When the U.S. takes the field for Friday’s World Cup qualifier against Honduras, it will be on ground both new and familiar.
Never before have the Americans started the hexagonal round of qualifying with consecutive losses. And they’ve never been at the bottom of the six-team table heading into their third game. The forecast Friday calls for rain and temperatures in the mid 50s ahead of the 7:55 p.m. PDT kickoff (FS1, UniMas, UDN) at Avaya Stadium.
But this is not the first time they’ve had their backs to the wall in the final round. In 2001 the U.S. entered the ninth game of the 10-game competition needing win to keep alive its hopes of advancing to the World Cup.
And Coach Bruce Arena calmly led the Americans to a victory over Jamaica in Foxborough, Mass. A month later the Americans played Trinidad & Tobago to a draw on the road, clinching the final World Cup berth.
“There wasn’t panic,” said Cobi Jones, who played on that team and is now an analyst for Fox Sports. “But there was definitely worry. One of the things that really stands out is that we were confident. We knew we could pull it out.”
To do that again the U.S. must finish in the top three in the CONCACAF tournament, something that would become increasingly difficult without a victory Friday. So once again, says DaMarcus Beasley, the only member of the 2001 squad still on the national team, Arena has replaced panic with positivism.
“Bruce does a great job instilling confidence in the group,” Beasley said. “We believed we were going to win that night in New England, and we have that same feeling going into Friday night. He keeps the team loose, and at the same time gets everyone well prepared.”
But Arena, who left the Galaxy to take over the national team when Jurgen Klinsmann was fired after qualifying losses to Mexico and Costa Rica last November, is facing challenges he didn’t face 15 years ago.
Injuries prevented him from calling up four potential starters for Friday’s game while five others — defenders Geoff Cameron and John Brooks, forwards Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris and goalkeeper Tim Howard — have recently returned from injuries.
Galaxy midfielder Jermaine Jones also is unavailable because he is suspended one game for yellow-card accumulation.
The stakes are higher now too. In 2001, the U.S. was still something of an anomaly on the global soccer stage. It had qualified for the World Cup only three times since 1950, its only victory in a World Cup game coming on an own goal.
This time the U.S. is trying to qualify for an eighth consecutive World Cup.
“If we don’t,” said Jovan Kirovski, who also played on the 2001 team and is now the Galaxy’s technical director, “it would be a disaster.”
In a news conference Thursday, Arena calmly pushed back on the idea that the situation was urgent.
“This is the early stage of it,” he said. “The point remains you’re in it all the way until you’re mathematically disqualified.”
Kirovski said that such steadiness in the center of a maelstrom is one of the traits that has made Arena successful.
“Everybody has that chill mentality and just tries not to stress over this and put extra pressure on ourselves,” agreed midfielder Sebastian Lletget, who has played for Arena with both the Galaxy and the national team.
The coach’s attitude “is very contagious,” he added. “There’s never a panic mode.”
If Arena and his players take comfort in the lessons of the past, though, they don’t dwell on them. Because the past, whether it’s 15 years or five months ago, is just that, the past, said captain Michael Bradley.
“There is zero point in continuing to look back,” he said.
“For us the reality is simple,” he continued. “We let ourselves down in the first two games and that means that our margin for error is now very, very small. We are where we are and it is time to begin the process of moving ourselves back up the table.”