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Amid key absences, USMNT positioned to take step toward 2018 World Cup

The U.S. can–and should–advance to the final round of World Cup qualifying for Russia 2018 but is wary of slipping up against its Caribbean qualifying foes and faces personnel questions.

The singular, surreal low point of Jurgen Klinsmann’s five year quest to steer the U.S. toward higher level of soccer success likely came, strangely enough, in a baseball stadium.

It was as if the gods governing American sports simply weren’t having it. Klinsmann’s team had played poorly at the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup and finished an embarrassing fourth. The performance in the ensuing Confederations Cup playoff was better, but still not enough to overcome Mexico. Then, with the opportunity to restore some confidence presented in November’s World Cup qualifying opener against Caribbean minnow St. Vincent and the Grenadines—a nation of just 103,000 people represented by a national team of semi-pros who were ranked 129th by FIFA—the U.S. gagged.

The crowd at Busch Stadium in St. Louis was barely settled in when Vincy Heat forward Oalex Anderson, who was playing for the Seattle Sounders’ USL team, waltzed through the U.S. defense and beat Brad Guzan to the far post. The game hadn’t reached the five-minute mark, but the Americans had hit bottom.

Afterward, Klinsmann said the early goal “made everybody a bit quiet for the moment … you say, ‘O.K. guys, it gives you even more urgency now to equalize right away.”

The U.S. was bent but far from broken. Bobby Wood scored six minutes later, Fabian Johnson gave them the lead in the 29th and the hosts were on their way to a 6-1 win. The national team’s ensuing 10 months haven’t been entirely smooth—there was the March loss in Guatemala and the fact that it wasn’t at all competitive against Argentina in the Copa América Centenario semis—but they’ve certainly been a far cry from the frustration of 2015 and the stunning, semi-catastrophe that was trailing St. Vincent.

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It’s been mostly up from that stunning moment. But it does remind us that nothing is guaranteed in qualifying, and while the U.S. (2-1-1) now is well positioned to finish out this round and advance to the Hexagonal, there are potential stumbling blocks and surprises around every corner. The Americans are pretty far from full strength, the travel won’t be easy and the Vincy Heat (0-4-0), who hosts the U.S. on Friday (3:30 p.m. ET, beIN Sports), know they’ve got at least one goal in them.

Here’s what to watch for as we peek around that corner ahead of the first of two games that will determine which nations advance to the final round of qualifying.

Easier opponents but finer margins

The semifinal round, which comprises three groups of four teams each, shouldn’t be hard for the U.S., a nation that’s qualified for seven straight World Cups and claimed five regional titles. But the pitfalls prevalent in CONCACAF are well known, and the margin for error is smaller with six games on the schedule (compared to 10 in the Hex). As a result, there have been some close calls.

Since the current qualifying format started ahead of the 1998 World Cup, the U.S. has been beaten at least once at this stage of the competition five of six times. That can tighten a group, which left the U.S. to squeak through on a couple of occasions. Four years ago, it needed a 90th-minute goal from Eddie Johnson to win at Antigua & Barbuda, 2-1. Despite that, for a few moments after Guatemalan immortal Carlos Ruiz scored in the fifth minute of the finale, the U.S. was out of the World Cup. And the famous run to the 2002 quarterfinals wouldn’t have happened if Bruce Arena’s team didn’t win in Barbados on the final day of the semifinal round. An October 2000 home draw with Costa Rica and an earlier tie in Guatemala let the U.S. on the precipice.

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Only a U.S. win on Friday and a Trinidad (3-0-1) triumph over Guatemala (2-2-0) would seal passage to the Hex before Group C comes to a close Sept. 6. Any other combination of results will leave the U.S. needing some good fortune against the Soca Warriors, easily the best of the Americans’ three semifinal opponents.

St. Vincent has scored only three goals in its four semifinal-round qualifiers while yielding 19. It doesn’t have a single player who’d come anywhere close to making Klinsmann’s team. Yet a far-from-perfect pitch at the Arnos Vale Stadium—a cricket ground—and the mid-day Caribbean heat (there are no floodlights) will be a leveler, and that goal in St. Louis proved that just about anything is possible.

The U.S. is saying all the right things ahead of Friday’s game.

