Qualifying for the World Cup is a binary process. Qualify or fail to qualify. Those are really the only two outcomes required to sum up a campaign.
But in the United States (and a fair few other countries, it must be said), the standards are not necessarily as cut and dried. It isn't enough to secure a place at the World Cup. It must be done in some sense of style. A narrow escape here and there comes with the territory, but it is, on the whole, a procedure that should unfold in moderately painless fashion given the strength of the American setup in comparison to other countries around the region. And those expectations are not misplaced, particularly at the semifinal stage.
By most measures, the United States has fallen a bit short of those requirements this time around. US coach Jürgen Klinsmann promised an aggressive, revamped approach when he took the job last year. He has produced some wonderful results along the way (away wins in Mexico and Italy, for starters) by adhering to tactical setups used by American coaches in years past and stumbled in his attempts to implement more progressive ideas.
Those issues (and a rash of availability and injury concerns) seeped into the efforts to qualify for the Hexagonal. A place in the final round appears all but certain with only a draw against Guatemala (zero wins on American soil) in Kansas City, Kan. on Tuesday night required to seal a berth. Despite its likely success during the semifinal round, Klinsmann's side – with the exception of the first half of the 1-0 victory over Jamaica – has largely failed to impress.
All of the concerns about the process to date raise a factual question about the way this semifinal round has unfolded: are these results comparable to the Americans' previous performances at this stage in World Cup qualifying?
The answer, in short: not in recent times, but perhaps a couple of cycles back. In the past four qualifying attempts, the Americans have advanced through the semifinal round in the following fashion:
1. United States (4-1-1, 13 pts.), 2. Costa Rica (4-2-0, 12 pts.), 3. Guatemala (2-2-2, 8 pts.), 4. Trinidad and Tobago (0-5-1, 1 pt.)
US results: W (2-0 v. Guatemala) – W (2-0 v. Trinidad and Tobago) – W (1-0 @ Trinidad and Tobago) – L (1-2 @ Costa Rica – W (2-1 v. Costa Rica) – D (2-2 v. Guatemala – neutral site in San Salvador, El Salvador)
Berth mathematically secured: Fifth matchday
1. United States (3-1-2, 11 pts.), 2. Costa Rica (3-2-1, 10 pts.), 3. Guatemala (3-2-1, 10 pts.), 4. Barbados (1-5-0, 3 pts.)
US results: D (1-1 @ Guatemala) – L (1-2 @ Costa Rica) – W (7-0 v. Barbados) – W (1-0 v. Guatemala) – D (0-0 v. Costa Rica) – W (4-0 @ Barbados)
Berth mathematically secured: Final matchday
1. United States (3-0-3, 12 pts.), 2. Panama (2-2-2, 8 pts.), 3. Jamaica (1-1-4, 7 pts.), 4. El Salvador (1-4-1, 4 pts.)
US results: D (1-1 @ Jamaica) – W (2-0 v. El Salvador) – D (1-1 @ Panama) – W (2-0 @ El Salvador) – W (6-0 v. Panama) – D (1-1 v. Jamaica)
Berth mathematically secured: Fifth matchday
1. United States (5-1-0, 15 pts.), 2. Trinidad and Tobago (3-1-2, 11 pts.), 3. Guatemala (1-3-2, 5 pts.), 4. Cuba (1-5-0, 3 pts.)
US results: W (1-0 @ Guatemala) – W (1-0 @ Cuba) – W (3-0 v. Trinidad and Tobago) – W (6-1 v. Cuba) – L (1-2 @ Trinidad and Tobago) – W (2-0 v. Guatemala)
Berth mathematically secured: Fourth matchday
(Note: CONCACAF adopted the current format – preliminary round, semifinal round and final round [Hexagonal] – prior to the World Cup qualification process in 1998.)
It is rather uncertain where this campaign falls in the mix, though it certainly tops the nervy 2002 situation (a cycle that ultimately ended in a World Cup quarterfinal defeat to Germany).
The projected point total compares favorably with previous outings, but other campaigns (2006, in particular) also possessed dead fixtures. There are also comparisons to be made about the relative strength of the groups (2010 and 2014 appear relatively similar, for instance). It is difficult, however, to judge the relative strength of the opposition and weighing the merits of one group versus another isn't within the scope here. As Klinsmann and his players would likely (and should) point out, a victory over Guatemala would send their side through with 13 points and ensure top spot in the semifinal group for a fifth straight cycle.
In the end, the results from previous semifinal round endeavors partially validate some of the suspicions (this semifinal round has proven rockier than some in the past) without proving entirely conclusive. Each campaign must be judged on its own merits. On that scale, the Americans still have some work to do as they likely start to prepare for the Hexagonal next year.
For now, Klinsmann and his players can take solace that their sole objective – qualify for the World Cup – remains on the table. In this rather black or white world, the Americans still retain a good shot at securing the only success that ultimately matters next year.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.