Juergen Klinsmann and the U.S. men's soccer team will be favored in… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
Let's dispense with the myriad possibilities and mathematical permutations and cut directly to the chase: For the U.S. to be sure of advancing to the next round of World Cup qualifying, it needs at least a win and a draw in its remaining semifinal matches against Antigua and Barbuda and Guatemala.
The U.S. will be favored in both matches — it plays Antigua on Friday in Antigua and Guatemala on Oct. 16 in Kansas City, Kan. — but that will mean nothing once the whistle blows.
"You have to explain to people that even if you are, on paper, the big favorite, for your opponent the game against the United States is the game of the year — and maybe the game of the decade," U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann said. "They will rise to the occasion and give everything they have for 90 minutes.
"It is important that the players understand there is no easy game. There is no such thing."
The U.S. isn't the only team finding that out. When regional qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil resumes this week, it will do so with just 13 of the 32 countries that played in the tournament two years ago leading their respective groups.
Paraguay, a quarterfinalist in 2010, is last in the South American table with just four points after seven games. In African qualifying, South Africa is winless in group play and Ghana has already lost to surprising Zambia, which won the African Cup of Nations earlier this year but has never made it to the World Cup.
Last month, England, ranked fifth in the world by FIFA and playing at home, needed a late penalty kick by Frank Lampard to earn a draw with the Ukraine.
"These games are not easy, and in the end getting a point is a good result," Lampard said after breathing a sigh of relief. (To be fair, England was playing without Wayne Rooney, Ashley Young, Scott Parker, Ashley Cole, Gareth Barry and Andy Carroll.)
There's a long way to go in qualifying, but it's not just England feeling that way. Italy needed an own goal to secure its September victory over Malta (world ranking: 153) and Georgia held defending world and European champion Spain scoreless until just four minutes remained in their match. The victory was Spain's 23rd in a row in qualifying, but it was in doubt until the final whistle.
In the Asian bracket, Australia, which played in the last two World Cups, lost to Jordan and trails Japan by eight points in its group. So now Australia desperately needs wins over Iraq and Oman — bet you thought you'd never read that sentence — to keep its hopes for Brazil alive.
Surprises and upsets are nothing new to soccer, where one-goal games are common. That means an odd bounce or a momentary defensive lapse can be the difference between going on and going home. And luck — good and bad — can play an even bigger role in World Cup qualifying. With 204 nations competing for the 32 berths in the field for the 2014 tournament, the regional qualifying events are necessarily brief, which amplifies the results of each match.
"The reality is we had one setback. But when you're only playing six games, that's a big deal," midfielder Landon Donovan said of the U.S., which lost one of its four semifinal matches yet finds itself a loss away from possible elimination.
Added Klinsmann: "Soccer is unpredictable. You can mess up one set piece and then they bunker themselves in … and you lose 1-0 and wonder why afterward."
In addition to the U.S. and Australia, teams facing crucial tests over the next 10 days include Canada, which will probably advance with a win on the road in Honduras next week, and Costa Rica, which needs a victory over El Salvador on Friday to take over second place in its qualifying group,
Unbeaten Mexico is the only CONCACAF team already assured of a spot in next year's hexagonal round of qualifying. For everyone else, it's time to cross fingers and hope for the best.
"Now it's really about zooming in and focusing on every little element, because it's always the little details that make the difference," Klinsmann said. "You learn, obviously, that you can't take things for granted."