By Patrick MacDonald
When the third round group stage for 2014 World Cup Qualifying was initially announced, the U.S. looked to be a shoo-in for the next round. Antigua and Barbuda, Jamaica, and Guatemala are hardly global soccer powerhouses.
On paper, it was by no means a daunting task.
However, the illusion of ease evaporated in June when the U.S. looked vulnerable in a 3-1 win over Antigua and Barbuda, and dropped two points to Guatemala settling for a late tie on the road.
Fortunately, the U.S still came out on top of the group, but only on goal differential. The team they’re tied with, Jamaica, is their upcoming opponent in a home and home series. While Jamaica has never been a particularly serious threat to the U.S., they look a little more dangerous with the U.S. missing stars Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley, and an offseason Clint Dempsey.
It was hard for U.S. fans and officials to foresee being without possibly their three best players for crucial qualification rounds, but in retrospect, it now appears to be all the more worrisome that the U.S. did not come out of Guatemala with 3 points. Jamaica’s chances of an upset have increased exponentially with the U.S. at its most vulnerable.
The U.S. doesn’t have true replacements for either Dempsey or Donovan. There is no other creative goal scorer like Dempsey or a natural right winger like Donovan. Fortunately, Bradley comes from the deepest position on the team and he can be easily replaced by many, though losing his skill and leadership is still detrimental.
Of course, it’s not totally the end of the world that these players will be absent. Even in a friendly, Mexico is a far greater challenge than Jamaica, and Bradley and Dempsey didn’t play a role on that historic victory. Even Donovan only played a half. Many U.S. second-teamers showed they were capable of carrying the torch that night in Azteca, receiving a big confidence boost.
And that’s the prism through which Klinsmann will have to approach the upcoming qualifiers. He’ll have to quickly move on from the players he doesn’t have and instill even more confidence in the second-teamers, reminding them of their grand accomplishment in the former house of horrors, Estadio Azteca. That’s where the value of that match will come into play for this U.S. Squad. Even though everyone would rather have the triumvirate of stars on the field at all times, the USMNT has to move on with what it’s got – the players that proved themselves at Azteca.