Reasons for hope, reasons for worry for U.S. in World Cup qualifying
As the U.S. heads into a pair of important World Cup qualifiers starting with Friday's tilt at St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the question facing national team fans is this: How worried should they be about their country's chances of reaching the final round of regional qualifying for Russia 2018? In truth, not very.
The U.S. is coming off a successful summer. It finished fourth at a Copa America played on home soil, and the Americans are the clear favorites in both upcoming games, the second of which is Tuesday in Jacksonville, Florida, against Trinidad and Tobago.
But if March's ugly road loss in Guatemala proved anything, it's that things don't always go according to plan in this region, especially away from home. And the U.S. will be without some of its most reliable veterans for the double fixture. That doesn't mean it won't advance to the six-team "Hexagonal" -- this is a team that has participated in seven consecutive World Cups, after all, and has reached the knockout stage in three of the last four tournaments. It'll get there.
But challenges with travel, weather, field conditions and opponents hell-bent on stealing a result means it won't be a cakewalk. It never is.
"CONCACAF is very tricky -- I had to experience that myself over the last five years," U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. "On a piece of paper it looks easy, but reality is just different."
Here are five reasons U.S. fans should be concerned, and five reasons to be hopeful as Friday's kickoff approaches.
Reasons to worry
1. Dempsey's absence
Clint Dempsey has been the USA's most consistent scoring threat during the past two World Cup cycles. He led the team with three goals during the Copa, and had five in three games for Seattle when the club shut down the 33-year-old, who is being evaluated for an irregular heartbeat. He'll miss both games as a result.
The Texan leaves huge shoes to fill. Dempsey's is the USA's all-time top scorer in qualifying.
"Would we need him down in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and against Trinidad and Tobago in the second game?" Klinsmann said. "Absolutely."
2. Other key players are out, too
Dempsey's absence wouldn't be as big a concern if other starters weren't also unavailable. Captain Michael Bradley is suspended for Friday's game because of yellow card accumulation. Jermaine Jones was called in but only so the national team staff could evaluate the knee injury that has prevented the enforcer from playing for the Colorado Rapids in almost two months. And center back John Brooks, who was a rock alongside Geoff Cameron during the Copa, withdrew from the squad Monday because of a back injury.
3. Consistently inconsistent
You never know what U.S. team is going to show up under Klinsmann, whose penchant for tinkering unnecessarily at times has led to flat performances. The U.S. coach was more pragmatic at Copa America, after which one player told ESPN FC that Klinsmann's upbeat style helped maintain a positive locker room atmosphere during the month-plus the U.S. squad was together. But that loss in Guatemala City is a reminder how quickly one game can turn things south.
4. Little margin for error
With only six games (compared to 10 in the final round), the semis are even trickier than the Hex. One slip-up can be devastating, and reminds us that playing CONCACAF minnows on their own (bumpy) turf isn't always easy. In Barbados 16 years ago, the U.S. was 45 minutes away from being eliminated from the 2002 World Cup before gutting out the victory. (The Americans went on to reach the quarterfinals in Korea and Japan.) Four years ago, Klinsmann's side needed a stoppage-time goal from Eddie Johnson in tiny Antigua and Barbuda to secure three points and ensure that its closing semifinal-round game against Guatemala wasn't a must-win.
5. Remember Mexico
If you think not qualifying is impossible, look at what happened to Mexico in 2008. Long before "San Zusi" saved El Tri's bacon in 2013, CONCACAF's other giant was on the brink of elimination at the semifinal stage. Mexico eventually advanced to the Hexagonal over Jamaica on goal difference, but it was a massive scare for the futbol-crazy nation, and it went a long way toward the dismissal of manager Sven Goran-Eriksson, who was fired after Mexico lost its Hex opener to the United States in early 2009.
Reasons not to
1. Altidore, Wood in fine form
Even without Dempsey, the U.S. has more than enough firepower to beat the Vincy Heat, as the hosts are known. (And for good reason: It will be 87 degrees Fahrenheit, with 78 percent humidity, on Friday.)
Target forward Jozy Altidore has plenty of experience in games just like this, and he arrived in camp having scored five times in eight MLS appearances for Toronto FC since returning from the hamstring injury that ruled him out of Copa America. The similarly physical Bobby Wood, who impressed in Altidore's place in June, scored Saturday for Hamburg in his Bundesliga debut. (Both players also found the net against SVG last November.) And Jordan Morris and Chris Wondolowski have combined for 18 MLS goals in 2016.
2. Opportunity for others
The absence of Bradley and almost certainly Jones (who, not surprisingly, didn't train with his teammates Tuesday) all but guarantees that veteran destroyer Kyle Beckerman will start in central midfield. World Cup 2014 starter Matt Besler should slot in seamlessly for left center back Brooks. And based on who's available, it's possible that one of Sacha Kljestan (who was added to the squad Monday) Darlington Nagbe or 17-year-old Christian Pulisic will start. All three have plenty to prove and will be motivated to perform well if the chance comes, with a bigger role in the team up for grabs.
Eighteen members of the 23-man Copa squad return. It would've been 21 of 23 had Brooks, Dempsey and LA Galaxy forward Gyasi Zardes (who misses out because of a broken foot) been healthy and available. That built-in cohesion is by design. Klinsmann's hope is that the chemistry developed within the team over the summer carries into these two dates even if his lineup is shorthanded.
4. Wins and they're in
The U.S. should always beat SVG. Trinidad and Tobago is expected to top Guatemala -- the Soca Warriors already beat them away this cycle -- in Port of Spain. If both results pan out, the U.S. and T&T advance regardless of what happens in Jacksonville.
But the bottom line is the U.S. should win both games. If it does, not only will the Americans advance to the Hex, they'll lock up the top spot in Group C, setting up a home date against Mexico in the opening match of the final round.
5. The U.S. isn't El Tri
Mexico won last year's CONCACAF Cup over the U.S., and top to bottom, El Tri has a deeper roster. But the Americans have been better in World Cup qualifying over the last decade. In fact, Mexico hasn't finished above the U.S. -- which has topped the regional standings in each of the last three cycles -- since 2001.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.