KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- A "must-draw" has rarely felt more like a must-win. The U.S. can tie Guatemala in Tuesday night's World Cup qualifying clash in Kansas City and still proceed into the final CONCACAF qualifying round for Brazil 2014, but after a series of erratic performances, including a loss at Jamaica and Friday's last-gasp 2-1 win at tiny Antigua and Barbuda, the sold-out crowd at the futuristic Livestrong Sporting Park will be baying for a conclusive performance from Jurgen Klinsmann's inconsistent team.
Klinsmann was in a pugnacious mood when speaking to the press Monday. "Our approach to the game is clear," he said. "We want to win. You only can win a game if you attack and go forward, and that's what we're going to do. We are not looking for a tie."
The increased popularity of the sport in the United States has brought with it a sharpened edge of expectancy ahead of every international game. Victories against Italy and Mexico offered a flicker of optimism, yet the sluggish performances on the road in World Cup qualifying made many frustrated fans begin to wonder if the team is progressing.
While every U.S. game can seem like a barometer of the health of the sport in this country, Tuesday night's game feels as if it carries a tighter, more volatile focus -- whether Klinsmann's project is going forward or backward. The German coach alluded to this, admitting that "sometimes it takes a little bit longer than you wish it would, but that's all right. The expectations from the fans are getting bigger, and rightfully so, and the discussion is getting a little more intense, rightfully so."
Klinsmann inherited the U.S. team mantle in July 2011. Forty-five different players have taken the field since then. Twenty have started in qualifying, yet only four have scored. When asked to articulate the improvements which have occurred on his watch, he confessed he has found it hard to balance creating long-term change while trying to maintain result-driven football in the short term. "The entire process has [been] connected into World Cup qualifying, where the major concern is to get your points and qualify. It is a team that is growing and changing," Klinsmann said.
Both the U.S. and Guatemala lead the group with 10 points. Klinsmann hinted that his opponents may pursue the draw they need to progress. "No matter how they build their shape, they will be very physical, they will run and fight for every ball," he said. "It's the game of their lives really."
The coach admitted he hoped his side could conjure the fearless football it unfurled in the first half of the last home game, a 1-0 victory against Jamaica. "In Columbus, we could've scored three, four, five goals. And at the end of the day it was only one. At least you have the three points, but obviously we wish a few more goals are coming."
For that to occur, the U.S. will need to demonstrate a confidence on the ball, and a heightened sense of invention. "We have to find creativity with this team and it might have to be collective," said keeper Tim Howard. "I don't know if we have someone who can unlock defenses. It is not something you can just find.
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"One thing we need to focus on," Howard added, "is taking less touches on the ball [as we] move the ball through midfield and creating numerical advantage. We don't have one guy who can create a bit of magic. It's about limiting your touches, shifting the other team out of position and exploiting possession in areas they don't want us to be in. It does not happen overnight."
Forthright striker Herculez Gomez reinforced this message of patience and slow progress.
"I don't know if you have seen our region's play, but creativity is not our forte," he said. "Mexico are the standard. They would have had the same problems with creativity we did on that field in Antigua. We would like to have a more attacking style with a shutdown [defense]. It's very difficult when you think about the amount of time we have together as a group -- just four or five days every two months. This is my fourth camp and I am just starting to feel familiar with the other players. I know it is not what people want to hear. Trust me, it is not what we want to say, but it is just reality."
Roma midfielder Michael Bradley poetically captured the team's temperature the night before the game. "We all look forward to big nights," he said. "The reality of soccer in this country at the moment is that, at times, we do play qualifiers in stadiums where, even though we are playing at home, it doesn't feel like it. And so [playing in Kansas City] you can feel the excitement, you can feel the passion for the game and the national team. The opportunity for us to step on the field in a beautiful stadium on a great field in front of a big-time American crowd -- that is something we don't get all the time. It's another mark of good progress in our country."
ODDS AND SODS
Graham Zusi could not be more of a hometown hero. "I live 15-20 minutes away from the stadium," he said, "and have 15 family members flying in from as far away as Florida. It's going to be an unbelievable feeling representing my country in my home stadium." Asked if he anticipates the adrenaline will be flowing, he said, "I will and I don't think it will just be me. It's going to be incredible. It will lift the whole team."
The U.S. has not lost at home in its past 21 World Cup qualifiers. The team can still proceed even with a loss if Jamaica, which hosts Antigua and Barbuda, fails to close the three-goal advantage the U.S. holds on goal difference.
Klinsmann suggested Guatemala's main threat could come from a counterattack or set piece. "It's a team that plays very direct with long balls into Carlos Ruiz or into [Minor] Lopez," he said. "They drop the ball off and go for the second ball. They try to draw fouls close to the box and Marco Pappa, as he showed in the first game, is an excellent free kick taker. So, there are a couple of things to avoid. Don't give … Pappa that opportunity to shoot [a free kick] and keep Ruiz out of the game. It's a very difficult task, he's on a roll. We are aware of that. We discussed that. We are well prepared."