The USA had its best-ever start to World Cup qualifying thanks to early road victories.
2008 marked the start of the USA's quest to reach the World Cup for a sixth straight time. To prepare, the Americans faced foes far more formidable than what they would see in the qualifying games.
In friendlies against England, Spain and Argentina, the USA failed to score, losing 2-0 at Wembley and 1-0 in Santander, but tying Argentina 0-0 in a spirited performance at the Meadowlands.
That's right. The USA prepared for Barbados, a Caribbean island with a population of 280,000 whose national team FIFA ranked 124th in the world, by playing No. 1 ranked Argentina. And seven days later the Americans walloped the Bajans, 8-0, in the first leg of the series that would lead to the semifinal round. A 1-0 win in Bridgetown in a cricket stadium settled the matter.
The semifinal round started in Guatemala, where the USA had never won a qualifying game. In 2002 World Cup qualifying, a 1-1 tie in Guatemala was followed by a 2-1 loss to Costa Rica, leading to some nail-biting before the USA clinched final-round passage on the last game day.
Guatemala City's Estadio Mateo Flores filled with 25,000 fans. On a soggy, slippery field, the teams shared 40 fouls, seven yellow cards, and each had a player ejected.
Eddie Lewis left the field with a gash in his head that required five stitches after getting elbowed by Gustavo Cabrera. Tim Howard made seven saves and Carlos Bocanegra headed home a DaMarcus Beasley cross to earn a 1-0 tie.
"The win is based more on the determination of our team," said U.S. coach Bob Bradley. "Sometimes it's necessary to win games in that way. It was a game where we relied on the effort, team spirit, and the mentality of the group."
Like 2002 qualifying, the Concacaf schedule for Group 1 meant that the USA opened with its first games on the road. Three weeks after the win in Guatemala City, the USA embarked on one of its most intriguing road trips ever, visiting Cuba for the first time since the U.S. embargo. But despite the nations' political animosity, the Americans encountered one of the friendliest atmospheres ever in qualifying play. Cuban fans cheered American players as the lineup was announced over the stadium speaker, and applauded them after their 1-0 win, on a Clint Dempsey goal.
"There wasn't much soccer played in either game. Just a lot of kicking balls," admitted U.S. defender Carlos Bocanegra. But the Americans, for the first time in history, won three straight World Cup qualifying games on the road.
The good soccer finally came when, four days after the Cuba victory, the Americans hosted Trinidad & Tobago in Bridgeview, Ill., where they strung passes together, attacked in variation and hit the net thanks to Michael Bradley, Dempsey and Brian Ching in a 3-0 win.
Never had the USA started a qualifying round with four straight wins, but it did so by thumping Cuba, 6-1, in Washington, D.C., a month later. That win clinched final-round passage, turning the last two games - against Trinidad & Tobago and Guatemala - into opportunities for Bradley to test young players.
Now the USA faces 10 more games in the Hexagonal. The top three finishers in the six-team final-round group qualify for South Africa 2010, and the fourth-place finisher plays off with South America's No. 5 team for what could be Concacaf's fourth spot.
In addition to the smooth qualifying run, the USA also beat Poland, 3-0, in March, giving it back-to-back wins in Europe for the first time in history, having beaten Switzerland, 1-0, in October of 2007.
So, all in all, it was a satisfactory year for the U.S. men. 2009 should be a bit more challenging.
The USA has traveled to 11 different Concacaf countries this decade to compete in World Cup qualifying. It has only lost in two countries, Costa Rica and Mexico (twice each), with something on the line.
2002 World Cup
Guatemala T 1-1
Costa Rica L 1-2
Barbados W 4-0
Honduras W 2-1
Jamaica T 0-0
Mexico L 0-1
Costa Rica L 0-2
*Trin. & Tobago T 0-0
2006 World Cup
Grenada W 3-2
Jamaica T 1-1
Panama T 1-1
*El Salvador W 2-0
Trin. & Tobago W 2-1
Mexico L 1-2
Panama W 3-0
*Guatemala T 0-0
*Costa Rica L 0-3
2010 World Cup
Barbados W 1-0
Guatemala W 1-0
Cuba W 1-0
*Trin. & Tobago L 1-2
*Played after the USA clinched berth in next round or in finals.
(This article originally appeared in the December 2008 issue ofSoccer Americamagazine.)