By Michelle Kaufman, The Miami Herald –
Jurgen Klinsmann has a reputation as a glass-is-half-full kind of guy, the eternal optimist who smiles more than most coaches on the sideline and tends to find the positive even when critics are circling.
That certainly seems to be the case as his U.S. national team heads into an important World Cup qualifying match against Guatemala on Tuesday night at sold-out Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan.
The U.S. team is coming off an unimpressive 2-1 win over Antigua and Barbuda, a twin-island nation whose entire population could fit in Sun Life Stadium. The match, played on a muddy cricket ground, was tied 1-1 until the final minute, when resurgent Eddie Johnson rescued the Americans from embarrassment with the game-winning header, his second goal of the game.
Klinsmann and his players headed home with the three points they needed, but fans and pundits were left to wonder whether a team that has played in the past six World Cups, a team with so many players making a living in European leagues, should have to work this hard to get through the opening round of qualifying.
Despite the ugly win, Klinsmann stresses that the United States is in excellent position to advance to next year’s six-team regional “Hexagonal” final round of qualifying. The top two teams in each group move on.
The United States and Guatemala are tied atop the group with 10 points and identical goal differential. If the United States wins or ties Tuesday night, it earns a berth in the next round. Even a loss might be enough, if third-place Jamaica doesn’t make up a three-goal differential in its final match against Antigua.
The United States has won or tied 21 consecutive World Cup qualifiers at home. The last loss on American soil was 3-2 to Honduras in September 2001.
Klinsmann said he welcomes the scrutiny from fans and media. It shows they care.
“It’s exciting to see fans care more about their national team, they care more about soccer in general and they ask more questions and maybe raise their expectations, which is good,” Klinsmann said. “It’s good because it gives everyone a bigger sense of accountability. You are accountable for what you are doing, me as a coach, a player as a player.
“When you are down to the wire, it’s because things happened for a reason. We gave away too many free kicks in Jamaica, we conceded two and instead of taking a point and being through already, you have to look to (Tuesday) night. You have to work yourself through it. Sometimes it takes a little bit longer than you wish it would. . . . Expectations from the fans are getting bigger and rightfully so, and the discussion is getting more intense.”
Klinsmann is so confident his team will get the job done that he did not call in replacements for five players originally on the roster. Landon Donovan (knee injury), Brek Shea (abdominal pull), Edgar Castillo (foot injury), Fabian Johnson (flu), and Jermaine Jones (suspended) are not available Tuesday. Guatemala is not at full strength, either. Carlos Gallardo, Elias Vasquez and Luis Rodriguez are injured.
The key for the United States will be containing Carlos Ruiz, a former Major League Soccer MVP, and Marco Pappa, a free-kick specialist who used to play for the Chicago Fire. The last time they played, in June, they tied 1-1. A patriotic home crowd of 20,000 is expected to give the American team a lift.
“It’s going to be a nice field, we’ll have the home crowd and be able to move the ball around and get guys moving in and out of spaces,” said U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra. “We put ourselves in a good position. We’ll go out there on the front foot and get a win hopefully.”
Said midfielder Michael Bradley: “We expect a great atmosphere. A lot of us have enjoyed seeing the evolution of things to the point where now we can play a qualifier like this in our country and we . . . know that it’s going to an American crowd, a great crowd and it’s going to be a fun night.”