"Everybody found that a bit disturbing, not having our captain. That guy has the most leadership in the squad and to not have him in a game like that was really peculiar. If you go back and look, when did we get together or have any sort of huddle on the field? It was just everyone on their own terms. Everyone was doing their own thing. And it showed."
Three days before the United States defeated Costa Rica in a blizzard, this was one of many highly critical quotes from anonymous players in Brian Straus's article about the failures of the Jürgen Klinsmann era up until that point. Long-time captain Carlos Bocanegra wasn't in Klinsmann's squad and still isn't. The U.S. men's national team were coming off a loss in Honduras, following a tumultuous third qualifying round that saw them struggle to advance to the stage they're currently playing in. Since then, criticism of Klinsmann and the team has subsided, but they're nowhere near a World Cup berth just yet.
The final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying takes place over ten matches, with each of the six teams playing each other home and away. This fourth and final round of qualifying, dubbed 'The Hex' by fans and journalists years ago, is brutal. Good teams regularly fail to beat inferior teams because referees let elbows go, while each soccer federation does everything they can to create the best home-field advantage possible for their team.
This stage of qualifying is split up into three distinct parts -- the spring, the summer and the fall. In the spring, teams find their footing and figure out what adjustments need to be made for them to qualify. In the summer, teams find out who they really are.
Between the summer and fall, teams make desperation firings and hirings to try to save their World Cup qualification bid. Teams in need of a shot in the arm come September will call in controversial players whose international careers appeared to be over or beg retired players to return. Over the next three games, the United States will find out if they will head into September on the right track or if they're one of the teams that needs to take desperate measures.
There are nine possible scenarios for the United States over the next three games. Five of them are realistic. Two of those realistic scenarios are good, two are palatable and one is bad. The other four — the four worst — are less likely to happen, but they could and probably should result in desperate measures being taken by U.S. Soccer. Here are those nine scenarios.
Nine points - Klinsmann is a shiny golden god who has delivered everything that he promised to the United States. They know that they're headed to the World Cup before a set of normally crucial fall qualifiers. If the U.S. sits on 13 points through six games -- they're on four headed into these three games -- they will have almost no work left to do. The third-placed team in the Hex finished on 16 points during the 2010 qualifying cycle, and third place will probably require fewer points this time around.
While Jamaica doesn't look much better than Trinidad and Tobago, who finished that Hex on six points, the fifth-placed team in this edition of the Hex will almost certainly finish on more than El Salvador's eight. Three points from their final four games would probably see the U.S. into the World Cup without a playoff in this scenario. One of their final four games is a home game against Jamaica. Book your ticket to Brazil a year ahead of time if the U.S. wins all three of their qualifiers in June.
Seven points - An excellent showing that would put the United States in a very good place. There's no such thing as a bad away draw in CONCACAF, even if Jamaica lost to Mexico on home soil and the U.S. is seeking revenge for their loss to the Reggae Boyz in the last round of qualifying. As long as the U.S. wins their two ensuing home games against Panama and Honduras, there's absolutely nothing wrong with a draw on Friday. Through six games, 11 points should be enough to see the United States on top of the Hex.
Six points - All is well in USMNT land, assuming that these six points come by way of a road loss and two home wins. There isn't any difference between a home and road loss as far as points go, but there is as far as psyche goes. If the U.S. lose to Jamaica and win their home games, they're still untouchable on their own soil and able to mentally write off Jamaica as their bogey team.
With ten points from six games, the United States will sit in an automatic qualifying spot heading to September, and probably in first place.
Five points - There isn't any excuse for a team as good as the United States to lose home games in CONCACAF, but the disaster level of this scenario likely depends on the order in which the points are gained.
If the U.S. draws Jamaica, draws Panama on the 11th, then defeats Honduras on the 18th? Worse things have happened. Fans (and more importantly, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati) head into the rest of the summer thinking that the draw against Panama was an isolated bad result and that the team is on the right track. If the U.S. beat Panama and draw Honduras in their final game before taking a few months off from qualifying? That leaves a seriously sour taste in everyone's mouth and puts Klinsmann under a ton of pressure.
