U.S. short-handed for key World Cup stretch


The U.S. national soccer team didn’t lose any players to injury or illness on its three-hour flight to Antigua on Thursday. And that passes for great news given that Team USA is already down four players heading into two crucial World Cup qualifiers, beginning Friday against Antigua and Barbuda.

The U.S. needs at least a win and a draw in its next two games to assure itself of a place in the next round of regional qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. After playing in Antigua Friday, the U.S. team plays Tuesday against Guatemala in Kansas City, Kan.

But the U.S. squad will have to accomplish that without Landon Donovan, the national team’s all-time leading scorer, as well as midfielder Brek Shea and left backs Fabian Johnson and Edgar Castillo.

Donovan sustained a left knee injury while playing for the Galaxy on Saturday. He will be missed because he has been the team’s most important offensive catalyst during Juergen Klinsmann’s 15 months as U.S. head coach.

In the eight matches Donovan has played for Klinsmann, the U.S. has lost just twice while averaging a goal and a half a game. In the 10 games the U.S. has played without Donovan, it has scored only nine goals, losing four times.

And now the team finds itself with little margin for error. The U.S. enters Friday’s game tied atop its four-team group with seven points, the same total as Jamaica and Guatemala, who meet later that night in Guatemala City. Antigua trails with one point.

“The situation is very clear,” Klinsmann said. “Everybody can just look at the table of the group. Three teams, seven points. You have to keep the tempo high, you have to create chances and you have to finish those chances.”

That could be hard to do with a U.S. roster reduced to 17 outfield players. And four probable starters — Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu, Jermaine Jones and Graham Zusi — go into the Antigua match carrying yellow cards, meaning another caution Friday would force them out of next week’s game with Guatemala.

Klinsmann won’t be without weapons, though.

Bradley, who, like Donovan, missed September’s qualifiers to injury, is back in the midfield where he’ll team on the attack with Clint Dempsey, who has a team-high four goals in seven games this year. More problematic could be the back line, which has little depth now that Castillo (foot injury) and Johnson (flu) are unavailable.

“We have our backs against the wall,” said Klinsmann, whose team beat Antigua, 3-1, then played Guatemala to a 1-1 draw in June.

“Now it’s really about zooming in and focusing on every little element because it’s always the little details that make the difference. If we are determined and we are ready for it, we’ll get the job done.”