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U.S. men’s soccer faces uneasy path to 2014 World Cup

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The angst, tension and second-guessing wasn’t supposed to hit until next year, when qualifying for the 2014 World Cup reaches the critical stages.

It wasn’t supposed to afflict U.S. men’s national team supporters in this semifinal round . . . in an unimposing four-team group . . . before a match against a country that could physically fit into the city limits of New Orleans.

But this is the Americans’ unsettling state heading into the last two qualifiers of the round: Friday night against Antigua & Barbuda in the Leeward Islands and Tuesday against Guatemala in Kansas City, Kan.

Locked in a three-way battle for two available slots in the final stage of regional qualifying, Juergen Klinsmann’s clan is beset by injuries and has only a sliver of room for error in a group that wasn’t expected to present many stressful moments.

The Americans earned just one of a possible six points in the first two away matches and labored to claim two home victories. They will probably require at least four points from the last two games to continue their quest for a seventh consecutive World Cup berth. The United States, Guatemala and Jamaica each have seven points.

The U.S. team will have to do it without four players who were named to the roster Monday but were scratched from the list over the subsequent 48 hours.

Landon Donovan, the program’s career scoring leader, hurt his left knee last weekend but felt well enough to skip an MRI exam and report to camp in Miami. Upon further evaluation, though, he was ruled out. Midfielder Brek Shea (abdominal strain) was also summoned and then dismissed.

A pair of left backs, Fabian Johnson and Edgar Castillo, were also dropped after the roster announcement. Donovan, Shea and Castillo (foot injury) aren’t available for either game. Johnson, who has the flu, is scheduled to meet the squad in Kansas City.

Even before the injury setbacks, Klinsmann’s roster was scrutinized. He had snubbed Jozy Altidore, who leads the Eredivisie (Dutch league) in scoring, and passed over Chris Wondolowski, whose 25 goals for the San Jose Earthquakes is two shy of the MLS single-season record, set 16 years ago.

Klinsmann didn’t hide his disappointment in Altidore, whose U.S. performances haven’t matched his club form. The German coach also seemed to question Altidore’s work ethic and commitment.

“I was not happy about his latest performances with us, maybe even over the last 14 months,” Klinsmann said. “Jozy can do much, much better. . . . The door is always open [for future call-ups] and we hope to see a positive reaction from his end and put more effort and more commitment into this whole approach.”

Klinsmann also took heat for declining to name replacements for the injured players ahead of the Antigua match. Reinforcements for the second game haven’t been ruled out.

On a positive note, midfielder Michael Bradley (Roma) is back in the mix after missing two September qualifiers against Jamaica with a leg injury and midfielder-forward Clint Dempsey is in sharper form since acclimating with his new English Premier League club, Tottenham Hotspur.

The roster volatility comes before a game the Americans should win by several goals. Antigua (population 89,000) draws many of its players from a domestic club that finished last in the USL, the third division of the U.S. pro pyramid.

Nonetheless, the national team has not been a pushover in World Cup qualifying. In the group opener, the Benna Boys were within a goal of the United States in the second half before succumbing, 3-1, in Tampa. They were winning in Guatemala City before conceding three goals and held visiting Jamaica to a 0-0 draw.

“I spoke with some [European] coaches earlier in the season and they all said, ‘Oh, you’ll probably go through with no problem,’ ” Klinsmann said. “You have to tell them no, it’s not just automatic because those teams 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.”

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