By Michael Lewis
The United States has the goal of not just advancing to the next round of World Cup qualifying. Manager Juergen Klinsmann has higher expectations.
"We want to finish out the group in first place and move on to the hexagonal," Klinsmann said. "We're all ready to go."
To accomplish his mission, Klinsmann is aiming for victories in Antigua on Friday and against Guatemala in Kansas City, Kansas, on Tuesday.
The Americans are tied with Guatemala and Jamaica atop Group A with seven points each. Only two teams will advance.
The first hurdle is Antigua, which despite only earning one point in four games has Klinsmann's attention.
"We watched very carefully the games against Guatemala and they could have beaten Guatemala in both games," he said. "They tied Jamaica. This is not an easy game. It's going to be a difficult game because, for them, it's the game of the decade.
"They want to prove everything against the United States. We will tell that to the players from day one. We have to go in there with the right mindset and with the right mentality and take care of it."
Klinsmann pointed to the United States' failure to qualify for the Olympics - despite playing on home soil earlier this year - as a way to remind his players about the perils of trying to qualify in CONCACAF.
"What happened to the Olympic team was a huge warning to whoever thinks CONCACAF is an easy region to go through and to qualify, whether it's for the Olympics or whether it's for the World Cup," he said. "Teams in CONCACAF have improved a lot over the last few years. That's why for us it's not that easy to communicate to European clubs and coaches and people how serious, actually, our qualifying campaign is."
Regardless, Klinsmann said he expects the Antigua and Guatemala to intensify their efforts against the United States.
"It's not just automatic because those teams you play as the United States or as Mexico, they will give everything they have," he said. "They will give all their heart and they want to upset you. They want to give the big surprise as Antigua is trying to do now.
"You have to first work your way through that game. You first have to accept the physical battle and the challenges that are there. You have to adjust to the field and the environment. Then, hopefully, once you score a goal, you can start to play in a better way. This is a difficult qualifying campaign. It's a marathon...We have been warned and we are aware of it."
Klinsmann was question about two roster omissions: San Jose Earthquakes' Chris Wondolowski, whose 25 goals lead Major League Soccer, and Jozy Altidore, whose eight goals has tied him for the Dutch league lead.
Klinsmann, who was not pleased with Altidore's performances in recent qualifiers, brought in San Jose's Alan Gordon and the Seattle Sounders' Eddie Johnson instead.
"For us right now, the most important thing is that we take care of these two games," he said. "The decision not to call Jozy in is based on what we recently saw with him and what we've experienced with him. The door obviously remains open for Jozy. We need to make sure we take care of these two games."
Wondolowski, who is two goals shy from tying the MLS scoring record (set by Roy Lassiter in 1996), was not called in due to tactical reasons.
"We wanted to bring in Eddie and Alan because both are really strong in the air," Klinsmann said. "We expect two difficult games where the opponent will probably play more defensively. They will probably get a lot of numbers in their box or in front of their box to play more defensive against us, so we need to have [the forwards] force things with crosses coming over the wings and be really strong in the air."
The Americans' attack force was not helped Tuesday when midfielder-forward Landon Donovan and midfielder Brek Shea were ruled out due to injuries. As of Wednesday afternoon, Klinsmann had not requested any replacements.