Stoppage Time: When mediocre is good enough

10:54 AM, Oct 17, 2012   |    comments
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(Sports Network) - Tuesday's match with Guatemala marked the first time that the United States has faced elimination in World Cup qualifying since 2000.

And less than five minutes into the game, the Americans fell behind.

Suddenly, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his team sat 85 minutes away from falling into a soccer abyss.

Had the United States been eliminated in the semifinal round of qualifying, it would have marked the biggest disappointment in team history.

But Klinsmann's side responded in a big way, scoring three goals in the span of 26 minutes to take a commanding 3-1 lead and see the game out from there, which allowed U.S. fans to exhale.

The final 85 minutes on Tuesday, which saw Clint Dempsey score two goals and assist on another, was the type of performance that was expected of the team all along.

Yet the Americans turned what should have been a routine training exercise in reaching the final round of qualifying into anything but.

The team lost for the first time ever against Jamaica in its third game of the six-match qualifying round, and then needed a last-gasp goal from Eddie Johnson just to secure a 2-1 win against Antigua and Barbuda, which is ranked 106th in the world.

And after falling behind on Tuesday to a fifth-minute goal from Guatemala's Carlos Ruiz, Klinsmann's side made things a lot more interesting than anyone in the U.S. camp would have hoped.

The important thing now for Klinsmann and the United States is to take the next four months before the final round of qualifying starts and use that time to fix the issues that made this past round so uncomfortable.

Tops on that list would be defending as the team kept only one clean sheet in six games against inferior opposition.

Geoff Cameron seems to still be settling into his spot in the center of defense, while left back is an area that must be solidified as well.

Another issue was in the attacking third, where the U.S. squad lacked a cutting edge for much of the time despite controlling possession.

Missing a playmaker like Landon Donovan, who was out because of a knee injury, didn't help, while Dempsey too often floated in and out of games and didn't put together the kind of performance expected from him until Tuesday's match.

While Klinsmann is busy working out the kinks, there were a few positive things to take away from qualifying as well.

Chief among them was the play of Johnson, who returned to the national team after a two-year absence to score both goals against Antigua and set up Dempsey's go-ahead strike against Guatemala on Tuesday.

Johnson's play provided the U.S. attack with a much-needed shot in the arm and will give Klinsmann another option up top.

Graham Zusi was another player who certainly earned more time with the national side as he showed an ability to provide quality service from the wing that will create opportunities for bigger strikers like Johnson and Jozy Altidore.

The United States now has a chance to take a breath and prepare for what will be a much stronger group in the final round, which includes Costa Rica, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico and Panama.

"At the end of the day, when you get to the World Cup, nobody remembers how you get there," U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley said.

To illustrate his point, the last time the United States struggled this badly in qualifying was ahead of the 2002 World Cup, where the team went on to reach the quarterfinals.

There is a ton of work ahead if this current group will come close to duplicating that kind of result, but at least the team has survived the semis.

For this round, mediocre was good enough.

Next round, it won't be.

The Sports Network

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