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“It’s not easy to go into those Caribbean countries and get the results,” Klinsmann said over the weekend. “So it’s not going to be easy in St. Vincent on a very difficult field with heat and whatever else to get the goals as quickly as possible. We’ve got to be patient, but we have to play with urgency and determination in our approach. That’s how we are going to go and prepare for that game.”

Speaking to reporters in Jacksonville, where the U.S. is training this week, midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, “They were able to score first [in November] and everybody was like ‘Oh my God, panic.’ It’s important for us to get out on the field and from the first minute impose ourselves and don’t take anything for granted. So, it’s important for us to be mentally and physically prepared and be up for the challenge.”

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Core questions

Pleas for Klinsmann to establish greater continuity within the national team appeared to have been answered, at least philosophically, over the past 6-to-8 months. The churn he desired, designed to create depth and competition for places, often seemed to come at the expense of chemistry. But heading into the Copa América there was an established back four and a focus on either a 4-3-3 with Bradley playing more conservatively or a familiar 4-4-2. Permutations had been narrowed down.

Klinsmann liked what he saw, and resolved to allow the players who finished fourth at the Copa to continue working together in qualifying. He intended to call in 21 of the 23 men used this summer. But planning can be a waste of effort for any national team coach.

Clint Dempsey is out with an irregular heartbeat. Gyasi Zardes broke his foot. Jermaine Jones hasn’t played since early July thanks to a bum knee. John Brooks is in Germany with a bad back. Bradley is suspended for Friday’s game. That leaves the veteran spine of the team decimated, and ensures the churn will continue despite Klinsmann’s interest in continuity.

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Others will have to step in and lead. In back, Geoff Cameron likely will start alongside Omar Gonzalez or Matt Besler. They all have World Cup experience. Kyle Beckerman will be available to keep things stable and structured further forward, while Alejandro Bedoya is a hard-working, skillful midfielder who can play in tight spaces and bring teammates into the game. Graham Zusi is another veteran with big-game experience who should be comfortable performing under pressure

Bradley will return for the Trinidad game, but he won’t want to captain a desperate team. Handling the vagaries of football in the Caribbean requires partnership and poise, and Klinsmann will have to find it with a new-look starting 11. Sacha Kljestan hasn’t played for the U.S. in more than two years, but he’s familiar with the likes of Beckerman and Zusi from MLS play and comfortable covering ground in an attacking midfield role. A quartet featuring those three and Bedoya would maintain the 4-4-2 used toward the end of the Copa, as well as offer smarts and stability while the U.S. found its footing in St. Vincent.

Forward thinking

Questions about whether Dempsey, 33, would last through the 2018 World Cup aren’t new, and while no one expected the scary setback revealed last week, the future of the U.S. forward corps always has been on Klinsmann’s radar. Perhaps that future begins in St. Vincent.

Klinsmann has tried and discarded a host of forwards during his tenure but finally may have found what he’s looking for in Wood. The Hawaiian fought his way through the ranks in Germany and overcame a rough start with the U.S. but now is proving himself on both fronts. He scored last weekend in his Bundesliga debut for Hamburger SV and has six goals for his country. Klinsmann has tried him in a wider role in a 4-3-3, but Wood is at his best when he can pick his runs from a more central location. He’s quick, confident and is only growing into his role.

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He was a good foil for Dempsey, who liked to lurk and recover while looking for the ball. Whether Wood can partner effectively with Altidore, a classic target forward, is the question now. And it’s one worth trying to answer. Altidore’s quest for consistency has been ravaged by hamstring injuries, but he’s been healthy this month and has four goals in five games for Toronto FC. Wood and Altidore started together against St. Vincent in November, as well as in 2015 friendlies against Peru and Chile. Altidore scored four times in those three games while Wood was on the field.

Whether that partnership blossoms or whether Klinsmann decides to try something else, the future for U.S. forwards looks brighter than it has in a while. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if Altidore, Wood and Jordan Morris led the U.S. in Russia two years from now. And with Aron Jóhannsson and Terrence Boyd returning from long-term injury while Rubio Rubin, Julian Green and Fafa Picault continue to make their way in Europe, there should be plenty of players fighting to maintain Dempsey’s legacy whenever his international career comes to a close.