A horrendous goalkeeping mistake instantly turned the United States' World Cup qualification status from "endangered" to "probable," but the team still has a lot of work to do after a shaky week ended with a much-needed win over Jamaica.
Herculez Gomez scored the only goal as the U.S. avenged its loss to Jamaica four days earlier with a 1-0 win in Columbus on Tuesday. But just as Gomez's goal needed a heavy slice of help courtesy of Jamaican goalkeeper Dwayne Miller's lapse in concentration, the Americans could certainly do with starting to produce its best form when it actually matters. The Americans were bailed out when Miller failed to react to Gomez's free kick from 25 yards and could only push it into his own net after 55 minutes.
While outstanding performances in exhibition games against internationally-acclaimed opposition has almost become routine for the USA, the reality has also kicked in that CONCACAF regional qualifying, even before the full-strength final stage, is proving nowhere near as simple as predicted.
"It wasn't pretty," Gomez said. "It was important for us to regroup."
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Three points here means that with two games left in CONCACAF's semifinal round, the USA is tied at seven points with Jamaica and Guatemala – only two of the three teams will progress to the next qualifying level – just one step shy of a place in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
With a visit to unfancied Antigua and Barbuda and a home clash with Guatemala to come, that target should be attainable, at least in theory. Yet theory didn't legislate in Kingston last Friday, nor for close to an hour of being unable to break through in Columbus, and twists in this tale are still possible.
Soccer history is littered with tales of good international sides who struggled through qualifying only to rediscover their best form on the biggest stage of all. USA head coach Jurgen Klinsmann will hope that applies to his charges, who have made things tougher for themselves through this tricky part of the journey to Brazil.
Certainly this is not the time for gloom, but both matches against Jamaica have given a timely reminder that attention-grabbing exhibition wins against the likes of Italy and Mexico offer only boosts in confidence, and nothing tangible. Klinsmann's men could and should have taken the lead earlier on Tuesday, only to be denied by the goalpost on three occasions in the first half. A Graham Zusi effort scraped the crossbar, Miller pushed a Steve Cherundolo header onto the post, and Danny Williams was unluckiest of all when his ferocious drive smashed against the inner corner of the goal frame but somehow stayed out.
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Williams and Zusi are still finding their feet in the national side but offered valuable contributions to a team missing two of its most important players in Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley. Zusi was an especially lively addition, making some timely runs and passes and linking up well with Cherundolo on the several occasions that the veteran right back ventured forwards.
Getting a hold of possession, and keeping it, had been a problem on Friday but was far from the case here. Jamaica's defensive approach invited American pressure and the home side seemed to rarely be without the ball. The reflexes of Miller, who was excellent apart from his solitary error, kept Jamaica in contention in the first half and the USA's sense of unease was palpable at the interval.
Klinsmann ordered his team to keep pressing, insisting that the breakthrough would eventually come, though even he must have been surprised at how it was gifted to them by Miller's floundering dive. Regardless, a goal to his name was an appropriate reward for Gomez, who gave another night's honest effort before being replaced by Jozy Altidore late in the second half.
Mission accomplished for now, yet it is worth remembering that this time next year the final six-team CONCACAF qualifying group will be heading deep into its business end. By then, USA will need to have shifted that spark it finds in exhibitions into meaningful matches, otherwise the World Cup place that American soccer fans of the past generation have taken for granted may be in some jeopardy.
Martin Rogers is a soccer columnist for Yahoo! Sports