population have been eliminated from World Cup 2014, including India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines and recent World Cup finals participants China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Trinidad and Tobago.
As of Wednesday, 128 nations were still competing for 31 spots in Brazil, including the United States. First-year coach Jurgen Klinsmann has the mandate to transform U.S. Soccer at every level, from the youth ranks to the senior national team, as I detail in a feature in this week's SI magazine. But while Klinsmann owns loads of experience, having played in three World Cups (winning one in 1990) and having coached Germany to the '06 semifinals, he has yet to endure a World Cup qualifier in the hothouse conditions of Central America.
What can Klinsmann expect when the U.S. travels to upset-minded Guatemala next Tuesday for game two? "When we get off the plane there will be riot gear and armed guards on our bus," said U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra. "We'll be flanked by probably two police buses with guys hanging out the windows with machine guns and things like that. It's definitely an interesting experience when you go to Central America for qualifying." While Guatemala has plenty of friendly folks and the world's best rum -- Zacapá, if you're wondering -- the country has also grown more dangerous in recent years (due to shifting drug-trade patterns), and the home fans won't be especially welcoming to the U.S. in Guatemala City.
Indeed, many of the challenges in CONCACAF qualifying have little to do with the skill of opposing teams. Late-night fire alarms, patchy and bumpy fields, long-seated anti-U.S. sentiments, projectiles from the stands: Road trips in the region are fraught with perils you'd rarely see in, say, European World Cup qualifying. Nor should we discount the improvement of CONCACAF teams like Panama, which could very well qualify for its first World Cup finals this time around.
For the U.S., this year's six-game regional semifinal round -- involving home-and-away matches against Guatemala, Jamaica and Antigua and Barbuda -- provides little margin for error. (It's like a five-game NBA playoff series in that way.) The Yanks must finish in the top two to advance to the final six-team, 10-game round next year, aka the Hexagonal, in which the top three will advance to the World Cup and the fourth-place team will enter a playoff against the winner from Oceania (likely New Zealand).
Bottom line: There's a decent chance that four CONCACAF teams (instead of the usual three) will earn berths in Brazil 2014. Mexico and the U.S. will be overwhelming favorites to qualify, but also in the mix should be Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama and a surprise team or two.
Sitting in his Washington D.C. hotel room, an aerie with a window overlooking the White House, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati ponders the question: Is this what you were hoping for so far from Klinsmann? Gulati, a Columbia economics lecturer, pursued Klinsmann on and off for five years before finally signing him to a three-year, $7.5 million contract last July. He has seen Klinsmann's team start off slowly, results-wise, before a recent run that included wins at Italy and Slovenia and a 5-1 pasting of Scotland. (The U.S. would come back to earth with a 4-1 loss to Brazil and 0-0 tie against Canada in the past week, after my interview with Gulati.)
"Scotland was pretty good," Gulati said. "Genoa in February was pretty darn good. But we all understand the real test here is getting to the World Cup and what you do there. So in general we're pleased. But it would be impossible for anyone in my position or in Jurgen's position to say 'Mission Accomplished.'" Gulati nodded over to the White House, well aware of what can happen when any president makes such a declaration.
In other words, Klinsmann's tenure won't be measured by what happens in World Cup qualifying, as long as the U.S. reaches Brazil. It will be measured by how the Yanks perform at the World Cup, which means Klinsmann has to be focused on not just raw results now but also improving his team so that it can compete against the world's best in two summers. I explain how he's trying to do that in this week's magazine article, including several unconventional methods of preparation off the field.
Klinsmann had a reputation for asking for a lot from the German federation during his tenure before 2006, but Gulati says he doesn't think Klinsmann has been overly difficult so far in his new gig. "He's been demanding, but sensibly demanding," Gulati said. "People thought he'd come in and say, 'Here's a list of 50 things, and we're doing them no matter what.' But that's not the way the relationship is. He says these are things I want to do, and we talk about them. We talk about some of the things we've done, whether this might be an easier way or an economically better way. And he's been very sensible."
"He pushes where it's important and understands when we can't do everything," Gulati continued. "Clearly we've given him more support in a number of areas than previous coaches have requested, because we have resources that we haven't had in the past, whether that's medical, nutritional, or social things that are important parts of developing players as people, which is very important to him. It's part of his strategy and game plan. We've been happy to do that."
Klinsmann has plenty on his plate these days. He's trying to change the way the U.S. plays, asking his team to become more attack-minded, less reactive. He's trying to get as much as he can out of an aging back line while introducing some younger players in different parts of the field. A big part of that process has been finding dual-national players who have to choose which country to represent. In recent years the U.S. has lost Giuseppe Rossi (to Italy) and Neven Subotic (to Serbia), and German-American fullback Timmy Chandler recently decided not to accept an invite to the U.S. camp after playing in several friendlies.
At the same time, Klinsmann points out, the U.S. won the cap-tied allegiance of Mexican-Americans José Torres and Edgar Castillo and German-Americans Fabian Johnson and Jermaine Jones, with other dual nationals like Joe Corona, Danny Williams and Terrence Boyd on track to be tied to the U.S. as well.
"Whatever dual-citizen player you bring in, there will always be a risk unless he's not locked in yet with a World Cup qualifier or a Gold Cup game," said Klinsmann. "It will always remain the player's choice. You will always have this topic kind of floating around. I don't think it helps to give an ultimatum to a Timmy Chandler now because he had a long season and he's maybe not decided yet and he's a little bit insecure about what is best for him. Maybe he thinks of [playing for] Germany. It is the way it is. Why should I close the door? He's gotta figure it out. It's his career. Down the road there's a World Cup to play. Germany right now has no interest in him at all. At all. So sooner or later he has to make a call."
"We got Fabian Johnson, who won the under-21 European championship with Germany, and he's already locked in," Klinsmann went on. "Now it happens that we have the best left back of the last four months in the German Bundesliga. Danny Williams is the next one. He's 1,000 percent committed to us. When Jermaine [Jones] was called in for Germany, Jogi [Löw, the Germany coach] was not convinced in his way and the way he wanted to build the team, which at that time was his picture. It was the right picture, probably. Now you look at that team, and every team kind of evolves differently. If I go to that European Championship right now and look at my very young [German] team, I would have loved to have a Jermaine Jones in there. And he might think too. But now he's committed to us."
Klinsmann also promises to help Jones cut down on his yellow cards. "[Jones] is a player who has some controversial stuff, he's always on the edge, all that," the coach said. "But I say I have another two years to work on that topic, and I'll work on that topic. He's actually getting better and better."
It's all of a piece with Klinsmann's objectives of improving his team while getting the results the U.S. needs from World Cup qualifying. If history is any guide, it won't always be easy. But the new coach remains optimistic.
"What is success?" he asked. "Well, success certainly is measured by results. But success is also the feedback of players to say, 'I get a sense of getting better in what I'm doing.' In the case of World Cup qualifying, it's certainly related more to the points than to what a player would express of, 'I was there eight months ago and now I'm here today and have improved maybe five to 10 percent.' That's a nice-to-have compliment which is down the road important for you to continue that work, but it doesn't give you the World Cup qualification."
Klinsmann laughed, the kind of giggly laugh that pops up whenever he speaks. "So go with the results. That's totally cool."
Those results start coming on Friday.