United States fans got an early scare on Tuesday night when Carlos Ruiz scored a goal in the 5th minute for Guatemala as it was taking on the United States in Kansas City during their final group stage match of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifiers for Brasil 2014. In the end, there was no need for US fans to begin the mourner's Kaddish or commission a requiem for the United States National team, because after 90 minutes plus change, it was the United States that was advancing to the Hexagonal thanks to one goal from Carlos Bocanegra and two goals from Clint Dempsey. In fact, the match was pretty much over at halftime with the United States going to the locker room with a 3-1 lead.
Despite their substantial lead at halftime, the United States never really took its foot off the gas and Clint Dempsey came oh so close to picking up a hat trick. The second half highlighted the difference between the USMNT under Jurgen Klinsmann and Bob Bradley - in the Bradley era the US would have gone into bunkering mode with a 2 goal lead in the second half.
Ruiz's early goal caused some dismay among numerous US fans who seem to forget that defense, with the exception of goalkeeper, has not been a strong feature of the USMNT in recent years. Even under Bradley the defense struggled to clear the ball and could leak goals like a sieve. In the world of soccer, defenders rarely get much respect, an issue compounded in the United States where all the parents seem to want their kid to be the team's leading goal scorer. When it comes to the USMNT, spreading the field and keeping pressure on the other team's defense gives the US defense the time, space, and field of vision it needs to keep the lead.
The Hexagonal begins in February 2013 and comes to an end in October 2013 with the top three teams advancing to the World Cup Finals in Brasil. In addition to the United States, the other CONCACAF teams advancing to the Hexagonal are Mexico, Honduras, Jamaica, Costa Rica, and Panama. The USMNT's last match of 2012 will likely be a friendly against Russia in Krasnodar on November 14th.
In addition to the Hexagonal in 2013, the CONCACAF Gold Cup will be taking place next summer, giving Klinsmann the opportunity to juggle rosters and look to see which younger US players will be able to provide much needed depth on the US bench.
One big lesson that the USMNT and its fans need to take away from the group stage of CONCACAF qualifiers is that while the USMNT has improved over the years since 1990, so has the rest of CONCACAF and the Hexagonal will be no walk in the park. One of the biggest reasons that the level of soccer in CONCACAF has improved is the presence of Major League Soccer. While MLS is not on the level of the top leagues in Europe, it is better than most of the other top leagues in CONCACAF (except Mexico) and gives more CONCACAF players the much needed opportunity and environment in which to grow the game in the region.