Coach Bob Bradley's challenge of guiding the USA to the 2010 World Cup finals came into focus on Sunday at the World Cup Preliminary Draw in Durban, South Africa.
The USA enters CONCACAF qualifying at the second playoff stage and will face the winner of Dominica vs. Barbados in a home-and-away series in June 2008.
"Dominica is a longer shot, certainly Barbados is favored in their head-to-head," says Bradley.
In 2000, the USA beat Barbados 7-0 at home before facing the Caribbeans in a must-win match in Waterford in the semifinal round of qualifying for the 2002 World Cup. Bradley, then coach of MLS's Chicago Fire, attended the USA's 4-0 victory in which it didn't score until the second half.
"A think the major lesson from that is just that World Cup qualifying is always challenging," said Bradley. "When you play away, the games can be difficult no matter who your opponent is. [Goalkeeper] Tony Meola made a big save in the first half of that game. We got our goals late.
"We know that Barbados is always an athletic team. They have a striker, Paul Ifill, who plays at Crystal Palace [English second tier]."
If the USA advances, its likely opponents in the semifinal round of qualifying are Guatemala, Trinidad & Tobago and Cuba.
"Guatemala we played twice this year [a scoreless tie and a 1-0 U.S. win]," Bradley said. "Certainly they are a familiar opponent. All of us have gotten to know Carlos Ruiz pretty well from his MLS years.
"Trinidad & Tobago, we know their players. We didn't see their best at the Gold Cup [a 2-0 U.S. win last summer] because they had some difficulties in securing their best players. That was not indicative, but we're aware of the talent they possess.
"We didn't play Cuba, but Cuba had some good moments at the Gold Cup, and I think showed that they continue to improve. That gives us a little bit of an idea of where those teams are at this point.
"Certainly they're all opponents that have our respect."
In World Cup qualifying, the USA has a 4-0-4 win-loss-tie record against Guatemala and is 8-0-2 against Trinidad & Tobago. In their only World Cup qualifying clashes, Cuba and the USA tied 1-1 and the USA won 5-2 in 1949.
Bradley was named head coach of the USA in December 2006 and compiled a 12-5-1 record during his first year at the helm.
"The highlight was obviously the Gold Cup title win," Bradley said. "And after a year, there's more of a comfort level, on things like dealing with our players' European clubs.
"Our camps have been pretty positive throughout the year. We try to challenge the key players who have been around, who have been in World Cups, to take bigger roles. And to test young players who we think are capable, and get them experience and try to lay a foundation for the future."
The U.S. team will convene in early January for its first training camp of 2008.
"That will be MLS-based, but will include some Scandinavian players, because they're off," Bradley said. "That camp leads to a game, which is Jan. 19 against Sweden.
"Sweden and the U.S. typically play that game with players from their leagues, because it's not a FIFA date. Then we let players go for a few days, and when we play Mexico on Feb. 6, it's a FIFA date, but obviously the players from Europe travel after their weekend games.
"So that game probably leans more toward MLS players because of the challenge of bringing players in from Europe for a single fixture."
Bradley spent the week between the USA's 1-0 win over South Africa in Johannesburg on Nov. 17 and draw in Durban touring the country and scouting World Cup facilities.
"There are a wide range of options as far as where to base the team," Bradley said. "It will be winter here during the World Cup, and in South Africa the weather varies at the different venues. The venues are also at different altitudes, so that can pose a challenge. Maybe it's better to be based at high altitude. We'll go back check with the 'sports scientists.'"
The USA takes part in the South Africa-hosted 2009 Confederations Cup. And if all goes well after an 18-game qualifying campaign, they'll be back in 2010.