Whew. U.S. soccer fans can put their antiperspirant away - for a few months, anyway - now that Jurgen Klinsmann and his team survived a surprisingly stressful semifinal round of World Cup qualifying.
While Mexico was breezing through its group with a 6-0 record and plus-13 goal differential, the United States was sweating big time to get ahead of Jamaica, Guatemala and the tiny twin-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda.
The U.S. team had been teetering on the edge of possible elimination after squeaking by Antigua and Barbuda 2-1 on the road. In the end, all worked out fine. The United States dominated Guatemala 3-1 in front of a patriotic Kansas City, Kan., crowd and finished in sole possession of first place in its group.
So, onward go Klinsmann's men to the six-team "Hexagonal" regional final qualifying round, along with Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama and Jamaica. The top three teams earn berths to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The fourth-place team enters a playoff against the Oceania winner for another slot.
The United States has advanced to the past six World Cups, but it is not a given that it will make it to Brazil. Mexico is coming off an Olympic gold medal that it won over a strong Brazil team. The Mexicans, led by Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, Oribe Peralta and Jose Corona, looked very strong through six games of World Cup qualifying, allowing just two goals in the past six matches.
Honduras won its group and destroyed Canada 8-1. Forward Jerry Bengtson (New England Revolution) has scored five goals in four games. He and Carlo Costly had hat tricks against Canada. The Honduran roster includes a handful of Major League Soccer players who presumably know the American players well and will be prepared when they play the United States.
Jamaica's Reggae Boyz haven't qualified for the World Cup since 1998, but they proved they can beat the United States in Kingston. Costa Rica is a very talented team that made back-to-back World Cups before missing 2010. And then there's Panama, which is hungry having never played in a World Cup. The Panamanians don't have any known stars, but they allowed only four goals in 10 matches.
In order to get through the Hexagonal, the U.S. players are going to have to step it up, particularly on the road. They looked fabulous in the first half against Jamaica in Columbus, Ohio, and played well again last week in front of a spirited crowd in Kansas City. But road games at Jamaica, Guatemala and Antigua were not so pretty.
Despite the challenges ahead, Klinsmann seems to have full confidence in his team. The way he sees it, the recent struggles were part of the normal course of World Cup qualifying.
"If you give away a game like we did in Jamaica then you have to pay the price for it a little while and you have to correct it," Klinsmann said. "We go through now in first place and we made things clear that we were the No. 1 team in this group. The next round will be even tougher. You have very good teams in there, every game will be a battle, every game will be a fight and we are ready for that. It's just a normal path that you go through and you take a lot of new experience with that. Players grow and coaches learn and it's just normal."
Midfielder Michael Bradley stressed the need to play better on the road.
"You go to different places on the road and you have to know how - even on tough days and in difficult conditions - to come away with points," he said. "Whether it's on the turf in Saprissa (Costa Rica), or the altitude, heat and smog in Azteca (Mexico City), or the difficult field in Jamaica. There's so little room for error and from the start we'll have to be committed to doing whatever we have to do to get the job done. That changes every game depending on the opponent or where the game is played but we have to be committed to getting points and doing whatever it takes."
Goalie Tim Howard still believes, despite Mexico's recent success, that the U.S. team has what it takes to rule the region: "We feel like we're the best team in the region. Mexico feels like they are. In order to prove that, we've got to go out there and do it every game. You can't have off games. We have to be better at putting together good performances more consistently."
The next round begins in February. Buckle your seat belts!
Meanwhile, in South America, there are seven games left of World Cup qualifying, and this much we have learned:
Lionel Messi can, indeed, play well while wearing his Argentine national team jersey. For a long time, the playmaker was spectacular for his club in Spain, but less so when he was playing for his country. Not anymore. He and Gonzalo Higuain are the top scorers in their region, and Messi is a big reason Argentina is atop the standings.
Uruguay is in a funk. Remember back in 2010, when Diego Forlan and Uruguay reached the World Cup semifinals? Remember when they won the Copa America? Those days are over. Uruguay lost 4-0 to Colombia, 3-0 to Argentina and 4-1 to Bolivia in World Cup qualifiers. Coach Oscar Tabarez must find a way to regroup in a hurry.
Strikers update: Abe Thompson, who is tied for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers' all-time scoring lead with 18 goals, has retired. The 30-year-old accepted a job with the United Soccer Leagues working in youth league development. . . . Midfielder Walter Restrepo and Mark Anderson were named to the NASL Best 11. . . . Brazilian midfielder Wellington "Pecka" Paeckart was re-signed for 2013.
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