Thursday, October 08, 2009

Five days from now

On Thursday morning, we will all wake up knowing one of two things:
  1. The United States has qualified for its sixth consecutive World Cup, or
  2. The United States has fallen to fourth place in the CONCACAF Hexagonal, meaning a home-and-home with a South American side for the 32nd and final spot in the 2010 tournament.
Take a look at the recent press and the chatter in the blogosphere. There is an air of pessimism about the national team not seen since 1989. 1994 was a lock. 1998 became business as usual. 2002 came down to Matchday 9, but everyone thought a home win against Jamaica was assured. 2006 was a walk in the park.

Those were different times. In this cycle, there are all but two games left for each of the six remaining sides in the region. Of the four nations in serious contention, the United States has the toughest schedule. Honduras will take its mind off of its political woes and play for national pride at home against the Americans. Costa Rica, the Americans' guest of honor in the capital on Matchday 10, sits in fourth and is desperate not to be left without a chair when the dance is over and music stops. Mexico, having survived their early miscues, is back in business and will easily qualify, provided El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago don't give them too much trouble.

Looks can be deceiving. The US is at the top of the Hex after eight games. But a loss to Honduras tonight (the Hondurans are a perfect 9-0 at Estadio Olimpico in World Cup qualifying), combined with wins by Mexico and Costa Rica, will drop the Americans to third and needing not to lose to Costa Rica at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium mid-week.

It is a perilous situation for the US, just months after a wildly successful summer in American soccer. The US had played in two consecutive cup finals, knocking off top-ranked Spain and pushing Brazil to the brink in South Africa, then taking a mostly-reserve national squad all the way to the CONCACAF championship match. Just before both those tournaments, they were perceived as a certain lock to share the region's World Cup berths with Costa Rica and Honduras while Mexico looked likely to implode from within.

Again, those were different times. Now, key players are injured, the US is playing away from home and other results don't appear to be in their favor. Take the temperature of American sentiment. It's not very encouraging.

However, there are also times of such pessimism, even in the US' recent past. Jack Edwards was exactly right after the US' 3-2 win over Portugal in 2002:
No one, not a single person, in South Korea - and we've been here for two weeks - no one has said a single word about the United States doing anything in this World Cup. (ed.: that is my best recollection of a tape I have played hundreds of times since June 5, 2002)
American fans can paint a very rosy picture about one of the biggest wins in US history up to that point. Prior to kickoff that day, I can bet money that fans all over the country were dumping bricks in their pants reading the Portugal starting lineup.

There are similar moments. Paul Caligiuri's shot against Trinidad and Tobago in 1989. The 2-1 win over Colombia in 1994. Their 1998 win over Brazil. History is littered with a mood of intense skepticism of the abilities of the United States national team in rare, crucial moments.

None of this will matter tonight. Good or bad, the slate will be wiped clean at kickoff and, again, the United States will finally have a chance to silence the doubters and prove the critics wrong. A win tonight (or a combination of unlikely results), and each of twenty-three tickets to South Africa next summer will be tucked into American passports.

Americans are used to worry and woe prior to important matches. Nothing can turn this tide except a tangible result over ninety minutes. Three points from Matchday 9 should provide sighs of relief and celebration throughout the American soccer fan base.