A Premature USMNT Panic Attack

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World Cup Brazil 2014Editor’s Note: This article was written prior to the Sporting News story outlining the fissures in the USMNT locker room and the deteriorating faith in the “scatterbrained” Jurgen Klinsmann. It’s a horrifying read. So while the following was written as a “premature” panic attack, it turns out it was right on time.

Next summer, the World Cup will be in Brazil and it will be the best thing to have happened on this planet in about four years. Some might argue the Olympics are better. A nice, but wrong sentiment. I consider the matter closed.

The emotional tumult of viewing a World Cup is swift and vicious. There is a month of jitters leading up to the opening kick. That’s followed by days of joy punctuated by paranoia and intense anxiety when the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) plays. Then there’s a devastating blow when the USMNT is eliminated. The pain will last for hours or days (depending on the circumstances of their elimination) and will never entirely go away, even with time. Then the joy (actually maybe more of a bliss because now there is nothing left out there can hurt us) resumes. The games get better and better and it culminates in watching two groups of folks do the most important thing they’ll ever do in their lives. And then, it ends. It’s over and there is nothing.

We’ve gotten ahead of ourselves. The USMNT has not yet qualified for Brazil 2014. So, let’s begin our coverage with a panic attack. If we qualify for the World Cup (“we” will from here on out refer to the USMNT), we’ll meet the minimum acceptable requirements, and if we don’t we’ll humiliate ourselves and set US soccer back to somewhere in the neighborhood of half a century. So best case scenario is we feel nothing, and worst-case scenario is existential doom.

CONCACAFIt began—the final business of qualifying for Brazil 2014 by way of CONCACAF’s Hexagonal home and away round robin qualifying tournament—with an opening day loss away at Honduras, a game in which we did almost nothing well and should never speak of again. And it will continue with away games in Central American Thunder Domes and on rugged Caribbean pitches that take on the quality of Hell’s rock quarries whenever we try to string passes together. The fields will be wrung with barbed fencing holding back hostiles that number in the tens of the thousands in the throes of celebrating the national holiday that has been declared for the occasion. And it will be somehow worse at home games stateside where we will have ninety minutes to find a goal against eleven men packed behind the ball and defending like madmen as the pressure rises and rises with every minute that passes without a breakthrough. And we’ll know in the back of our heads that while the past two decades have us conditioned to think that the USMNT qualifying for the World Cup is a forgone conclusion, it isn’t. Failure would be a disaster but not really that much of a black swan.

Jürgen-KlinsmannJurgen Klinsmann, our smiling German leader with the intense twinkle eyes, has turned out to not be magic, which has come as a huge disappointment. He seems like he might know what he’s doing, but we can’t know that. He is a European great and we are Americans. He’s like a contractor we’ve commissioned for a four-year restructuring of a pneumatic Deep Earth potion transport system. Maybe he’ll pull off something incredible with some old world mysticism. But in the meantime, our options for anchoring the back line are a center back who is too old, a center back without experience or confidence, and a center back who is not a center back. Our best player ever doesn’t want to play anymore because he is introspective, sad and coy. And theoretically we have a striker. But only sometimes.

So next is Costa Rica on March 22 at home, which is as certain a loss as can be scheduled. Then it’s Mexico in Azteca, which you can forget about. That’s followed by a trip down Panama way. I needn’t remind you that Panama beat Costa Rica. They’re the real deal. It doesn’t get any easier from there. It’s to Kingston, Jamaica where we have lost World Cup qualifying games. This is to say that any hope (at least in the doom scenario I have imagined) at qualifying for Brazil as a top three finisher out of CONCACAF is all but lost.

We’re going to have to backdoor it. It’s unconventional, and desperate, and defeatist, but no matter. Scouring the arcane by-laws of world soccer governance, you’ll find that CONCACAF’s fourth place finisher is forced into a home and away play-off with the winner of the Oceania Federation, FIFA’s forgotten child, for what has to be considered the final spot in the World Cup.
A federation of fifteen island nations in the South Pacific, Oceania does not have an automatic bid to Brazil. The champion of their qualifying tournament wins the right to play a non-qualifier from a larger federation, and this go-around it’s CONCACAF. When Australia abandoned the federation for Asia in 2006, they left New Zealand as the only country in the federation that is immediately recognizable as being a country. The current members are American Somoa, Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, New Caledonia, Niue, Papau New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tahiti, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuata. I don’t mean to brag, but all but a handful of Oceania’s members sounded at least familiar to me. I feel compelled to mention that Kiribati, Palau, Niue, and Tuvalu are only associate members of the confederation and not members of FIFA so I didn’t count them toward the handful I didn’t know about. For our purposes, we can set all but New Zealand and New Caledonia aside as everyone else has been eliminated.

We should be able to beat New Zealand, but it would be preferable to play New Calendonia because we would absolutely destroy them. They aren’t even a country. They’re a “special collectivity of France.” Unfortunately, New Caledonia trails New Zealand by three points in the table with two games to play. They’re not out of it though.

Mark your calendars for March 22nd.

On the same day that we host Costa Rica, New Caledonia plays away at New Zealand.

New Caledonia must beat New Zealand. They’ll be a significant underdog, but it’s not completely out of the question. They then (assuming that if they do beat New Zealand it will be a one goal squeaker) will have to beat Tahiiti by more than New Zealand beats the Solomon Islands.

You’re thinking, hold on a minute, what if NC and NZ tie, NC beats Tahiti and NZ loses to the Solomon Islands?

It’s good you’re thinking about that because there’s no point in manically diving down a World Cup qualifying rabbit hole if you’re not going to go balls out. NZ is not going to lose to the Solomon Islands, so relax. Just keep in your back pocket that the second tie breaker, should NC and NZ finish even on points and goal differential, is goals scored, and NC is sitting on a two goal advantage there.

Or we could just play up to our level and qualify like a civilized nation. There are nervous days ahead.


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