COLUMBUS, Ohio — The US players’ faces and posture said it all: relief.
A 1-0 win over Jamaica on Tuesday night got the Americans’ World Cup qualifying campaign “back on track,” as manager Jurgen Klinsmann put it, and erased the three-day stress they endured in the wake of last week’s loss in Kingston.
“Yeah, definitely, it was a relief because there was that pressure,” forward Clint Dempsey said after the match. “We needed to get the points tonight and put ourselves in a better position.”
That better position is top spot in Group A. The US are now tied on seven points with Jamaica and Guatemala with two matches left to play in the third round of 2014 World Cup qualifying in CONCACAF. The top two teams in the group advance to the fourth round, or “Hexagonal.”
For the last few days, as the US trained for this home match against Jamaica, the players admitted that the pressure was building. They called it a “must-win” match, and said they were more focused now, as if being upset in Kingston had shocked them in action.
“We weren’t pleased with our performance on Friday,” admitted Herculez Gomez, the goalscorer on Tuesday, “and because we weren’t pleased with that performance, we were all excited and champing at the bit to get at it tonight.”
The US turned in perhaps their best since Klinsmann took the reins in the summer of 2011. In the first half alone, the Americans outshot Jamaica 10-0 and hit the woodwork three times. Each near-goal threw the packed stadium into a frenzy and sparked chants from the supporters in the North stand.
“Guys fed off the atmosphere,” Gomez said. “We were hungry for this one.”
Although the pressure is off for now, the US still are not out of the woods. In October, they will finish up third-round play with an away match against minnows Antigua and Barbuda and home match against a tricky Guatemalan side. Wins in both games will see the US through to the Hexagonal.
“That’s important because we have fate in our own hands,” US captain Carlos Bocanegra said. “Now, we don’t have to rely on other teams to help us out. That’s the biggest thing about tonight.”
And ultimately, coming through this early qualifying gut-check could end up being preparation for what comes next.
“Tough times are only going to make you stronger,” Dempsey said. “That’s what qualifying is. It’s not going to be easy. Everybody’s trying to do something special. Everybody’s dream is to play in the World Cup, no matter what country you play for.
“So you've got to dig deep and you've got to see who has the heart and the character, when they get knocked down and the pressure is on, to step up to the challenge.”