Easy qualifying draw gives Klinsmann breathing room

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Thus, something fairly important slipped below radar over the weekend when FIFA drew up groups for World Cup qualifying around the globe -- a process that landed about as sweetly for the U.S. as anyone could have hoped.

Is the "Klinsi" magic at work already? The bottom line for the U.S. is the Road to Brazil is wide open, and something will have to go horribly askew if the U.S. stumbles fails to qualify for World Cup 2014.

But we pretty much knew that anyway; the CONCACAF region is a cuddly little kitten for the United States compared to what most teams in Europe and South America face. Last Saturday's cinchy draw simply removed a couple of troubling "what if" scenarios that could have thrown a monkey wrench into the qualification wheels.

As Klinsmann made the introductory media rounds Monday he was asked about everything from staffing to big-picture philosophy. But he was never queried directly about qualifying for Brazil. That's not so surprising since safe U.S. arrival is generally implied these days. In fact, Klinsmann talked about expectations in terms of how far the side might go in Brazil, not even bothering to mention the unthinkable, a qualifying collapse. The last World Cup the U.S. did not make was 1986, before some of the players currently in the pool were even born.

"Going through the group stage is really, really important and then going to the knockout stage where anything is possible," Klinsmann said Monday. "But obviously you want to improve, you want to get better, you want to be better than the last World Cup and the World Cup before. But you can't promise anything because once you're in the knockout stage, anything can happen."

But first things first. After some concerting flirtation with change, the mechanics of the CONCACAF process remain much the same, with the U.S. joining in the semifinal stages. That's a later U.S. entry than during qualifying for 2010, when Bob Bradley's charges faced a play-in series just to reach semifinal action. Assuming they cruise the semis, the Americans will join five others in the final-round "hexagonal," with everyone bidding for three automatic berths.

Here are the basics: The U.S., along with Mexico and other CONCACAF nations with recent success, proceed directly into the third round, which begins in June 2012. Meanwhile, Canada, Trinidad and Tobago, El Salvador and Panama are the most prominent nations required to begin this September in the second (quarterfinal) round.

When Klinsmann and Co. begin semifinal stage matches next summer they'll be in Group A alongside Jamaica, plus the second-round winners from Group E (Grenada, Guatemala, St. Vincent & Grenadines, Belize) and Group F (Haiti, Antigua & Barbuda, Curacao, U.S. Virgin Islands).

Jamaica has a talented group that generated some chatter at the recent Gold Cup. Yet, the United States handled matters comfortably against the Reggae Boyz in a 2-0 quarterfinal win. The U.S. has never lost to Jamaica, now owning a commanding 10-0-8 mark.

Even if Jamaica rises, somehow defying history and long odds to climb ahead of the Americans, the U.S. is almost sure to finish second and advance (albeit with much mumbling and grumbling from supporters and the chattering class in that case). That's because none of the sides potentially joining Jamaica and the United States amount to much more than middling pests. According to FIFA's world rankings, the highest among these less-than-formidable foursomes are Guatemala (115th) and Haiti (117th).

The final round is set to begin in Feb. 2013 and run through October. The top three finishers will qualify for Brazil 2014 with a fourth-place nation moving into a home-and-away series with Oceania champ (most likely New Zealand), with a place in Brazil for the victor.

Something would have to go seriously sideways if the U.S. is worrying about New Zealand or some other far-away nation some 26 months from now. There's absolutely no reason Klinsmann's team should finish below anyone other than Mexico in the final-stage "hexagonal" (a fancy way of saying "six-team group.")

The "hex" will be Mexico's to lose. The generation of young attackers has helped El Tri regain the regional high ground, and Mexico will be favored to place first out of CONCACAF, which would leave five nations (presumably the United States and four others) competing for two-and-a-half spots.

So, who are the potential final-round party crashers, the nations most likely to break U.S. Soccer hearts and leave Klinsmann and Co. stranded? Canada has long been seen as something of a sleeping giant, although nothing that happened in the recent Gold Cup did anything to remove the label as habitual underachievers. Honduras qualified for the last World Cup and has some quality young talent to augment a decent core, but still rates low on the threat meter. Costa Rica has a solid national team program and games in the capital of San Jose are no picnic. And Panama certainly showed that it can be dangerous in spots; ask any of the Americans on the field as the Panamanians upset the Gold Cup hosts in June, an humbling result that damaged Bradley's standing as much as any other.

This relatively trouble-free road to Brazil will certainly facilitate an easier transition into Klinsmann's designs, whatever those may be. While Klinsmann settles on which players he wants to administer his forward-thinking policies and protect the country's image as a soccer nation on the rise, he'll have an easier time thanks to this draw. If the magic Ping-Pong balls had fallen differently, Klinsmann might need to fashion a side that's slightly more results oriented, slightly less development oriented. As it is, a younger and less tested side can probably be trusted to get through CONCACAF while Klinsmann works toward the larger goals that he discussed in Monday's media meet-ups, like elusive aim of defining the U.S. style.

"What should be the style of play?" he asked rhetorically. "Is it more proactive and aggressive, a forward-thinking style of play? Or is it more reacting style of play?"

The accommodating draw is one that allows Klinsmann the luxury of pressing into a more attacking style.

Klinsmann also has additional breathing room built-in because the Americans won't be involved in second-round action, which begins in about a month. That provides him with the option of taking his time to build a staff through a series of "guest coaches," which is another way of saying "on-the-job auditions." He didn't have that luxury seven years ago when inheriting the German national team post, as media pressure and the qualifying calendar demanded immediate choices (choices that proved spot on, it must be said.)

Said Klinsmann: "Because we're not jumping into qualifying right away, we have that opportunity where we have exhibition games so I can try out different coaches on my side to see how they are doing."

As for personnel, he'll surely have more latitude to tinker in the semifinal round of three home and three away matches. Later, the "hex" will be a little more involved, with 10 matches overall as the competition stiffens.