U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann may not particularly like the final result of Wednesday night's gritty 1-1 draw in Guatemala, but he can't have too many qualms about where his team stands in its quest to secure a place in the Hexagonal.
Four points from two games represents enough of a haul to hold off Jamaica for first place in Group A on goal difference and provide a three-point edge over Antigua and Barbuda and Guatemala after two rounds.
The table never lies, but it doesn't always tell the whole story, either. In this particular instance, Klinsmann and his players will likely feel compelled to set a few things right in the wake of the underwhelming 3-1 home win over Antigua on Friday and this merely acceptable draw in Guatemala when they convene in early September for a pair of matches against Jamaica.
As well they should. All of the maxims about winning the home games and drawing the away matches in order to qualify still apply here, but those truths do not mean the U.S. must scrape and slog their way through a fairly straightforward semifinal group.
The trip to Guatemala reinforced some of the lingering concerns without inflicting too much damage to the overall cause. The increasingly common defensive frailties (Klinsmann withdrew Clarence Goodson at halftime after a couple of rash fouls and a yellow card, and Fabian Johnson struggled to contain Carlos Ruiz in the second half) popped up once again. The continued inability to take advantage of set pieces (and Guatemala conceded plenty of them) with quality delivery contradicted some of the past strengths of the side and stripped away several potential goalscoring opportunities in a hostile environment.
Both of those flaws merit further scrutiny during the summer, but the increasingly troubling absence of sharpness in the final third takes precedence at the moment. If not for a marauding run by Johnson (excellent going forward all night, by the way) and a typically cool finish by Clint Dempsey five minutes before halftime, the U.S. would have looked fairly comfortable without any end product to show for it.
Concerns about attacking incisiveness were supposed to dissipate with Klinsmann's arrival last year, but the implementation of a more expansive brief has not yielded the desired results in the matches that actually count.
The combination play in the final third appears more ragged than anticipated with moves often stalling on the edge of the penalty area. Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones are keeping things moving well enough in front of Maurice Edu in central midfield without always providing the timely bit of ruthlessness or support. Landon Donovan's generally passive approach (Scottish statement aside) and Herculez Gomez's proclivity to drift into wide areas too often further limit the type of neat play desired, though both players have offered something to the game without particularly influencing it. Dempsey remains the matchwinner capable of turning the game in a moment, but his harsh treatment at the hands of a congested and rugged Guatemala rearguard and his penchant to float in and out of matches suggest his teammates must offer alternatives on a regular basis.
Without the right type of support for Dempsey in future outings, the U.S. may again fall prey to the punishment of dropped points suffered in Guatemala City. The gap in quality between the U.S. and the other teams in the group encourages opposing teams to set out their stall and places the onus on the Americans to secure the points with an authoritative and professional performance.
The first two forays into World Cup qualifying have fallen a touch short of those standards and far short of the aspirational ideals ushered in by Klinsmann's appointment, but they have still yielded the results required to forge a simple path to the Hexagonal. In the messy world of CONCACAF qualifying, the end product remains far more important than the process used to reach it. That point, however, does not relieve the U.S. of its burden to improve ahead of the next set of qualifiers and sort out the issues that threaten to make this particular exercise more difficult than required.
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