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U.S. enters Columbus hoping to avoid a World Cup qualifying disaster

COLUMBUS, Ohio—For many who follow, coach, or play for the U.S. national team, there’s more that will feel familiar here in central Ohio than the stadium and forgiving setting.

Thanks to Friday night’s 2–0 loss in Guatemala, the Americans find themselves in precarious position, at least on paper, early in their World Cup qualifying campaign. At 1-1-1, coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad is in third place halfway through CONCACAF’s semifinal stage. And only the top two finishers in its four-team group advance to the Hexagonal.

After USA’s loss to Guatemala, margin for error is slim

It’s an uncomfortable and somewhat surprising spot, but not one that’s totally unprecedented. Every qualifying cycle contains a hairy moment or two and in fact, a little less than four years ago, the U.S. was in a very similar predicament—1-1-1 and heading back to Ohio after a stunning road defeat. The Americans had never been beaten by Jamaica before falling, 2–1, in Kingston, and weren’t showing much of the attacking verve Klinsmann had promised more than a year into his tenure. There was concern. But Columbus has proven to be the national team’s cure-all, and a 1-0 triumph over the Reggae Boyz sparked a three-game win streak that catapulted the U.S. to the top of the group.

On Tuesday evening here at Mapfre Stadium, where the U.S. is 7-0-3 all-time, the hosts will have to bounce back from their first loss to Guatemala since the late 1980s. Assuming Trinidad and Tobago (2-0-1) gets the best of visiting St. Vincent and the Grenadines (0-3-0), three points is close to essential for the Americans on Tuesday. Drawing Guatemala (2-1-0) would would leave the U.S. still trailing Los Chapines by two points with only two games remaining. A loss, which would mark the first qualifying defeat on home soil since 2001, would leave the U.S.'s 2018 World Cup hopes hanging by a thread.

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“We always said that World Cup qualifying is a long road, a tricky road, a difficult road. When you play away games you should get at least one point away. If you lose, it makes it a bit more difficult. Remember four years ago, it came down to the wire,” Klinsmann said Friday. “The semifinal round, as we call it, is tricky, you know? It is a bit of a nail biter.”

Klinsmann can reference that semifinal round in 2012, when the U.S. could have been eliminated even on the final day with a loss to Guatemala and a sizable swing in goal differential. Supporters will recall the fall of 2000, when Bruce Arena’s team started the semifinal stage 0-1-1 and needed to win its finale in Barbados to ensure passage. The Americans were World Cup quarterfinalists two years later. There have been demoralizing defeats in the Hex as well. But each time, the U.S. bounced back. Over the past three decades, it’s lost consecutive qualifiers just once (three straight in the 2001 Hex).

“It’s not the first time the States is in this position in terms of qualifying … We talked about it as a group, that we have been in this position before and this [is a chance to] really show our character,” midfielder Alejandro Bedoya said before the U.S. practiced on Sunday afternoon.

“Look, it’s never easy. Nobody on the inside expects it to be and obviously for different people, they turn on the TV every four years and watch the World Cup and see us there and think we have a divine right to be there, but obviously anybody who’s in it every day understands that’s not the case,” captain Michael Bradley said following Friday's loss. “These nights are part of it and like I said, we’ll make sure the response is right and look at ourselves in the mirror in an honest way and know that things weren’t good enough tonight but be ready to go on Tuesday.”

Still, the Guatemala defeat felt different from past missteps. From fans’ frustration on Twitter to the columns questioning Klinsmann’s approach and suitability for the job, this time the consternation and anger was palpable.

This wasn’t just a things-go-awry-on-the-road in CONCACAF loss. The defeat was another sign that the U.S. has fallen far from its regional perch. Dominant in 2013, the Americans now are in an eight-month rut that has featured five losses to CONCACAF opposition (we’re counting the penalty kick setback to Panama in the Gold Cup bronze-medal game, in which the U.S. was terrible), a fourth-place finish at the Gold Cup and a Confederations Cup playoff loss to Mexico.

The U.S. conceded both goals in the opening 15 minutes on Tuesday, and that too is part of a larger trend. Klinsmann’s team has yielded a goal in the first 20 minutes of six of the past nine matches overall and has demonstrated almost no chemistry or cohesion from game to game. Lineups change, tactics confound and the promise of a proactive style of play was forgotten some time ago. In its place, supporters yearn simply to beat the teams the U.S. used to beat. The glow surrounding Klinsmann has dissipated as his tinkering and instinct to scapegoat others seems to have increased. He pointed to the officiating following his team’s Gold Cup exit, publicly criticized players like Bedoya and Fabian Johnson at various points, and told a reporter that his question concerning the team’s lack of early focus on Friday was “a good [one] for the players.”

But Klinsmann also promised introspection.

Klinsmann adds Zusi, Pulisic to U.S. roster; removes Johnson, Besler

“No matter if you win or lose, you question everything that happens during a game and you question yourself, ‘OK was this the right lineup? Were these right substitutions? Was this the right way to approach it,” he said. “At the end of the day with these two mistakes that we did, these two goals, you just have to swallow it. Because those are individual mistakes that you cannot do on that level and that’s what happened [Friday]. So we’ll take the blame. I take the blame. There’s no problem.”

Injuries haven’t made Klinsmann’s job easier. Johnson missed Friday’s game and was sent back to Germany afterward thanks to his slow recovery from a groin injury suffered while playing for Borussia Mönchengladbach. Losing center backs John Brooks (knee contusion) and Matt Besler (concussion) during practice last week then forced a defensive rethink that left Geoff Cameron, normally a center back, on the right and DeAndre Yedlin, typically a right back, at right midfield. Michael Orozco started in the middle despite playing somewhat sparingly for Club Tijuana. Mix Diskerud was out of place on Friday as Bradley’s box-to-box/defensive partner. The captain looked far more effective when roles were more clearly defined following playmaker Darlington Nagbe’s second-half entrance. While the late push partially was a result of the hosts conservative approach to protecting a two-goal lead, it also left many wondering why Klinsmann didn’t just start that way. His players looked unfocused, uncomfortable and unfamiliar with their roles and responsibilities, and that’s happened far too frequently.

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So Tuesday’s game is a sort of qualifying déjà vu, but with an ominous twist. The team traveled Saturday and trained Sunday at Mapfre Stadium, joined by newcomers Graham Zusi and Christian Pulisic, the 17-year-old Pennsylvanian who’s breaking through at Borussia Dortmund. He’s a player for the future. At present, there are more pressing issues. Klinsmann must find a winning formula on Tuesday. U.S. tormenter Carlos Ruiz likely will miss the match thanks to a legal issue keeping him in Guatemala. But considering the Americans' struggles over the past eight months, his potential absence shouldn't be cause for celebration. Ruiz didn't shut out the U.S. on Friday. Klinsmann and his team must find the answers within. 

“It’s a quick turnaround. There’s a lot that needs to be done in a short amount of time and I think we have a group who with guys who’ve done that before, who understand that qualifying is a long process,” Bradley said Sunday. “We’re pretty honest with ourselves to know that we let ourselves down in a lot of ways the other night. We have to be ready when the chance comes up Tuesday night to step on the field and right from the first whistle give everything, and play in a way that leaves no doubt as to the result at the end of the game.”