If the USMNT wins in Jamaica, then draws twice at home? Well, that's extremely unlikely, but if it does happen Klinsmann will likely need four points from September's games away to Costa Rica and at home against Mexico to save his job. Still, five points will keep the United States' qualification hopes realistically alive and keep Klinsmann employed through the summer. However, it will mean that the U.S. is probably going to end up needing a result on the final day away to Panama, and that's going to stink.
Four points - The most disastrous realistic scenario, independent of the order in which the points are gained. If this happens, it's likely to happen by way of a loss to Jamaica, a win over Panama and a draw against Honduras. While you'll be hard pressed to find someone who does not hate the United States men's national team that is willing to predict this scenario, it's a thing that definitely can happen.
There are no easy wins in CONCACAF, even if people who don't follow the region closely struggle to pick out more than a couple of players on Jamaica, Panama or Honduras they've heard of. Jamaica's draw at the Azteca against Mexico was not a fluke. Panama's draw away to Jamaica was not a fluke. Honduras taking four points from their two home games against the U.S. and Mexico was not a fluke. All of these teams are good, all of them are physical and CONCACAF refs let a lot go. The U.S. doesn't even have to play that poorly for this to happen.
If the U.S. goes into September with eight points from six games, they're in deep trouble. They'll need to win both of their home games and get a pair of away draws or one away win to like their chances to finish top three. They'll probably need to go to Costa Rica and avoid defeat, which is a horrible situation to be in. Costa Rica built a beautiful brand new national stadium and occasionally plays home games in the Saprissa anyway, just to screw with their opponents. Trying to get a result in a swamp, on crappy turf, with insane fans right on top of the field, while dealing with refs who won't call anything and arguably the most talented forwards in the region, absolutely sucks.
Three points - This is horrible, but as long as the U.S. does win one of their home games, this can be written off as a fluke. It puts them in a terrible situation heading into September, but it's possible to rationalize it as a one-off screw up. Even though the United States need at least 10 points from their final four games in this scenario, this will be good enough to keep hope alive and Klinsmann employed. There will be plenty of people calling for his head, but they're unlikely to be successful. He'll probably last through the September qualifiers, but it's possible that this scenario could result in Gulati axing Klinsmann and appointing someone that will make significant changes.
Zero, one or two points - There are only minor differences between these three scenarios. If the U.S. gets no points in June, nothing but winning out in their final four games is going to do them much good. If they pick up one or two points, they can probably sneak into a playoff (or maybe even third place) with 10 points from their final three games. But for all intents and purposes, no wins from three games in June is a "BURN EVERYTHING TO THE GROUND"-level disaster. In an attempt to salvage the United States' qualifying campaign, Gulati probably sacks Klinsmann and begs Bruce Arena to pull double-duty on an interim basis.
But this isn't going to happen.
Probable scenario? - Seven points. The United States might draw in Jamaica on Friday or slip up in one of their home games, but they shouldn't lose any of these games and they shouldn't slip up more than once. With a similarly talented squad, the U.S. won all four of their home qualifiers that mattered in the 2009 edition of the Hex, drawing their final game after clinching qualification. In 2005, they won all five of their home games, keeping a clean sheet in every one. This edition of the Hex is stronger and deeper, but the United States absolutely should win every qualifier at home.
Even though Costa Rica don't have the depth of talent or a strong domestic league to draw players from that the United States and Mexico do, they expect to win all of their home games, even against the United States and Mexico. The USMNT needs to have that same attitude, and if they do, it'll take more than one extremely unlucky break or a downright terrible performance for them to fail to clinch seven points from their June matches. They're at home twice and they're better than all of their opponents.
Klinsmann has attracted plenty of doubters thanks to his team's poor performances in Guatemala, Jamaica and Honduras so far in qualifying. Those three performances were bad enough that he's deserved most of the criticism that's been thrown his way, but he can silence all of the doubters this June. Seven points or more and the United States will be on track to comfortably qualify for the World Cup.