Step off the ledge, American soccer fans. Power down the panic machine, at least for another month.
The United States national team lost 2-1 at Honduras on Wednesday in both teams' opening match in the "Hex," the six-team final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. Neither Jurgen Klinsmann nor his players acquitted themselves well in San Pedro Sula, but with so many matches left and so many chances for the U.S. to qualify, it's not yet time to panic.
B/R's Dan Levy has already expertly outlined the excuses for what he calls an "inexcusable" and "lackluster" U.S. performance against Honduras. Dan's criticisms of Klinsmann, the defense and others are spot on, but a poll early in the article produced some surprising results, at least to me.
As of Thursday morning, nearly 66 percent of voters said it was time to panic. Less than 35 percent of voters disagreed. In this case, the 35 percent have it right.
Klinsmann will face tough questions after his team's performance Wednesday, and correctly so. Instead of starting the experienced Carlos Bocanegra (109 caps) in defense for a tough away qualifier, Klinsmann opted for the inexperienced Omar Gonzalez.
Gonzalez, by all accounts, represents the future of the American defense. But Bocanegra's experience might have helped calm American nerves in a high-stress environment.
Klinsmann also used all three of his allotted substitutions by the 67th minute, leaving himself powerless to adjust to a late goal by Honduras.
In Klinsmann's defense, the hot conditions left the American players gassed by the middle of the second half, but because of his personnel choices, a potential game-changer like Herculez Gomez never left the bench.
The players could and should draw criticism for their performances as well, but it's important to keep all the criticism in proper perspective. As poor as the U.S. played, and as poor a start as this is to the Hex, plenty of time remains to fix all of it.
The U.S. has nine more matches left in the Hex, including five at home. Perhaps even more importantly, the top three finishers qualify automatically for the World Cup, with the fourth entering the playoffs against a team from Oceania (almost certainly New Zealand).
Assuming Mexico, Costa Rica and Honduras are the top teams in the group besides the U.S., that means the Americans only have to finish better than Jamaica and Panama to stay alive in the World Cup.
Keep in mind, though, that the competition in CONCACAF has improved significantly in recent years, in part because of Major League Soccer's increasing quality. If this isn't the best Hex ever, it's probably at least the most balanced.
Take Honduras for instance.
Honduras qualified for the 2010 World Cup and defeated Spain at the 2012 Summer Olympics. In fact, Honduras' starting lineup Wednesday included the same number of players that made the 2010 World Cup squad (four: Roger Espinoza, Victor Bernardez, Maynor Figueroa and Oscar Boniek Garcia) as the American XI (Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore).
Like the U.S., Honduras increasingly relies on players who ply their trade in Europe. This was never going to be an easy match, nor will any match in this year's Hex be easy. It's not so much that the U.S. team has become awful; it's more like the rest of the region has caught up to the U.S. and Mexico.
With that said, World Cup qualification has always been a struggle for the U.S. The Americans topped the final-round standings ahead of 2010 World Cup in the last cycle, but only four points separated first and fourth place.
Strong qualification results don't always serve as an indicator of future success. The U.S. and Mexico tied for first place in Hex ahead of 2006 World Cup, but the Americans went out of the final tournament in first round.
Leading up to the 2002 World Cup, the U.S. finished third in the Hex and barely qualified. In the Far East, though, Bruce Arena's team advanced to the quarterfinals before losing narrowly to Germany.
Qualification for a World Cup is always a difficult process, and the most important aspect of it is actually qualifying for the big event—not the manner in which the team gets there.
Klinsmann knows that from experience, as he told USSoccer.com last fall:
In 1990, Germany won the World Cup, but we almost didn’t qualify. In the last qualifying game in 1989, we had to win at home against Wales. We were ahead 2-1, and it was such a tight game. Two minutes before the end of the game, they missed a 100 percent chance, a header from three yards out. Thankfully they missed or we would never have gone to the World Cup.
Thankfully for the U.S., the situation is not nearly so desperate. Nine matches remain, beginning with a home date against Costa Rica on March 22. Three automatic berths in the 2014 World Cup are available, and finishing fourth would still be good enough to move on.
Even after Wednesday's poor result, only one point separates the U.S. from second place. Look at what happened to Mexico. El Tri played poorly at home and drew 0-0 with Jamaica on Wednesday.
CONCACAF is improving. Easy matches don't exist at this stage of World Cup qualifying, and the process is always difficult. Wednesday was a bad start, but the U.S. can and should still qualify for the World Cup.
Step off the ledge. Power down the panic machine. At least until March.
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