You can talk all you want about tactics, fitness, motivation -- but the keys to the USA advancing in World Cup qualifying have been Clint Dempsey, a few other veterans, and the prodigal son.
On Tuesday, for the sixth time in history, the USA hosted Guatemala in a World Cup qualifier. And for the sixth time, the Americans won. They dashed Guatemala’s hopes for a first World Cup appearance and kept alive theirs for a seventh straight.
Needing just a tie to advance to the Hexagonal, the Americans, after giving up an early goal, cruised to a 3-1 win over Guatemala in Kansas City. Dempsey set up the first goal and scored the other two. He had scored three goals in the previous five games of this semifinal round.
That's what Dempsey does. He delivers crucial goals for the USA. He scored five times to help the USA qualify for the 2010 World Cup, where he scored in the 1-1 opening tie against England. He helped set up the last-gasp Landon Donovan goal against Algeria that sent the Americans to the second round in South Africa.
During the USA’s runner-up finish at the 2009 Confederations Cup, Dempsey scored the third goal in a 3-0 win over Egypt that clinched a semifinal spot. In the next game, he scored the second goal in the 2-0 win over Spain – after assisting on Jozy Altidore’s opening goal. Dempsey also scored the first goal in the 3-2 final loss to Brazil.
Dempsey scored the goal in the USA’s 1-0 win at Italy last February.
Donovan, the only other individual who makes as significant an impact on the U.S. national team as Dempsey, was injured for the Guatemala game. Donovan and Dempsey have paired up only three times during the Klinsmann era. One worries where the USA would be if neither of them were available.
But other veterans -- Michael Bradley, Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo – were also crucial to the U.S. performance on Tuesday.
Bradley marshaled the midfield and created Dempsey’s second goal. Bocanegra scored the equalizer, latching onto Dempsey’s header, for his 14th goal -- a record for a U.S. defender -- in 109 games for the USA. Cherundolo’s attacking propensity from right back unsettled Los Chapines and he sent the brilliant pass to Eddie Johnson that led to Johnson’s cross for Dempsey’s first goal.
Bocanegra and Cherundolo are 33 years old. Dempsey is 29. Bradley’s a youngster at 25 who has already played 65 times for the USA. Donovan is 30.
Johnson is 28 and looked washed up after five unsuccessful years abroad. So credit Sigi Schmid for reviving his career at the Seattle Sounders and Klinsmann for bringing him back into the national team fold. Johnson scored both goals in Friday’s 2-1 win over Antigua & Barbuda.
The veterans came through to send the USA into the six-team final round. The top three qualify for Brazil 2014 and the fourth earns a playoff. There’s hardly any doubt that Klinsmann -- or anyone with a basic grasp of the game -- couldn’t steer the USA to qualification with those odds.
But the average age of the USA’s 11 starters on Tuesday was 28.6 years. The Hexagonal begins in February and by October 2013 the USA should be qualified for Brazil.
What we’ll be looking for is the younger talent the team will need at the World Cup in 2014.