Spend some time in U.S. soccer circles, and you'll sense an assumption that the Americans will qualify for next year's World Cup, just as they've participated in the previous five. But the margin for error is a lot thinner after a 2--1 loss in Mexico on Aug. 12 left the Yanks (3-2-1) in third place in their regional qualifying group, behind Costa Rica and Honduras and ahead of Mexico. Only the top three teams earn automatic berths, which means next month's qualifiers, against El Salvador in Utah on Sept. 5 and at Trinidad and Tobago on Sept. 9, will be crucial.
For all the U.S.'s advances this summer, including an upset of world No. 1 Spain, a disturbing trend has emerged. Although the Americans built leads against Italy, Spain, Brazil and Mexico, they were 1--3 in those matches. "To be a great team we have to learn how to control the lead," says forward Charlie Davies, who scored the U.S. goal in Mexico.
It's a pattern that U.S. star Landon Donovan finds both encouraging and discouraging. "We don't fear teams, so we don't give them too much respect," he says. "But we also have a tendency to drop off and protect a lead once we get it, which isn't a healthy way to play. The best teams in the world continue to impose themselves even when they have the lead."
The way to do that is to possess the ball and continue attacking—neither of which the U.S. did against Mexico—and yet help may be on the way. Jermaine Jones, a German-American midfielder who plays in the Bundesliga for Schalke, recently announced his decision to switch his national allegiance to the U.S. from Germany. Jones, who's recovering from a hairline fracture in his left shin, is expected to be called into U.S. camp as soon as October, once his application is approved by FIFA. That could make him available for the final two qualifying matches, on Oct. 10 at Honduras and on Oct. 14 against Costa Rica in Washington, D.C. "He brings a lot of energy, he's extremely athletic, and he makes a lot of plays," says Donovan, who was Jones's teammate with Germany's Bayer Leverkusen in 2005. "And having been a striker, he has an idea of how to go forward and make plays in the attack."
Of course, it's always tricky bringing a new player into a national team during the homestretch of World Cup qualifying and with less than a year remaining before the tournament itself. Finding the right chemistry and learning to hold leads against the world's elite will be two of the U.S.'s biggest challenges, but none of that will matter if the team doesn't take care of business against El Salvador and T&T next month. "If you have an off day and someone sneaks a win or even a draw off you at home, you're in big trouble," says Donovan. "And that's what we can't forget."
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