U.S. set to embark on long, trying qualifying road to World Cup 2014
The U.S. begins its quest to qualify for World Cup 2014 vs. Antigua and Barbuda
Qualifying is a marathon: The campaign last 29 months and involves 204 teams
Coach Jurgen Klinsmann's performance will be judged on how U.S. fares in Brazil
The long qualifying road to World Cup 2014 starts on Friday in Tampa for the U.S. men's national team, and while the first semifinal-round opponent (tiny Antigua and Barbuda) shouldn't provide much resistance, there's always a danger in taking World Cup qualifying for granted. The U.S. is one of only seven nations to reach the last six World Cups -- along with Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, South Korea and Spain -- and at least 16 qualifying games over the next 17 months stand between the Yanks and Brazil 2014. As always, there are no guarantees.
In the 21st century, the World Cup is a big-time event in the U.S., a mainstream attraction that draws TV audiences comparable to those for the World Series and the NBA Finals. But the World Cup isn't just a 32-nation tournament that takes place over the span of a month every four years. In fact, most countries call that event the World Cup finals to distinguish it from the marathon global qualifying campaign that lasts 29 months and involves more national teams than there are members of the United Nations. FIFA has 208 national associations, and 204 entered the Hydra-tentacled bracket for World Cup 2014. The first match was played on June 15, 2011 (Belize 5, Montserrat 2), and the tournament will end at the World Cup final on July 13, 2014, at the Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro.
Only Brazil, as the host, receives an automatic World Cup finals berth. The other 203 nations will play what will eventually be 824 qualifying games on the Road to Rio, far and away the planet's most expansive and competitive sporting saga. Already 79 countries comprising 56 percent of the world's population have been eliminated from World Cup 2014, including India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines and recent World Cup finals participants China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Trinidad and Tobago.
As of Wednesday, 128 nations were still competing for 31 spots in Brazil, including the United States. First-year coach Jurgen Klinsmann has the mandate to transform U.S. Soccer at every level, from the youth ranks to the senior national team, as I detail in a feature in this week's SI magazine. But while Klinsmann owns loads of experience, having played in three World Cups (winning one in 1990) and having coached Germany to the '06 semifinals, he has yet to endure a World Cup qualifier in the hothouse conditions of Central America.
What can Klinsmann expect when the U.S. travels to upset-minded Guatemala next Tuesday for game two? "When we get off the plane there will be riot gear and armed guards on our bus," said U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra. "We'll be flanked by probably two police buses with guys hanging out the windows with machine guns and things like that. It's definitely an interesting experience when you go to Central America for qualifying." While Guatemala has plenty of friendly folks and the world's best rum -- Zacapá, if you're wondering -- the country has also grown more dangerous in recent years (due to shifting drug-trade patterns), and the home fans won't be especially welcoming to the U.S. in Guatemala City.
Indeed, many of the challenges in CONCACAF qualifying have little to do with the skill of opposing teams. Late-night fire alarms, patchy and bumpy fields, long-seated anti-U.S. sentiments, projectiles from the stands: Road trips in the region are fraught with perils you'd rarely see in, say, European World Cup qualifying. Nor should we discount the improvement of CONCACAF teams like Panama, which could very well qualify for its first World Cup finals this time around.
For the U.S., this year's six-game regional semifinal round -- involving home-and-away matches against Guatemala, Jamaica and Antigua and Barbuda -- provides little margin for error. (It's like a five-game NBA playoff series in that way.) The Yanks must finish in the top two to advance to the final six-team, 10-game round next year, aka the Hexagonal, in which the top three will advance to the World Cup and the fourth-place team will enter a playoff against the winner from Oceania (likely New Zealand).
Bottom line: There's a decent chance that four CONCACAF teams (instead of the usual three) will earn berths in Brazil 2014. Mexico and the U.S. will be overwhelming favorites to qualify, but also in the mix should be Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama and a surprise team or two.