The final of the 2014 World Cup is two years from today. Amazing, huh? Seems like only yesterday, we were all huddled in soccer pubs and living rooms and tapas bars watching Spain beat the Netherlands in the final in Johannesburg.
But, in reality, that was a while ago. And now, everything is focused on 2014. Samba on the brain. Caipirinhas before dinner.
Seems like a good to look at what Jurgen Klinsmann's US national team needs to do to get to Rio.
Qualifying – "The Semifinals"
Technically, the current round of qualifying is called the Third Round. It's a group stage, and the US are in good shape after two matches. They beat Antigua and Barbuda 3-1 in Tampa on June 6 and then drew with Guatemala down in Central America four days later.
So at this point, the US are tied with Jamaica at the top of Group A, with four more matches to play.
That Guatemala away game would traditionally be the most difficult one of this round. But this cycle is a little different.
The trip down to Jamaica – who have improved greatly in the past few years – on September 7 will not be a Rastafarian walk in the park. It's made trickier because the two nations square off just four days later in Columbus. Klinsmann will have to manage his roster and squad smartly to avoid fatigue and any letdown in the second match.
Other than that is the away game in Antigua and Barbuda, on October 12, which will indeed be a walk in the park. The return match against Guatemala, at Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City on October 16, won't be an easy three points, but the hope is that by then, the US won't need points. By then, they should've clinched a spot in the next round.
My guess is that the US will get nine more points – I think they'll struggle in Kingston – and move on without too many issues.
Qualifying – "The Hex"
Everyone's favorite game of Russian Roulette – the final round of qualifying for CONCACAF. Here are the most likely countries with bullets in the chamber:
Mexico: The Gold Cup champions are perfect in qualifying so far and will eventually cruise through.
Costa Rica: Los Ticos have been here before, and although they slipped up at home against El Salvador, they have enough firepower and experience (e.g. RSL's Alvaro Saborio) to make it.
Honduras: Loaded with familiar names, such as Sporting KC's Roger Espinoza and New England's Jerry Bengtson, los Catrachos are not the powerhouse they were a few years ago, but they still have enough to make the Hex.
Jamaica: This is the year for the Reggae Boyz – led by Colorado's Omar Cummings and Vancouver's Darren Mattocks – to make another serious run at a World Cup berth for the first time since 1998.
The sixth country is probably going to be either Panama or Canada.
Panama look very good through the first two matches, securing two wins, including a 2-0 shocker in Honduras. The other one, though, was a squeaker at home to unfancied Cuba. Still, Blas Pérez and the Panamanians are alone at the top of the Third Round Group C.
But Canada are nipping at their heels after battling for a win in Havana and then earning a draw at home against Honduras. They're in a good position, but will probably need to beat Panama at home and earn a result on the road against either Honduras or Panama.
No matter who makes it, the Hex will be rough road for the US, as it always has been. Klinsi got his first taste of life in CONCACAF when the US went to Guatemala. But the quality is better in the Hex. And the urgency, too.
The US has done well in the Hex recently, coming on top of the final six in each of the past two qualifying tournaments. But this is a different Mexican team than in the past – maybe the best Tri we've ever seen.
But the Yanks don't have to top the group. Just finish in the top three. Most likely, the cut-off for qualifying will be 16 points. That's what it was in 2010 and 2006. It was 17 in 2002, the last time the US qualified in the third spot.
Qualifying – Interconfederation Playoffs
What if the US stumble in the Hex and somehow finish out of the top three? Well, all is not lost. In fact, this year, the scheduling gods have smiled on CONCACAF: The fourth-place team in the Hex will still have a chance to get in through an inter-confederation playoff against the top qualifier from Oceania (a.k.a., New Zealand).
Last time out the playoff was between CONCACAF's fourth-place finisher and South America's fifth-place finisher. Costa Rica lost to Uruguay, as expected.
The hope for US fans, of course, is that it never gets to that point.