It’s been less than a year and a half since Philipp Lahm raised the trophy at the Estádio do Maracanã, yet for much of the planet, the 21st World Cup is well underway. In fact, close to a quarter of the 209 national teams eligible to qualify for the 2018 finals already have been eliminated. And nearly 200 games have taken place.
The U.S. typically has been one of the last countries to enter the fray. CONCACAF, which includes 35 FIFA-affiliated nations from Canada down to Suriname, opts to weed out most of its minnows before admitting the more powerful contenders. Since embarking on its return to the world stage in July 1988, the U.S.—along with regional heavyweights like Mexico and Costa Rica—has played its first qualifier around two years before the start of the quadrennial finals. For the Americans, an Olympic/European Championship summer typically coincided with the initial step down the World Cup road.
That gave coaches a solid two years between the conclusion of a World Cup and the start of the next one to find their footing, integrate new players and develop the sort of chemistry and consistency that qualification demands. This time around, however, Jurgen Klinsmann will have no such luxury. FIFA’s 2012 removal of a summer international date and the addition of the 2016 Copa América Centenario highlight an increasingly congested international calendar, which prompted CONCACAF to bring World Cup qualifying forward.
Fourteen teams kicked off the knockout rounds in March, just eight months after Germany won it all in Rio de Janeiro. And the U.S. will launch its attempt to qualify for an eighth straight World Cup on Friday in St. Louis. There, at the Cardinals’ Busch Stadium, the Americans will meet St. Vincent and The Grenadines, the world’s 129th-ranked team.
It’s by far the earliest start to qualifying in U.S. history.
The curious scheduling and curious site comes at a curious time for Klinsmann and the U.S. The manager’s transition from the 2014 World Cup hasn’t gone well.
The U.S. is 9-6-2 this year and just 1-4-1 in its past six games, all of which were at home. Among the defeats were the Gold Cup semifinal loss to Jamaica, which helped send the U.S. to its worst continental championship finish in 15 years, and last month’s Confederations Cup playoff defeat to Mexico. LA Galaxy forward Gyasi Zardes arguably is the only “new” player to establish himself in the regular U.S. rotation, and criticisms of Klinsmann’s performance have reached an all-time high.
It isn’t an ideal time to start qualifying for the biggest competition of all. But Klinsmann, ever the optimist, said he’s excited by the start of a new cycle and eager to re-ignite the transition to a younger generation of players that was put on hold by the Gold Cup and the ensuing playoff.
“We start that process now. We’re all excited because we talk World Cup. We talk Russia 2018. That’s what you want to do and that’s what inspires you, what motivates you, and the players know that,” he told reporters Monday in Miami, where the U.S. is training ahead of Friday’s game and then the Nov. 17 qualifier in Trinidad and Tobago.
The 23-man team gathered in Florida includes a core of veteran names like captain Michael Bradley; midfielders Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones; goalkeepers Tim Howard and Brad Guzan; defenders Fabian Johnson, Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler and forward Jozy Altidore. The program’s leading active goal scorer, Clint Dempsey, is not in camp.
But they’re joined by 10 players without World Cup qualifying experience, 11 who are 25 or younger and one, Stanford University forward Jordan Morris, who isn’t even a professional. The U.S. was an older team last year and again at this summer’s Gold Cup, where it struggled. Klinsmann said he is starting to address that issue while keeping an eye on the importance of getting good results against St. Vincent and Trinidad.
“It’s part of that phase between two World Cups. You obviously want younger players to come through. You want to help younger players, and the only way you can help them is giving them minutes,” Klinsmann said. “And that’s at the expense of more experienced ones. You can’t do both. You can only have 11 on the field at the end of the day. So here and there you have to make compromises.”
But not at the expense of the final score, he added.
“When you go into a process like World Cup qualifying, you have to get results. This is about getting the points.. You’ve got to win your games at home and you have to get points also on the away side,” he said. “We want [younger players] to come out of their shell a bit more and more and make a point … We also have to have a longer, kind of a bigger picture towards Russia 2018. So we need the Bobby Woods, the Jordan Morrises, the Gyasi Zardeses out there to make an impression, to fight their way though and prove it also in World Cup qualifying. We cannot start that process two years from now."
This semifinal round of qualifying features lighter opposition but reduced margin for error. The Americans’ quartet, which also features Guatemala, is the easiest of the three on paper (the others are Mexico-Honduras-El Salvador-Canada and Costa Rica-Panama-Haiti-Jamaica). But with only six games to play, things can get stressful quickly. In 2012, the U.S. lost at Jamaica during the same stage and actually needed at least a draw in the finale against Guatemala to ensure advancement to the Hexagonal. In 2000, the U.S., at 3-1-2, made it through the semifinal round by a single point, thanks to a win in Barbados.
“Automatically, you’re among the favorites in CONCACAF. You fight for spot No. 1 with Mexico for years. Yes, you’re the favorite in [the current] group,” Klinsmann said. “But it’s not an easy group at all. I think Trinidad and Tobago showed in the Gold Cup how capable they are to make it very, very difficult to Mexico, to other teams as well. You look at their players, where they play, a lot of them play in Europe in different leagues … and are proven players. You expect a very, very tough and difficult game. But at the end of the day, you’re expected to go through.”
Friday’s opponent, St. Vincent, isn’t expected to go through. It’s a country of only 103,000 people whose national team has qualified for just one Gold Cup. That came in 1996, when the Vincy Heat lost its two games by a combined 8-0 tally. Its most famous player, the retired Ezra Hendrickson, won MLS championships with D.C. United, the Columbus Crew and LA Galaxy and now coaches USL side Seattle Sounders 2.
A pair of his Sounders charges, 22-year-old forward Myron Samuel and 19-year-old Oalex Anderson, play for St. Vincent. The leading goal scorer in CONCACAF qualifying so far, with five in four matches, is St. Vincent striker Tevin Slater. He plays for a club called Camdonia Chelsea in the domestic NLA Premier League and makes extra money as a fisherman.
Trinidad, as Klinsmann said, has a much more professional pedigree. It gave Mexico fits at the Gold Cup, won its group and fell to Panama on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals. T&T is 2-5-2 all-time against the U.S. at home in Port of Spain, with wins in 1994 and 2008.
Elsewhere on Friday, Juan Carlos Osorio will make his managerial debut for Mexico as the Gold Cup champions host El Salvador. Group A could be tough. Canada entertains Honduras in the other matchup. In Group B, 2014 World Cup quarterfinalist Costa Rica hosts Haiti and Jamaica hosts Panama in a meeting between the Gold Cup silver and bronze medalists.
Following next week’s Trinidad game, the U.S. will continue Group C play in Guatemala on March 25, 2016 and home to Los Chapines four days later. The semifinal stage will conclude Sept 2 and 6 at St. Vincent and home to Trinidad. The top two finishers will advance to the Hex, which is scheduled to start earlier than ever—in November 2016.