TAMPA — The U.S. men's national soccer team begins its 18-month campaign for inclusion in the 2014 World Cup tonight when the Americans host Antigua and Barbuda at Raymond James Stadium, the first opponent in a six-game, round-robin qualifying schedule.
Perhaps no other team during the World Cup qualification process will provide a better chance for the U.S. team to show its improvement under new coach Jurgen Klinsmann since the last time it was involved in a World Cup match, falling 2-1 in extra time to Ghana in the Round of 16 two years ago in South Africa.
Antigua and Barbuda is the lowest-ranked team the United States faces in this third round of Cup qualification, according to FIFA's World Rankings. Collecting a win — and three points — on home soil is critical, making tonight's matchup as close to a must-win as one could expect from an opening round-robin game.
"We have no other choice than having that sense of urgency every single game because we can't kind of relax for even one game in World Cup qualifiers," Klinsmann said.
"It's going to be a marathon over 16 games, and it's a must- to-do for us. It's a must-to-do for us to go to Brazil in 2014, and then we want to measure ourselves against the best in the world. But it's going to be a tricky World Cup qualifying campaign. … So, we've got to get the job done, and that's why we can't allow it to slow down even one second."
The United States follows tonight's qualifying opener with road tests against Guatemala on Tuesday and Jamaica on Sept. 7, not world soccer powers but potentially difficult matchups in hostile environments. A slipup tonight could have dire consequences for the qualification hopes of the United States, which seeks its seventh straight World Cup appearance.
"I think people finally are starting to give credit about how hard it is to win down in countries like Mexico … going to Guatemala, Costa Rica and winning those games," forward Jozy Altidore said. "It's not easy."
Since taking over as coach nearly a year ago, Klinsmann has instituted a more aggressive, attacking style of play with mixed results.
A historic 1-0 win in Italy in February — the Americans' first victory over the Azzurri in 11 meetings — was offset by 1-0 losses to Costa Rica, Belgium and Ecuador over the second half of the 2011 season. In three international exhibitions leading up to tonight's match, the Americans overwhelmed Scotland 5-1, were outclassed by Brazil 4-1 and looked lethargic in a scoreless draw against Canada on Sunday.
"I think we're just trying to find that right mix between opening ourselves up and creating chances and making sure we're tight in the back as well," said defender Steve Cherundolo, who has made appearances in three World Cups for the U.S. team.
In recent campaigns, the United States has set a precedent of overwhelming opponents in its first match of the World Cup qualifying process. The United States defeated Grenada 3-0 to open qualifying for the 2006 World Cup. In 2008, the Americans recorded their largest margin of victory, 8-0 over Barbados.
In Antigua and Barbuda, the United States hopes to find a similarly overmatched adversary.
"We feel good. We feel confident. We feel like we're in rhythm," U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "Our training's been very good. Overall, we're going into these games on a high. Obviously we need to put that into play and get the results."
A year into his job, the coach has installed an attacking approach.
The U.S. goalie says the team is confident and prepared for qualifying.
The forward can help the United States reach its seventh straight World Cup.
4-1-1 Record of the U.S. team in the past six matches.
5 Goals scored against Scotland, the first time since a 6-1 win over Cuba in 2008.
128 Career starts for Landon Donovan, breaking Jeff Agoos' American record.
By the numbers
USA Antigua and Barbuda
313,847,465 (third in world) Population 89,018 (197th)
9,826,675 sq km (third) Total area 442.6 sq km (200th)
28 FIFA world ranking 105
2 CONCACAF ranking 13
9 Times qualified for World Cup 0