Enough of the friendlies.
For the first time since last summer's Gold Cup final, the United States men's national team plays a game that matters. Jurgen Klinsmann's side takes on Antigua and Barbuda in Tampa's Raymond James Stadium on Friday (7 pm ET, ESPN, ESPN3, Galavision, live chat on MLSsoccer.com). The match is the first for both teams in the third round of CONCACAF 2014 World Cup qualifying, where they are paired alongside Jamaica and Guatemala in a four-team group. The top two squads after the six-game tournament advance to the "Hexagonal" final round. The Americans are heavy favorites to finish first in Group A, while their opponents will be hoping to earn a couple points.
The fixture features a giant against a minnow, both in size (US population: 311 million; A&B population: 88,000) and strength of squad (the Americans have qualified for the last six World Cups; their opponents finished fourth at the 1998 Caribbean Cup). Klinsmann can call on players who star for clubs in the English Premier League, Serie A, Bundesliga and Major League Soccer. His counterpart Tom Curtis will rely mostly on players from Antigua Barracuda FC. The last time the US played in Tampa, they fell 2-1 in a Gold Cup group stage game vs. Panama. The Americans will look to avoid the same fate this time around and have simple goals: Get in, get out with a victory and focus on a tough test in Guatemala on June 12. The Caribbean country's slogan, "Each Endeavouring, All Achieving," seems a fitting one for the match.
The first qualifying game is also the fourth match in Klinsmann's five-fixture, self-proclaimed “tournament.” Results have varied: a 5-1 destruction of Scotland, a 4-1 defeat against Brazil that wasn't as bad as the scoreline hinted and an uninspiring 0-0 draw with a defensive-minded Canada squad. The coach deployed a 4-4-2 in the third game, but is likely to return to the 4-3-3 the US used to attack Scotland and Brazil. Maurice Edu, dropped for the game with the Canucks, will get the call, providing cover for the backline and allowing Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones to push forward during a tilt in which the Americans will dominate possession.
Carlos Bocanegra looks like a lock in the middle of the American formation, and Clarence Goodson – who posted one of the few strong performances against Canada – should partner beside him. The duo won't be busy, but they can use the opportunity to work on communication. Goodson could also help his standing as a first-choice center back with another good showing. Steve Cherundolo, who's looked a bit off his game, will start at right back with Fabian Johnson (if he's recovered from a calf strain) or Edgar Castillo on the left. Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey will get their second start together under Klinsmann, with Herculez Gomez continuing to make smart runs and open space at the top of the formation.
Antigua and Barbuda
The Benna Boys reached the third round by finishing on top of a group that included Haiti, Curaçao and the US Virgin Islands. Their 5-1 record included a 10-0 win over USVI, and the only loss came after they had already secured passage to the next stage. Curtis' club netted 28 goals, by far the most of any team in the round, and were led by Peter Byers (eight goals) and Tamarley Thomas (six). The duo star for Antigua Barracuda FC, who play in USL Pro.
Many of A&B's starting XI also call their local club home, but a few members of the 23-man roster play overseas. Defensive midfielder Mikele Leigertwood made 40 appearances and scored five goals in Reading FC's successful 2011-12 season. Keiran Murtagh, Marc Joseph and Dexter Blackstock, who made his debut in February's 4-0 loss to Trinidad and Tobago, also have experience in England.
Antigua and Barbuda's recent results have been mixed but never impressive. They bounced back from the T&T trashing with a 1-0 victory over St. Kitts and Nevis before splitting a two-game series with St. Vincent and the Grendines. None of those teams, however, possess anywhere close to the talent of the Americans they will face in Tampa. The strategy: Pack it in and make the US create.
United States: Jermaine Jones
While the Schalke midfielder isn't the engine that makes the American attack run, he helps oil the machine. But can he keep his temper in check and his feet focused?
Antigua and Barbuda: Mikele Leigertwood
He's probably the team's best player and will need to show his class against the American midfield trio. If Leigertwood can't hold his ground, or at least slow the US progression up the field, it will be a long night for the visitors.
GOALKEEPERS (3): Brad Guzan (Aston Villa/England), Tim Howard (Everton/England), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
DEFENDERS (8): Carlos Bocanegra (Rangers/Scotland), Geoff Cameron (Houston Dynamo), Edgar Castillo (Club Tijuana/Mexico), Steve Cherundolo (Hannover 96/Germany), Clarence Goodson (Brondby/Denmark), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim/Germany), Oguchi Onyewu (Sporting CP/Portugal), Michael Parkhurst (Nordsjaelland/Denmark)
MIDFIELDERS (6): Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Michael Bradley (Chievo Verona/Italy), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana/Mexico), Maurice Edu (Rangers/Scotland), Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04/Germany), Jose Francisco Torres (Pachuca/Mexico)
FORWARDS (6): Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar/Netherlands), Terrence Boyd (Borussia Dortmund/Germany), Clint Dempsey (Fulham/England), Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy), Herculez Gomez (Santos Laguna/Mexico), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)
ANTIGUA AND BARBUDA:
GOALKEEPERS (3): Olson Forde (unattached), Molvin James (Antigua Barracuda/USL Pro), Keita de Castro (Antigua Barracuda/USL Pro)
DEFENDERS (6): Marvin McCoy (Wycombe Wanderers/England), Karanja Mack (Antigua Barracuda/USL Pro), Marc Joseph (Kendal Town/England), Ranja Christian (Antigua Barracuda/USL Pro), George Dublin (Antigua Barracuda/USL Pro), Troy Dublin (Antigua Barracuda/USL Pro)
MIDFIELDERS (9): Joshua Parker (Oldham Athletic/England), Kimoi Alexander (Antigua Barracuda/USL Pro), Mikele Leigertwood (Reading/England), Keiran Murtagh (Woking/England), Quinton Griffith (Antigua Barracuda/USL Pro), Tamarley Thomas (Antigua Barracuda/USL Pro), Lawson Robinson (Antigua Barracuda/USL Pro), Akeem Thomas (Antigua Barracuda/USL Pro), Justin Cochrane (Boreham Wood/England)
FORWARDS (5): Stefan Smith (Antigua Barracuda/USL Pro), Kerry Skepple (Antigua Barracuda/USL Pro), Randolph Burton (Antigua Barracuda/USL Pro), Peter Byers (Antigua Barracuda/USL Pro), Dexter Blackstock (Nottingham Forest/England)
PREVIEW: USA - Antigua & Barbuda