Clint Dempsey (8) and goalkeeper Tim Howard (1) celebrate a 3-1 victory… (Reed Hoffmann / Associated…)
After helping the U.S. avoid embarrassment and elimination from World Cup contention last week, goalkeeper Tim Howard probably came as close as anyone to summing up the mood of the national team.
"It's a huge relief," he said of the team's 3-1 win over Guatemala that sent the U.S. on to next year's final round of regional qualifying for Brazil 2014.
Not joy, elation or happiness. Relief.
A sigh had become the dominant emotion of U.S. soccer — and with reason.
The U.S. had to play hard to the last minutes of its victory Tuesday to prove it was the best team in a group it shared with Jamaica, Guatemala and Antigua and Barbuda. That should have been obvious from the start of the first game, not at the end of the final one.
Qualifying for the World Cup should be a formality, not a formidable challenge, for the U.S., at this point in its history. How can a team that beat Italy and Mexico in road friendlies this year lose to Jamaica and get played even for 90 minutes by Antigua and Barbuda?
To its credit, the U.S. team, or at least its most vocal leaders, offered no excuses.
"We're honest enough with ourselves to look at things and say 'this needed to be better,'" midfielder Michael Bradley said.
Forward Clint Dempsey agreed: "We know that we can be better. We know that we've got to sharpen up. We know that the next round is going to be tough."
Because if the team's first 15 months under Coach Juergen Klinsmann have been uneven, the next 12 will be unrelenting. In addition to playing 10 games in the final round of World Cup qualifying, which begins in February, the U.S. will also play host to the Gold Cup next summer. Add in a number of friendlies, beginning next month against Russia in Krasnodar, and the U.S. could be looking at one of its busiest schedules in two decades.
"We don't know how we're going to manage that whole thing," Klinsmann said. "We have to put that puzzle together. It's not going to be an easy one."
In fact, it could exacerbate a problem that seemingly dogged the team's recent qualifying efforts. It's easy to forget Klinsmann has been on the job less than 15 months, something that forced him to do a quick study of the U.S. player pool. That's one reason why he started 20 lineups in 20 games as coach. In his team's 12 games this year, Klinsmann used 45 players.
That often left players paired with teammates they barely knew, and that unfamiliarity showed.
"We're still in a little bit of a transition period," captain Carlos Bocanegra said. "You've got guys who come from maybe different environments coming into this setup, which is new to them. Those things are all challenges that we have to work through. The biggest thing is just finding our chemistry and becoming a cohesive unit."
So what happened in the Guatemala game? Bocanegra and Dempsey, who have spent nine years together on the national team, combined on the first goal before Dempsey added two goals on assists from Bradley and Eddie Johnson, two guys who have played a combined 15 years alongside him.
"It's definitely important to build chemistry," Dempsey said afterward.
"I heard that they know each other quite well and for a long time, longer than they've known me," Klinsmann joked of Dempsey and Johnson, who also passed together through Fulham of the English Premier League. "They have good chemistry and they get along. On the field, you want to see guys that are there for each other."
The U.S. will need more of that going forward. Six teams have advanced to the final round of CONCACAF qualifying for the World Cup with only the top three guaranteed a place in Brazil.
It's likely that Mexico, which was unbeaten in its semifinal group and outscored opponents by 13 goals in six games, will move on. That leaves the U.S. to battle Costa Rica, Jamaica, Panama and Honduras for the two remaining spots.
Costa Rica, led by Real Salt Lake forward Alvaro Saborio, would appear to pose the biggest challenge for the U.S.
Jorge Luis Pinto, the Colombian coach who helped guide Costa Rica to the 2006 World Cup, returned to the team last year and in his third game back he guided Costa Rica to a 2-2 tie with Spain.
Plus Costa Rica, whose 1-0 win in September 2011 extended its unbeaten streak against the U.S. to more than seven years, is the only one of the four teams with a winning record against the Americans.
"We feel like we're the best team in the region. Mexico feels like they are," Howard said. "In order to prove that, we've got to go out there and do it every game. You can't have off games. We have to be better at putting together good performances more consistently."
Said Klinsmann: "Every game will be a battle, every game will be a fight. And we are ready for that."