KANSAS CITY, Kan. – The goal of World Cup qualifying is to qualify.
Performances in the World Cup have a knack of eradicating any memory of how teams got there. In fact, form before and form during a tournament rarely have anything more than a passing correlation.
So the important part of the United States' campaign in CONCACAF thus far was that it advanced to the Hexagonal. Not the blipping away form. Not the absence of the attacking verve Jurgen Klinsmann promised when he took over the coaching gig. Not the absence of Jozy Altidore.
"You have to kind of grind it out," Steve Cherundolo said. "So we did that."
A 3-1 win over Guatemala in LIVESTRONG Sporting Park on Tuesday pushed the USA into the Hex as the top of its group. It wasn't always pretty. A first-ever loss to Jamaica in qualifying made the Americans sweat progression until the last matchday. Cherundolo summed up his emotions as: "Relief and happiness." But that part doesn't matter. Just qualification does.
"I know about World Cup qualifying. I've done that as a player," Klinsmann pointed out. "It always goes down to the wire."
Klinsmann said once that his U.S. team won't be fully realized until sometime between his first and second World Cups. Years of work sit between now and then. So qualifying, giving his side a chance to forge a new impression at the big event, is all that matters.
This is Klinsmann's first World Cup qualifying process as a coach. Germany qualified automatically as the host in 2006, when he led the national team. But things didn't go smoothly in the lead up to that tournament either.
Many Germans bristled at his newfangled ideas and his Zen, holistic approach. The results weren't great either. Germany failed to beat every big team it faced. Klinsmann's side lost to Brazil (in the Confederations Cup semifinals), Slovakia, Turkey and Italy, a particularly damning 4-1 defeat. It drew with Argentina, France, Netherlands and Japan.
Klinsmann discontinued the practice of leaking the starting lineup to Bild the day before matches. That contributed to the poor press. But so did rotating all three of his goalkeepers in the Confederations Cup.
Oh by the way, think Klinsmann is bothered by the furor he caused by leaving Jozy Altidore off the latest U.S. roster? This is the guy who dropped Oliver Kahn, the greatest goalkeeper of a generation.
Jens Lehmann – Mad Jens – started for Germany in the World Cup. Even that is largely forgotten. People mainly remember Germany finishing third, helping restore some pride and zip in a soaked-up, stodgy program. People now think of the nimble, dancing side that Joachim Low has turned into a dominant force (brutal capitulation to Sweden aside).
Chances are, if the United States sneaks into Brazil 2014, people will remember what goes on there instead of the two years before it.
That's why the U.S. team will grind out results in the Hex and probably won't care about style complaints. That's why, when the players talk about improvement, it's in the context of the final stage of qualifying.
"We're excited for the next round, but obviously we're aware that needs to be better," Herculez Gomez said. In terms of style, consistency and team play – yes. In terms of progression? Well, that part is going just fine thus far.
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