COLUMBUS, Ohio — As much as the US national team players try to tamp it down, the pressure is mounting. In the wake of Friday’s loss to Jamaica, Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier against the same Reggae Boyz (8 pm ET, ESPN2, live chat on MLSsoccer.com) is arguably the biggest, must-win qualifying match for the US since October 2001.
Back then, with just two matches left in the Hexagonal, the US were in fourth place behind Costa Rica, Honduras, and Mexico, in serious danger of failing to qualify for the World Cup in Japan/Korea. They were hosting, as fate would have it, Jamaica at the old Foxboro Stadium in New England. A loss — and possibly even a draw — would all but doom the Americans.
The US got off to a great start, as Joe-Max Moore struck in the third minute. Then Jamie Lawrence, an English league journeyman, equalized in the 13th minute.
Cue the tension. More than an hour later, the US pulled it out Moore converted an 80th-minute penalty to win it, 2-1. That result, coupled with Honduras’ shocking loss at home to Trinidad and Tobago, put the US back in good shape. And a draw the following week in Trinidad saw them through.
Today, things aren't all that far removed. Although a loss or draw won’t mathematically eliminate the US from Group A of the third round of World Cup qualifying in the CONCACAF region, they really do need to get three points.
“If we don’t win on Tuesday, it gets pretty scary,” forward Jozy Altidore admitted on Sunday, perfectly summing up the situation.
So the pressure is on. The Americans are currently in second place in Group A, three points behind leaders Jamaica and tied on points with Guatemala. They still have matches away to Antigua and Barbuda (Oct. 12) and at home to Guatemala (Oct. 16).
“Obviously we wanted to get a point in Jamaica and be in a better position than we are in right now,” manager Jurgen Klinsmann said during a press conference on Monday. “But winning [Tuesday] night, which is our goal and we are focused on very strongly, puts us back in pole position in our group.”
Shrugging his shoulders, Klinsmann added: “Pressure and expectations are just part of the professional environment. That’s no problem.”
Klinsmann’s attitude seems to have permeated the team. Many of the players discussed the pressure in a positive light, choosing to see the loss on Friday — which most observers would call an upset — as a motivating factor.
“Guys are anxious because we lost: anxious to avenge that and put things right,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. He cited the 2011 Gold Cup, when the US lost to Panama in the group stages, then met them again in the semifinals. “We lost a game we didn’t think we should’ve lost and we came back a couple of days later and beat them. So we’re hoping that’s going to be the case again.”
Howard, who has now been through three World Cup cycles, recognizes that qualifying out of the CONCACAF region is never smooth. Getting results in the Caribbean and Central America — where the heat is like a wet electric blanket, the fans are vitriolic, and the fields often make possession play nearly impossible — requires patience, intensity, and luck.
“You look back over the years, it’s been tough,” Howard said. “Very few times do we just run away with it. It’s tough because that’s just the way the region is set up. Going down to some of these teams isn’t easy: On paper, it looks like you should win, but that’s not always the case.”
Back on home soil, it looks again like the US should win. Actually, with games against each of the three teams in their group still to play, the players know that they have to win.
“We’ve got three games and now we can’t let anything slip,” Howard said.