All of those matches that the United States have played since Jurgen Klinsmann took over the team are now meaningless. Wins, losses, good play and bad play, toss them all aside. They came in friendlies, which are about as important as rides on the merry-go-round*, at least they are now that it's time to start World Cup qualifying.
* Apologies to any merry-go-round enthusiasts.
The 2014 World Cup may not begin for two years, but the U.S. has to begin qualifying for it 734 days before the opening match in Brazil. The World Cup aside, qualifying are the most important matches that the Americans play and it is when there is no such thing as "progress" or moral victories anymore. You win, you get points, you get to the World Cup. Results are all that matter beginning on Friday.
Luckily for the U.S., they get an easy entrance to qualifying against Antigua and Barbuda. They enter the competition in the third round, which is a four-team group in which the top two advance to the final round of qualifying. The Americans are the clear favorites in their group, but they will have their hands full with Jamaica and Guatemala. Antigua and Barbuda, well, good luck to them as the team's fourth team.
For the U.S., three points against Antigua and Barbuda are an absolute gimme. The Benna Boys are ranked 100th in the world, they play their home matches in a cricket stadium because their soccer stadium was deemed unfit by FIFA and rejected, and their best players are Dexter Blackstock and Mikele Leigertwood, a pair of Englishmen who qualify for Antigua and Barbuda through their grandparents and have not played with the national team this year.
If the U.S. cannot get three points against Antigua and Barbuda, especially at home in the World Cup qualifying opener, they might as well give up on qualification all together. Pack your bags and try again for 2018.
To have an gimme to begin qualifying is important for the Americans. Coming off of a 4-1 loss to Brazil and a dreadful 0-0 draw with Canada, the U.S. could use a confidence building match.
Antigua and Barbuda will come out in a 4-4-2 and put men behind the ball. When opportunities arise, they will break quickly, so it is very much the way that other teams in CONCACAF play the U.S., only with lower quality players doing it. The U.S. shouldn't be tested and will be able to do pretty much whatever they want, but that won't always be the case.
What the U.S. will be trying to do is prove that they have the creativity to break down a team looking to defend at all costs. It has been a problem for them in the past and was a major problem for them against Canada. When they were not in space and unable to outnumber their opponents, the U.S. has had a tendency to get very static and struggle to create chances. Improved ball movement and, most importantly, quicker, more intelligent runs will be the keys for the U.S. when the Benna Boys put 10 men behind the ball.
Against a lowly team expected to play defense first, second and third, the U.S. could go very attacking with their team. They could play in a 4-4-2 instead of Klinsmann's favored 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, and they could eschew from using a defensive-minded midfielder. With such a huge talent advantage, Klinsmann could go with just about anything.
Tactically, it will be tough to judge Klinsmann and it will be equally difficult to judge the performance of the players. Such is the nature of playing CONCACAF minnows.
The Americans lost to Costa Rica. It doesn't matter. The Americans drew Canada. It doesn't matter. The Americans beat Italy. It doesn't matter. Nothing in the last 10 months matters anymore. This is World Cup qualifying, and only results matter now. Even against a team that has no business making a match of Friday's contest, the goal is simple -- get three points. Welcome to World Cup qualifying, America.