KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- If World Cup qualifying is about simply one thing -- punching a ticket to Brazil 2014 -- then the U.S. is in pretty good shape heading into Tuesday's semifinal round finale here against Guatemala (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2, WatchESPN, TeleFutura). A win or a tie will send the U.S. into next year's final qualifying round, CONCACAF's six-team hexagonal, and the U.S. has gone 21 home World Cup qualifiers without a loss since a 3-2 defeat to Honduras in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 1, 2001.
Heck, even a loss would be OK for Jurgen Klinsmann's team if Jamaica can't make up a three-goal differential with the U.S. in its home game against Antigua and Barbuda.
Yet you can forgive U.S. soccer fans for feeling a little queasy these days. On Friday, the U.S. was three minutes from its most embarrassing result in nearly three decades when Eddie Johnson averted disaster with a 90th-minute strike to beat tiny Antigua 2-1. Last month, the U.S. lost to Jamaica for the first time in 19 games going back to 1988. It's enough to make you wonder if Klinsmann is worth his base salary of $2.5 million a year, four times that of his predecessor, Bob Bradley.
When I asked Klinsmann on Monday how the U.S. had improved in the last year, he gave a long response that included introducing new players like Eddie Johnson, connecting promising Under-20 and Under-23 teams with the senior team (a process that he said was hindered by not qualifying for the Olympics) and increasing the chemistry on the senior team as he introduces a changed playing style. "That's a process that will take time, but right now it's all about getting things done," he said. "It's all about the game tomorrow against Guatemala, beating them, winning the group and advancing into a very busy 2013."
Fourteen months into Klinsmann's tenure, this much remains true: In the big picture, his possible outcomes still range from runaway success to spectacular failure. If the U.S. gets to World Cup '14 and goes on a deep run, Klinsmann's $2.5 million salary will be worth every penny, and the current stretch will be viewed as growing pains necessary at a time when Klinsmann was trying to change the U.S. into a more proactive outfit.
In the short term, Klinsmann and the U.S. could use the boost that would come with a victory over Guatemala on Tuesday. The atmosphere at a sold-out Livestrong Sporting Park will be rocking in favor of the home team, the field conditions will be ideal (i.e., no rutted Caribbean goat track), and a U.S. victory would open the door for the advancement of Jamaica (whom the U.S. would probably prefer to face in the Hex ahead of Guatemala).
Even though the U.S. would advance with a tie, Klinsmann was clear about his priorities. "Our approach to the game is clear: We want to win this game," he said. "You can only win a game if you attack and go forward. That's what we're going to do."
The onus will be on the U.S. not just to possess the ball but to create chances with that possession. Guatemalan players have already said they'd be happy with the tie that would clinch their advancement, and it's likely the Chapines will play with essentially a five-man back line. The U.S. will try to break through with combination play orchestrated by Michael Bradley (who made a welcome return to the team on Friday) and Clint Dempsey, who was relatively quiet against Antigua.
The U.S. has several questions heading in. Who will play at left back? (Carlos Bocanegra had a rough game filling in for the sick Fabian Johnson on Friday, failing to get upfield much and losing the ball that led to Antigua's goal.) Will Hérculez Gómez make his ninth straight start up top for the U.S.? (Gómez struggled on Friday but may have earned enough credit from previous performances to stay in the lineup.) And is there any chance Sacha Kljestan might crack the starting 11? (He had an impressive substitute appearance on Friday.)
Keeping in mind that Jermaine Jones is suspended for this game on yellow cards, here's my best guess at Klinsmann's lineup:
Tim Howard; Steve Cherundolo, Geoff Cameron, Carlos Bocanegra, Michael Parkhurst; Danny Williams; Graham Zusi, Michael Bradley, Sacha Kljestan; Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson.
Given the struggles of Bocanegra at left back and Clarence Goodson in the center on Friday, Parkhurst is a potential option on the left and practiced there for the U.S. on Sunday. It's also entirely possible that we could see Johnson wide left and Gómez up top, as was the case in Antigua. It may seem like an odd spot for Johnson, but he was one of the few U.S. players who took on and beat defenders on the dribble Friday, and he still managed to get in front of the goal to score on two headers.
Guatemala's main danger offensively could come on the counter or in earning free kicks near the U.S. penalty area. Marco Pappa scored on a late free kick to tie the U.S. in Guatemala City in June, one of three set-piece goals conceded by the U.S. during qualifying, and Carlos Ruiz is always a scoring threat up front.
The U.S. hasn't played as well as expected in qualifying, and a convincing victory here would be a good thing for a team that is facing growing expectations from its fan base. Klinsmann, for his part, preferred to put a positive spin on the impatience of U.S. fans over how long it has taken to secure passage to next year's Hex.
"It's exciting to see the fans care more about their national team, to care more about soccer in general, and they ask more questions," he said. "They have rising expectations as well, which is good. It gives everybody involved a bigger sense of accountability. You're accountable for what you're doing, measuring a coach and the players and everybody involved. That is great."
"Now when you're down to the wire in the last game, it's because certain things happened for a reason," he continued. "We gave away too many free kicks in Jamaica and conceded two. Instead of taking a point away and being already through, you have to battle in the game tomorrow night. You just have to take it the way it is and work yourself through it. Sometimes it takes longer than you wish it would."