The U.S. Men’s National Team has faced different degrees of adversity in each its last three trips through FIFA World Cup Qualifying, and one pattern that stands out is the ability of the team to find a way through the rough patches.
“You have to go through the rollercoaster, and it’s no different (this year) as in years past,” U.S. midfielder Clint Dempsey said. “It was difficult getting points on the road, but we were able to get important results at home to put us back in good position.”
Roll back to 2001, when the U.S. went down to the wire in the final round of qualifying for the 2002 FIFA World Cup, needing a win against Jamaica on the penultimate matchday in the final round to even ensure a chance to advance.
After starting out the final round unbeaten in five straight matches, including four wins, the U.S. suddenly lost traction, losing three consecutive games to find itself one point behind the last qualifying spot with just two matches remaining on the schedule.
Against Jamaica on Oct. 7, 2001, in Foxborough, Joe-Max Moore gave the U.S. a quick 1-0 lead after just three minutes, but Jaime Lawrence equalized for Jamaica, tying the match at 1-1 in the 13th minute.
Moore converted an 81st-minute penalty kick that delivered the United States a 2-1 win. Meantime, Honduras lost 1-0 at home against Trinidad & Tobago – something they had not done in the final round – while Mexico tied on the road against Costa Rica. The result allowed the U.S. to leapfrog Los Catrachos back into the final qualifying spot, two points ahead of Honduras with one game left.
The next go-around brought a different challenge. In the third round of qualification for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, the U.S. found itself leading a group composed of Jamaica, El Salvador and Panama by one point halfway through the group stage. An opening round tie against Jamaica, followed by a win against El Salvador and another tie, this time with Panama, had the U.S. one point ahead of both Jamaica and Panama after three matches.
In a difficult group, the U.S. did not allow its early struggles to complicate matters, finishing strong and winning the group to advance to the final round of qualification where it would finish in the top position.
Just three short years ago, the U.S. started the final round of 2010 FIFA World Cup Qualifying with two wins and a tie in the first three matches, but succumbed to the challenges of playing on the road and were handed a thorough 3-1 defeat in Costa Rica. The scoreline would’ve been worse if Landon Donovan hadn’t converted a penalty kick in the second minute of second-half stoppage time.
Dazed from the lopsided loss, the U.S. was forced to recover in three short days and face a dangerous Honduras team in Chicago. Things didn’t get off to a shining start for the USA as Honduras rocketed out to a 1-0 lead just five minutes into the match. After Landon Donovan equalized the score, defender Carlos Bocanegra registered the game-winning goal in the 68th minute, allowing the U.S. to erase the distaste left over from the loss in Costa Rica.
There does not seem to be a World Cup Qualifying cycle that goes by without the U.S. facing strong opposition in a region that seems to be gaining more traction on the global stage. Each campaign has brought with it different challenges for the Men’s National Team to overcome, and each time they have completed the journey by reaching the World Cup.