Finally, after what has felt like a lifetime after the Yanks' defeat to Ghana in the Round of 16 two summers ago, the road to qualification for World Cup 2014 in Brazil begins Friday night in Tampa. With arguably one of the better talent pools this nation has seen in quite some time, as well as the guidance of a new head man in Jurgen Klinsmann, the United States are looking to qualify for their seventh straight World Cup.
Friday night will kick off the "Third Round" of CONCACAF qualifying, which contains 3 groups of 4 nations, who will play each other in a round robin format, where the top two finishing nations in the group qualify for the final round consisting of six teams. The top three nations in the final qualifying round will qualify for the World Cup directly, while the fourth place team will compete in an inter-continental playoff for their final qualification.
But, you knew all that already right? Otherwise you probably wouldn't be reading a soccer blog! It's always best to at least set the table and get you up to speed on where the tournament stands anyway, and after the jump we're diving head first into Team USA's first match in qualifying and their first opponent, Antigua and Barbuda!
ANTIGUA AND BARBUDA
POPULATION: 81,799 (2011 CENSUS)
NICK NAME: THE BENNA BOYS
FIFA RANKING: 105
HEAD COACH: TOM CURTIS (ENG)
QUALIFICATION HISTORY: The tiny Caribbean nation has never qualified for the World Cup or Gold Cup tournaments.
2014 ROAD TO QUALIFICATION: The Benna Boys received a bye into the second round of CONCACAF Qualifying, and looked impressive in their six matches, going 5-0-1 losing only at Haiti, 2-1. With a goal differential of +23, the tiny nation proved it could pack a punch in the scoring department, never getting shut out in any of their six matches. The Benna Boys are now grouped in with region giants USA, Jamaica and Guatemala.
KEY PLAYERS: Striker, Peter Byers, is their leading scorer in qualifying with a total of 8 goals (powered by a pair of hat tricks), which is actually good for top goalscorer in qualifying. Byers spent three years with the Montreal Impact pre-MLS from 2008-10, and now plies his trade in his native country for Antigua Barracuda.
Also of note is team captain, 35 year old George Dublin. Dublin is the heart of the Benna Boys defense, and is also the nation's most capped player, with 42.
It's particularly difficult to "scout" these tiny Caribbean nations, but from what I gather, they've got a nice history of performing well in the early rounds of sanctioned tournaments. With a ranking of 105 in the world, the Benna Boys won't be a total pushover, and the Americans would do well to take them seriously, which I know Klinsmann will do.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM TEAM USA
Hard to put your finger on just what exactly ails the Americans. One night they're dominating a European nation, and the next night they're tying Canada. The transition period from Bob Bradley to Jurgen Klinsmann has been a bunch of peaks and valleys while the squad acclimates itself to the new style and philosophy under Klinsmann.
Klinsmann has called this camp a "five game tournament" and has been treating it as such: rotating players in and out while fielding the best possible lineup he thinks could get the job done. Stars such as Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Carlos Bocanegra are all in camp and ready to play and will give the United States a huge boost in beginning their campaign.
USA INJURY REPORT: There really aren't any "official" injury reports for qualifiers, but we can read into what has transpired over the past few matches: Fabian Johnson was a late scratch against Canada, making way for Edgar Castillo, Clint Dempsey missed the end of the Fulham season with a groin injury but seems to be rebounding nicely, and Jozy Altidore joined camp late, leaving his fitness a little behind his teammates.
Outside of that it's really all a guessing game, but for the most part the USA squad seems to be healthy and anxious to begin the qualification campaign.
LINEUPS, FORMATIONS, AND STYLE: If you've seen the Americans over the last few matches, it's been a mixed bag. Against the Scots, the United States looked dominant: moving the ball extremely well and finishing with absolute precision. Brazil, a far more formidable foe, handled the Americans and then some in D.C., and the final tune-up in Canada had all the excitement of an afternoon nap.
The style and philosophy is working, but these things take time. The Yanks will be by far the better side on Friday night but the question is can this side impose their will on the minnows in qualifying? The follow up question to that is this: How much does Klinsmann look ahead to the following match on Tuesday night at Guatemala, perceived to be a MUCH more daunting task?
The proper way to approach this is simple: field the strongest eleven possible on Friday and not only win, but win BIG. Goal differential shouldn't come into play in this group but you never know, and when you're dealing with World Cup qualification, don't leave anything to chance.
Given that the United States seems to be an ever-evolving project, it makes it increasingly difficult to project what they're going to look like on any given night. The biggest debate seems to be over how many strikers the team should play. Often times we've seen Altidore alone up top which doesn't seem to earn the results we'd all hope for, but a second striker takes a talented midfielder off the pitch. For me, the lone striker just doesn't work well in this system. You saw against Italy what Altidore was capable of with someone up top with him (the goal comes to mind: strong hold up play, laying it off to Dempsey who buries the game winner).
So, if the United States wants to play a formation with two strikers (or a withdrawn forward behind Jozy), how does it all turn out? What does it look like? Let's get at it COUCH CAPTAIN style!
PROJECTED LINEUP VS. ANTIGUA AND BARBUDA: (4-3-3) HOWARD; JOHNSON, BOCANEGRA, CAMERON, CHERUNDOLO; JONES, EDU, BRADLEY; DEMPSEY, ALTIDORE, DONOVAN
Again, with no official injury report it's difficult, but against a weaker island nation I'd like to see this lineup take the field on Friday night, assuming health and fitness, which really, we don't know much about.
It's a hybrid of the 4-3-3, but mostly the biggest difference is the strength of the center midfield. Against a much weaker opponent, the Yanks can control the center of the field, dominate possession and get the ball to their talented playmakers up top. Bradley would play at the "top" of the midfield cluster and serve as a roving midfielder across the center of the field whiles Jones and Edu solidified the defensive duties.
Dempsey and Donovan should have absolutely no problem getting the ball to the target striker Altidore in the box, and if the hold-up play from Jozy is strong, not only can the two wide players join attack with cutting runs, so can the midfield, most notably Bradley, whose shooting prowess is well-documented.
Defensively, I'm assuming Fabin Johnson's injury was just a knock, and I fee like this is a good time for Cameron to get his feet wet in a qualifier. Having two veteran defensive stalwarts in Cherundolo and Bocanegra will help keep the organization and shape of the defense.
In theory (and most likely reality) the USMNT could field any 11 players in camp and win this match at home. However, in a qualifier, there are no questions, no assumptions, just a task. It's hard to see what Klinsmann wants to do here, but a huge result would go a long way to ensuring qualification into the next round.
Dempsey and Donovan need to see the field together, Altidore needs to start this campaign strong, and if the result is already in hand later in the match I'd love to see some of the younger guys (Torres, Castillo, etc.). There's no "saving players" or "looking ahead to Tuesday". Win this match at home and win it big, and THEN worry about Tuesday. We all know Tuesday is the "bigger" match of the two, but you can't get to that match without taking care of business in this one first, which is what I fully expect Klinsmann's boys to do.