When it comes to World Cup qualifying all that matters is the result. Style, entertainment value, margin of victory? Toss them out the window. Get a win and you have done your job.
By that measure, the United States did the job on Friday, beating Antigua and Barbuda, 3-1 in Tampa, FL to get a win in their first qualifier for the 2014 World Cup. But against a lowly team like the Benna Boys and at home, the U.S. were certainly looking for more than a two-goal goal win and certainly did not expect to be up by just one goal in the second half. The Americans got the result they wanted, but did not play anywhere near their best, or even anywhere near "okay".
On its own, a disappointing performance against Antigua and Barbuda wouldn't be much of a problem, but that was not the Americans' only problem. They were dreadful in their previous match -- a friendly against Canada -- and have been very inconsistent under Jurgen Klinsmann in general, struggling to adapt to the possession-oriented system that he has been trying to implement.
The U.S. will have to iron out their problems by Tuesday, though, because a performance like the one they put in against Antigua and Barbuda won't do it against Guatemala in Guatemala City. Guatemala isn't particularly good and probably are not a hexagonal selection, but they are a respectable team and will be fired up to get back home in front of a raucous crowd after losing 2-1 in Jamaica on Friday.
The biggest question for the U.S. is who plays left back if Fabian Johnson and Edgar Castillo are still injured, as they were on Friday. Klinsmann tabbed Jose Francisco Torres to play in their place, but he was poor and then got injured, ruling him out for the match. Left back will be important for the U.S., too, with Guatemala having Communicaciones' sharp winger Jairo Arreola out there.
If Johnson and Castillo cannot play, Klinsmann will have to move Carlos Bocanegra out to the left or play Geoff Cameron or Michael Parkhurst there. The problem is that Bocanegra on the left would require that he play Oguchi Onyewu, who has been terrible, in the center or Cameron. Cameron hasn't played much, and Klinsmann may find him to be too inexperienced. Meanwhile, neither Cameron nor Parkhurst has played on the left internationally. Putting either of them out on the flank isn't a particularly appealing option either.
Elsewhere, the Americans' problems are the same ones they have had with some regularity under Klinsmann. They may have the ball, but they do not know how to attack. There is a lot of watching and the movement off of the ball is very poor. It makes them easy to defend and it makes the U.S. look clueless. Possession is nice and all, but the goal is to score. That is something that the U.S. isn't just failing to do, but something they have no idea how to do.
A new problem for the U.S. will be playing on the road in CONCACAF. The stories of hostile environments away in the region are legendary and the U.S. hasn't experienced such hostility since the last round of qualifying for World Cup 2010. It's something that Klinsmann hasn't experienced ever and maybe most importantly, it's an environment that causes the referees to get squeamish. That means the U.S. will have to be smart and disciplined, something that could be a problem for some of the Americans, namely Jermaine Jones.
There is no doubt that the U.S. is better than Guatemala. Arreola will challenge them on the wing and Marco Pappa will be a real handful, but they are weak at the back and the aging Carlos Ruiz is their lone striker. The referees may get caught up in the atmosphere, but still, Guatemala has no business making the hexagonal so this is a match that the U.S. should get three points from.
"Should" and "will" are very different things, though. The Americans have been struggling and many of their old problems are still problems. If they don't sort it out then they will lose and have to play catch-up very early on in this third round of World Cup qualifying. Forget the style, this one is about results and three points is the only acceptable one for the U.S.