Not a must-win for USA, but ...

ASSOCIATED PRESS Jurgen Klinsmann's team puts win streak on line tonight.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Jurgen Klinsmann's team puts win streak on line tonight.
Posted: September 06, 2013

I WON'T dramatize the importance of this match to the overall goal of the United States to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

A draw tonight in Costa Rica would just about punch the USA's ticket to South America next summer.

Considering the United States tops the table with 13 points in the CONCACAF hexagon, even a loss at the Estadion Nacional in San Jose, Costa Rica, where it has never won, would not be devastating as long as the Americans take care of future business.

After tonight, the USA has home games against Mexico (Tuesday in Columbus, Ohio) and Jamaica (Oct. 11 in Kansas City, Kan.) before finishing in Panama on Oct. 15.

With Costa Rica in second place with 11 points and Mexico in third with seven, the general rule of a team needing 16 points to earn one of the three CONCACAF World Cup bids looks like it will hold form.

Only a total collapse would stop the United States from getting to 16.

Still, this is a huge opportunity for the Americans to put an emphatic stamp on their belief that they are ready to take a huge step forward in the international soccer community.

When Jurgen Klinsmann took over as coach in 2011, one of his primary goals was to get the United States, from player to fans, to stop accepting its place in the world hierarchy.

In a nutshell, Klinsmann's approach has been: expect big, work big, play big, achieve big.

Capped by an outstanding performance while winning the CONCACAF Gold Cup this summer, the United States is on a historic run.

The 12-match winning streak is the longest in USA history and is currently the longest in the world.

Coming off the Aug. 14 win in Bosnia-Herzegovina, continuing that streak in Costa Rica would fit in nicely with Klinsmann's philosophy.

"I think it has a lot to do with confidence," Klinsmann said. "We've changed quite a few things on the mental side of it that have played out already in a couple of locations, whether it's prestigious friendlies or in games in Jamaica or at Azteca Stadium [in Mexico]. We have a lot of respect for Costa Rica . . . But I think we have the quality and the mindset to be confident enough to go there and get three points."

This isn't just about getting the American players to feel good about themselves. There are tangible positives to the U.S. team finishing out qualifying play in a strong manner.

Certainly there have been questions about the streak because the opponents have been almost exclusively CONCACAF, but the USA has moved to 19th in the latest world rankings - its first appearance in the Top 20 in 2 1/2 years.

While it is widely accepted that the world rankings are not the truest measure of the quality of teams, they do play a vital role in the World Cup draw.

In the 2002 and '06 World Cups, FIFA used a combination of the world rankings and performance in the two previous Cups to establish the top eight seeds.

For the 2010 World Cup, however, the final FIFA rankings of 2009 were solely used.

Seven of the top eight draws for seeding were based on FIFA rankings while South Africa was given the final top seed because it was the host nation.

While the seeding procedure for the 2014 draw has not yet been announced, it will almost surely involve the FIFA rankings.

The only thing we know is that Brazil, as host, will head Group A.

Before the matches actually begin, the most important factor in a World Cup is what group a nation gets drawn into.

Pot 1, from which the top seeds are drawn, was specifically designed to keep the best teams from having to square off against each other in pool play.

Realistically, the United States moving into the Top 8 for the final rankings in October is a longshot. A lot of things would have to fall into place.

But the win in Bosnia-Herzegovina (ranked 13th) will be calculated into rankings released on Sept. 12 and should move the USA up higher.

I repeat that it is not likely, but if the Americans can somehow sweep their final four qualifying matches, there could be enough movement in the rankings because of qualifying in other regions to put them in the mix for the Top 8 when the rankings are released in October.

That would be a signal of international respect the USA has not received since placing second to Brazil at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup.

Obviously, the U.S. team cannot get ahead of itself, and the biggest thing now is to get enough points to qualify for Brazil.

"I have the approach that the next game is always the biggest one," Klinsmann said. "But this game [at Costa Rica] could put us absolutely in the driver's seat for Brazil.

"One, we haven't won there before, and two, you want to set the tone in CONCACAF. You won the Gold Cup, you faced [Costa Rica] already in the Gold Cup. I think we sent out some very strong signals, too.

"If we are able to get three points in San Jose, then we're almost in Brazil . . . Once the game is over on Friday night, then we can turn the page and talk about other things."


Email: smallwj@phillynews.com

Columns: ph.ly/Smallwood

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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