Last night the US Mens National Team clinched a birth in the 2014 FIFA World Cup to be held in Brazil. The 2-0 victory over Mexico in Columbus along with a draw between Panama and Honduras assured us a top three finish in "The Hex". For those who don't know "The Hex" is the World Cup qualifying finale for CONCACAF (basically North and Central America). It involves six teams that play home and away games to determine who automatically qualifies. The fourth place team has a "playoff" against a team from the Oceania conference (this time around New Zealand).
World Cup qualifying is NOT easy no matter what region you're in. Having to play road games in Honduras, Costa Rica and at the Azteca (Mexico's national stadium) are grueling. Sometimes the pitch is not well maintained, sometimes the crowd is extremely hostile, and sometimes the weather does not cooperate (anyone see the US - Costa Rica game in Denver earlier this year in the snow?).
The US has qualified. They have survived the qualification with 2 games to spare. However, the work is not done. I watched a report on USA Today that said the US can relax in their last two games, I disagree.
For starters, the defense needs to coalesce. The last two matches have shown weaknesses in the back four that other teams that make the World Cup will be able to expose. This needs to be worked on and strengthened. Especially on the outside where left and right back have to gain confidence. Too many times last night (and last Friday) the ball was given away by a defender which led directly to either a goal or a very good scoring chance.
Second, a midfielder that can back up Michael Bradley needs to be found. Kyle Beckerman is serviceable, but not up to par with Bradley. In my opinion we need to look at Mix Diskerud. His ability to be calm in traffic was shown last night as he took a deft touch into space and provided the cross that led to Donovan's goal. If Mix can get the confidence to play the same role as Bradley, then the midfield will be strengthened.
Third, starting the game on the right foot. Historically the US has started games slow. I don't know how many times we give up early goals and have to fight our way back. This has to change before we arrive in Brazil. The key to starting the game right is possession. It seems that it takes the US a good 15 minutes before settling down on the ball and stringing possession and building attacks. This is where the game can be lost. We saw it last night as Mexico had several chances early that they were (thankfully) unable to finish.
Juergen Klinsman has done a great job to get the US qualified for the World Cup. With two games left and a few "friendlies" before Brazil, the US should focus on the three areas above. Strengthening the defense, having another midfielder of Bradley's quality (or close to it), and starting strong will ensure that the US not only gets out of the group stage (something that should be expected by now) but will also help to move further into the tournament. The goal should be to get to the quarterfinals in 2014, the semifinals in 2018 and the final in 2022.