U.S. Vs. Guatemala World Cup Qualifying: The Most Important Game In America

By Dillon Friday / @noclassfriday

A misconception exists in the soccer world. Ask fans when the next World Cup is and they’ll tell you 2014 in Brazil. In reality, the tournament is ongoing as I write. What we’ve come to know as the World Cup is really the culmination of a multiyear competition.

In fact, outside of the U.S. you will commonly hear fans and pundits alike refer to the main event as “The Finals.” This can cause great confusion stateside where we know Spain and The Netherlands played in the World Cup Final but didn’t know Slovenia and New Zealand played in the Finals.

We in the U.S. tend to overlook the World Cup qualifying stages for various reasons. First, the six regions that compete for qualification (Asia, Oceania, Europe, CONCACAF, South America and Africa) do so under different systems.

South America has a one-stage, league-like tournament in place. Every team plays each other twice. The top four earn automatic qualification, and the fifth-place team plays a home-home with Asia’s round five winner.

South America has the least complicated route to qualification. The convoluted process means that countries you’ve heard of (China, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti) have been eliminated long before countries you haven’t (Benin, Antigua and Barbuda, San Marino).

Sometimes the qualifying games are too laughably one-sided to be taken seriously. This past Friday, a Wayne Rooney-led England drubbed a laymen-led San Marino side 5-0. All 11 of England’s starters play in the English Premier League. Only one of San Marino’s starters plays professionally at all, and he plays in Italy’s fourth division.

Finally, there is the United States. To our credit, we’ve qualified for six consecutive Finals rather easily. The question wasn’t would we qualify, but would we qualify ahead of rival Mexico or not?

The CONCACAF tournament became a series of warm-ups for the big dance with combustible matches with El Tri mixed in.

However, a September loss at Jamaica, certainly not an august loss, flipped the script. We suddenly faced the prospect of missing out on Brazil 2014. Russia 2018 is a distant dream. After the slow march to world contention, the last thing we need is eight years dating back to 2010 without World Cup Finals soccer.

U.S. Manager Jurgen Klinsmann’s crew abated the furor with consecutive wins over the aforementioned Jamaica at home and Antigua and Barbuda on the road.

But don’t let those one-goal victories fool you. These are dire times.

In the heart of football season and in the midst of the most exciting baseball playoffs in recent memory, a soccer match between the U.S. and a Central American country in Kansas City is the most important game in American sports.

Tuesday, the U.S. hosts Guatemala in a must-win affair (6:30 EST, ESPN2). A tie will ensure our progress to the final qualifying round, but if we’re settling for ties with Guatemala we’ll have no shot in Brazil.

To make things more precarious, star attacker Landon Donovan will miss his second consecutive game with a knee injury. The team will also miss the Dutch League’s top scorer, Jozy Altidore, because Klinsmann inexplicably failed to include him on the 24-man roster.

The match with six years of ramifications on the line rests on the shoulders of an MLS attack. Seattle Sounders forward Eddie Johnson scored twice, including in the 90th minute, to clinch victory in Antigua last Friday. Johnson, last heard from in 2006, will need to be lethal again on Tuesday to secure three points.

A decisive win could erase the inauspicious start to the Klinsmann era, a man long heralded as the impresario for American soccer. A tie or loss could erase 30-some years of progress.

It’s important to note here that Guatemala has never beaten the United States on the road in 11 tries. But this is soccer. Strange things can and often do happen.

If you’re a casual fan, enjoy the atmosphere of World Cup soccer. If you’re a diehard American supporter, grow out your fingernails. This could be a long night — six years long to be exact.

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