Juergen Klinsmann instructs his players during a 2014 World Cup qualifying… (Ricardo Arduengo / Associated…)
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Bruce Arena doesn't recall much about the last time the U.S. faced a must-win game in the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying — which is odd because he was the coach.
"I don't even remember who was in our group," Arena says.
It was the fall of 2000. Arena had taken over a ramshackle U.S. program two years earlier, and after a stumble early in group play he needed to beat Barbados in the last match to be certain of advancing to the regional finals.
The U.S. got the victory, wound up winning the group, then advanced to the 2002 World Cup, where it made the quarterfinals — the best performance ever by an American team.
On Tuesday another U.S. national team — this one in its second year under Coach Juergen Klinsmann — faces a similar predicament, needing at least a tie with Guatemala to assure itself a place in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.
But that, Arena insists, is the end of the similarities.
"You're comparing apples to oranges," says Arena, now coach and general manager of the MLS champion Galaxy. "The nature of the competition was different. The national team program coming off the '98 World Cup was a program where you would argue whether we were in the top five in CONCACAF. So it's different.
"We were trying to build a program. Not build one back."
But CONCACAF is different too, insists Klinsmann. And that, he says, explains why the U.S. needed a goal in the final minute to escape with a win over lowly Antigua & Barbuda on Friday in a game in which the Americans were arguably outplayed.
"The teams in CONCACAF have improved a lot over the last two years," Klinsmann says. "I spoke with some coaches earlier in the season and they all said, 'Oh, you'll probably go through with no problem.' And you have to tell them no, it's not just automatic."
Both coaches are missing the point, says Landon Donovan, the only player to be part of both teams. Whether the U.S. program is under construction or its region is underrated, for the U.S. to be taken seriously as a soccer power it can't be seen as vulnerable in qualifying against teams such as Antigua — especially in a group in which no other team ranks in the top 50 worldwide. Look at Mexico, which rolled through its group unbeaten. Or Spain, which hasn't lost a qualifier in more than five years.
Now compare that with the U.S., which needs to tie Guatemala — FIFA world ranking No. 81 — for the second time in four months to assure it will not be eliminated.
"We certainly need to have higher expectations of ourselves," says Donovan, who missed Friday's match after injuring a knee while playing for the Galaxy last weekend. "We've gotten to a point where really we should have been qualified by now. But we're in the position we're in and we have to do something about it."
That may not be easy, says Donovan who, unlike Arena, hasn't forgotten the final 2000 qualifying game in Barbados.
"I remember the tangible pressure you could feel going into that game," says Donovan, now the all-time leading U.S. scorer who didn't suit up for that match. "This is one of those moments where you need guys who have been through it and understand it to know how to get out of it."
Hall of Famer Cobi Jones, who played a record 164 games for the national team, agrees.
"Anybody that tells you there wasn't any type of worry is lying to you," he says. "There's always a little bit of concern. The mind-set is being steady all the way around, making sure that you're in the game and not taking any moments off. It's a certain mentality and attitude when you step on the pitch, that you're going to go out there and battle, challenge every play.
"We had this saying back then. We would have the first shot, first tackle, first foul. That's what it was all about."
Adds Clint Mathis, who scored one of four U.S. goals in the win over Barbados: "We just said, 'Hey let's go out there and play and what happens happens.' Then when we got in there, we did well in the Cup. So it's all about timing and making the best of what it is."
Klinsmann says that's still what it's all about, illustrating his point with a story from a qualifying match for the 1990 World Cup in which West Germany was protecting a 2-1 lead over Wales.
"Two minutes before the end of the game they missed a 100% [scoring] chance, a header from three yards out," remembers Klinsmann, a 25-year-old forward on that West German team. "Thankfully they missed or we would not have gone to the World Cup."
Once there, Germany never trailed, rolling to its third world championship. The moral of the story is that there's a fine line between elimination and celebration, one the U.S. will have a chance to cross again if they can get past the Guatemala match.
"Our objective just has to be to do whatever it takes to qualify," says Donovan, clearly grasping the meaning of Klinsmann's tale. "So whatever happens, as long as we get through this round we've got a clean slate and then we move forward."