NEW YORK -- U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati has a smaller 10th-floor office than you might expect -- he's a popular economics lecturer at Columbia University -- but there are plenty of intriguing soccer mementos inside on the walls, including a picture of him with Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela; a framed photograph of his young son, Emilio, hand-in-hand with Ronaldinho in a pre-game walk out the tunnel; and a series of 1990s-era MLS official game balls. (Gulati has worn many hats, including deputy commissioner of MLS in its early days.)
Gulati, 53, can impact a lot of things from his small office. He has interviewed six candidates recently for the U.S. women's coaching job, he's spearheading U.S. Soccer's involvement in organizing a new women's league and he's part of three different FIFA committees. But when it comes to the U.S. men's team, which has two important World Cup qualifiers Friday (at Antigua and Barbuda) and Tuesday (against Guatemala in Kansas City), Gulati is as powerless as any nail-biting U.S. fan these days.
The U.S. (2-1-1) needs a win and a tie in these two games to make sure it avoids elimination from World Cup 2014. Truth be told, the Americans should win both games and advance to next year's six-team final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying (aka The Hexagonal). But an unexpected 2-1 loss at Jamaica last month has made this road harder than most observers would have imagined.
How big are these two games?
"They're obviously very important," Gulati said. "All qualifiers are important until you've gotten through, and even then they may be important for someone else. So in a short series like this where we've got six games you can essentially afford to have one result go against you. The difference between a draw and a loss is huge, especially away, because it's less about the point you're getting versus none than the three points versus one that someone else gets -- in this case the Jamaica [away] game.
"In the end, if we finish 4-1-1 we'll win the group in my view, and that will be the same record we've had before. It's just the sequence of games that will be different."
By hiring coach Jurgen Klinsmann in July 2011, Gulati finally landed his white whale after pursuing the German World Cup winner off and on back to 2006. From the start, there has been a sense that Klinsmann's possible outcomes range from runaway success to spectacular failure. He was brought in as a change agent, after all, and he's being paid a base salary of $2.5 million a year to take the U.S. to the next level at the World Cup.
How happy is Klinsmann's boss with the coach's performance right now?
"I think Jurgen has made a lot of changes [to the program] in the way he goes about things," Gulati said. "Some of those things have been successful, and some of those are still a work in progress. But he knows better than anyone that the measurement of his performance as a coach comes down to results, and right now we have two important games coming up. So the answer is yes, I'm happy with Jurgen, but we need to win these games. He knows that. I think we will win these games and get to the Hex and qualify [for the World Cup]."
While Michael Bradley's return is important after he missed last month's qualifiers, the U.S. won't have all of its top players available at Antigua on Friday (7 p.m. ET, beIN Sport English). Injuries to Landon Donovan, Brek Shea and Edgar Castillo and the flu symptoms of Fabian Johnson have removed all those players from consideration, which means a potential U.S. lineup could look something like this:
Tim Howard; Steve Cherundolo, Geoff Cameron, Clarence Goodson, Carlos Bocanegra; Danny Williams; Graham Zusi, Michael Bradley, Sacha Kljestan; Clint Dempsey, Hérculez Gómez.
Left back is the biggest question mark with both Johnson and Castillo out. Klinsmann famously said "anyone can play left back" before the Antigua home game in June, so we could see Bocanegra or Michael Parkhurst there on Friday, or perhaps someone who's a complete wild card. (Remember, José Torres played left back in that June game.) It's also possible that we could see Jermaine Jones in the midfield instead of Kljestan, though Kljestan would provide more of the attacking width Klinsmann said he's looking for in this game.
Judging by the coach's comments, in fact, the U.S. is expecting to face a packed-in defense and could deal with it (either earlier or later in the game) by highlighting the aerial strength in the box of surprise forward call-ups Eddie Johnson and Alan Gordon. You need width and crosses to do that, of course, and those are things that the U.S. has rarely had in recent games, the width (when it does come) being generated by the fullbacks and not by the midfield.
Antigua and Barbuda won't be a complete pushover, however. The Benna Boys are expecting a sold-out home crowd of 10,000 at Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, a cricket ground, where they held Jamaica to a 0-0 tie and only lost to Guatemala 1-0. For that matter, Antigua's Peter Byers has scored in both away group games at the U.S. and Guatemala, matching 3-1 losses. Byers is one of several players who ply their club trade at Antigua Barracuda, a USL Pro team that has massively helped the development of the national team.
If Klinsmann's team wants to ease the nerves of U.S. fans, the Americans will grab a couple early goals and make sure three points are never in doubt. But World Cup qualifying is rarely easy. How the U.S. handles these two games will start to tell us how this team deals with the burden of expectation in the Klinsmann Era.