By FRANCO PANIZO
TAMPA, Fla. — The U.S. men's national team's road to Brazil 2014 is about to get underway, and nothing but starting World Cup qualifying with three flashy points will suffice.
The United States takes on Antigua and Barbuda at Raymond James Stadium on Friday night, and the widespread expectation of the U.S. men is that they will win by a large margin. After all, most of Antigua and Barbuda's players ply their trade at home for USL Pro club Antigua Barracuda FC, and the few that don't play mostly for amateur clubs in England.
That is not to say the Americans are overlooking their opponents, especially after getting a taste of how opposing CONCACAF foes are likely to defend against them in last Sunday's scoreless draw against Canada.
"I think a lot of times with these smaller nations, the one thing you have to guard against is not complacency going into the game but complacency in the game," said goalkeeper Tim Howard. "Canada was a perfect example. We had chances to win the game, they had chances to win the game, bottom line was we dominated that game.
"At the end, Simeon Jackson misses a chance. We have to guard against dominating games and having a guy who is big, physical, fast, can shake off tackles, when we're sucked in because we're dominating them so much, ball goes over the top (for) one chance, score. We have to guard against that complacency."
The United States may not be taking the opposition lightly, but it still plans to push the tempo and try to score early and often against a team that many are expecting to be the punching bag of Group A in this semifinal round of World Cup qualifying.
The Americans provided glimpses of a team capable of creating chances from the run of play in their three recent friendlies. But they will need to sharpen some aspects of their game if they are to break down an Antigua and Barbuda team that will likely be content to sit back and defend.
"The solutions, for example, are to play faster, move more off the ball than we did against Canada," said U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. "Overlaps, one-twos, change positions and be very, very alive and be sharp, and to get in the final third and go one against one and provoke whatever you can provoke there."
While Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan are likely to be given their second consecutive start together under Klinsmann, Jozy Altidore appears set to start the match against Antigua and Barbuda on the bench. The 22-year-old striker is not yet up to fitness with the rest of his teammates after arriving late to the summer camp, and forwards Terrence Boyd and Herculez Gomez's performances while Altidore was absent have seemingly impressed Klinsmann to the point where they are ahead of the AZ Alkmaar forward in Klinsmann's depth chart.
"What we've enjoyed to see with Herculez, and we see similar action from Terrence and that makes us happy, is that we have very mobile forwards," said Klinsmann. "Mobile forwards in terms of their movement off the ball, how they create spaces for people come behind and also how they occupy their defenders from their opponents.
"They're both a handful and they go at people. Our goal down the road is to put more pressure high up there, one step at a time, but that's our goal to stay higher up. If you want to do that you need to avoid long balls from your opponents, that means you need to have strikers that actually go at them and avoid long balls, otherwise you kind of make your back four look a little bit bad if the ball is always coming over the back line."
The U.S. defense has fallen prey to criticism after their last two performances against Scotland and Brazil. And while they won't face the same kind of challenge on Friday, the Americans have lost their two primary options at left back with Fabian Johnson and Edgar Castillo nursing injuries.
Who starts at left back in their absences is anyone's guess, but a concentrated effort will need to be made by the entire back line, especially on set pieces against the likes of Reading midfielder Mikele Leigertwood.
"They have some athletes," said Carlos Bocanegra, who could be an option to fill in at left back. "They have some guys in the attack that can make you miss. They're a bit erratic at some points, they can be a bit disorganized, but they have some athletes, so we can't push too many numbers forward and leave ourselves exposed in the back with one-on-ones because they're big, strong fast."
The Americans know that not leaving too much space in their half is a recipe for success, but the onus is still on the attack. The United States wants to score early, because the longer the game goes on the more self belief Antigua and Barbuda will have.
Still, the United States will need to show they have learned lessons from their friendlies and demonstrate further progress in the attack. Doing that will ease concerns about the U.S. team's inability to break down compact defenses, as well as give it a big win to start World Cup qualifying.