A match with a St. Vincent and the Grenadines team ranked 129th in the FIFA rankings hardly promises to be a particularly stress-inducing start to the United States’ attempts to make it to the 2018 World Cup. For U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, though, no game can be taken lightly right now.
Klinsmann has retained the faith of the U.S. Soccer Federation to lead the team into the start of qualifying, despite a dismal few months on the pitch. First came the Americans’ worst Gold Cup performance in 15 years, when only finishing fourth on home soil. The failure to defend its trophy meant a playoff with Mexico for the right to go to the 2017 Confederations Cup, which Klinsmann’s side promptly lost having been decidedly second best for much of the 120 minutes.
There can be no doubting that Klinsmann is currently at his lowest point since taking charge in the summer of 2011. And a failure to convince when the U.S. begins the road to Russia, against the minnows of St Vincent and the Grenadines and then more challengingly at Trinidad and Tobago next Tuesday, will only see the pressure from the outside, and perhaps from his boss Sunil Gulati increase yet further.
The Americans’ qualifying, beginning earlier than usual due to next summer’s Copa America Centenario, kicks off at the third-round stage. Drawn into a four-team group, which also includes Guatemala, the top two teams will go on into the final round, “the Hexagonal,” where six teams will compete for three automatic berths in Russia and one additional playoff place.
In recent cycles, the U.S. has had little trouble getting through the Hexagonal, topping the section for the last three World Cups. But with fewer games and less margin for error, the penultimate round of qualifying can often be more perilous, especially for a coach in Klinsmann’s position.
Last time around, Klinsmann’s U.S. team went into the final match of the semifinal round still with their progress in doubt, before a 3-1 win over Guatemala brought significant relief. Similar struggles this time around and Klinsmann may not make it to the Hexagonal, even if his team does.
On Friday at St. Louis’ Busch Stadium, the result at least shouldn’t be in doubt, but the margin of victory and the manner of it will still be scrutinized. Since the defeat to Mexico in particular, there has been much discussion about the continued reliance on a core group of veteran players, many of whom will be well into their 30s by the time of the next World Cup, as well as the lack of progress made by the next generation.
His squad to begin qualifying, then, was eagerly anticipated. When it was announced, it included a somewhat curious mix of youth and experience. The headline decision was the absence of 32-year-old long-time captain Clint Dempsey. Yet, while Dempsey is out, and there are opportunities for Stanford University’s Jordan Morris and Union Berlin’s Bobby Wood, 34-year-old LA Galaxy veteran Alan Gordon made the squad.
Elsewhere there are first call-ups for 20-year-old New York Red Bulls center-back Matt Miazga and Liberian-born Portland Timbers midfielder Darlington Nagbe, who recently gained U.S. citizenship. On Friday they could be making their debuts against a country the U.S. has never previously gone up against.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines, with a population of just 109,000 people, has never before made it to the final round of World Cup qualifying, and, indeed only has one Gold Cup appearance to its name -- in 1996.
Goalkeepers: Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Bill Hamid (D.C. United), Tim Howard (Everton)
Defenders: Ventura Alvarado (Club América ), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Matt Miazga (New York Red Bulls), Michael Orozco (Club Tijuana), Tim Ream (Fulham), Brek Shea (Orlando City)
Midfielders: Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Mix Diskerud (New York City FC), Miguel Ibarra (Club León ), Jermaine Jones (New England Revolution), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), DeAndre Yedlin (Sunderland)
Forwards: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Alan Gordon (LA Galaxy), Jordan Morris (Stanford), Bobby Wood (Union Berlin), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)
Prediction: The U.S. has really been floundering lately, but it should have little trouble brushing aside a team that has precious little experienced against the caliber of opposition it will come up against on Friday. Even against more modest opposition, St. Vincent and the Grenadines has been far from watertight defensively, which should present an ideal opportunity for a new-look U.S. attack to get among the goals.
Predicted score: USA 4-0 St Vincent and the Grenadines
Date: Friday, Nov. 13
Time: 6:30 p.m. EST