The next World Cup won't actually begin for another 726 days, but the U.S. national team's laborious route toward securing a berth in the 2006 tournament in Germany is about to begin.
With wonderful memories of their 2002 World Cup efforts still dancing in their heads, the Americans have reassembled in Columbus, Ohio, to play the Caribbean island nation of Grenada today in the first of probably 18 qualifying matches over the next 16 months.
"Here we go again," veteran midfielder Claudio Reyna said. "It all starts again, and it's an exciting time. We have a good squad of players and everything right now looks good. The level just seems to be getting better and better. We just have to keep the ball rolling."
Following their quarterfinal appearance in South Korea two years ago and its rise to a top-10 world ranking, the United States wouldn't appear to have difficulty earning one of three automatic berths offered to teams from the North and Central America and Caribbean region. (The fourth-place team will face an Asian nation for another spot.) But the Americans always seem to have a devilish time during their qualifying adventure, especially when they hit the road for matches in the searing heat of Mazatenango, Guatemala; the thin air and smog of Mexico City; or the intimidating surroundings in Costa Rica, El Salvador and Honduras. They also have to endure home matches that are commonly attended by large numbers of fans rooting for the opposition.
"Any time we play these types of games they're going to be difficult," said Bruce Arena, a Fairfax resident and former D.C. United coach who has guided the national team for 5 1/2 years. "I don't perceive us to be a giant. This time around I think our players remember the qualifying process from 2000 and 2001 and how difficult it was."
The first step, a two-game, total-goals series against Grenada concluding next Sunday in the island's capital of St. George's, shouldn't be difficult. But the next round would present a greater test with games likely against El Salvador, Panama and Jamaica, which qualified for the 1998 World Cup. The top two finishers would advance to the six-team final round in 2005.
Since the 2002 World Cup, the U.S. squad is a little different and probably a little better. Some veterans (Jeff Agoos, Joe-Max Moore, David Regis and Cobi Jones) have been replaced by young talent (defenders Carlos Bocanegra and Cory Gibbs, Manchester United goalkeeper Tim Howard, midfielder-defender Bobby Convey of D.C. United and forward Conor Casey, to name a few).
But for the most part, the nucleus of the American team from 2002 has returned. Reyna is the midfield general, Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller are available in goal, Eddie Pope anchors the central defense, DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan energize the attack and Brian McBride is the target man on the front line.
Arena also hopes to integrate injury-plagued veterans such as midfielder John O'Brien, defender Tony Sanneh and forwards Clint Mathis and Josh Wolff back into the lineup. Sanneh, who was superb during the last World Cup, spent much of the last two years recovering from a back injury to return to active duty; however, he was scratched from today's roster because of a sprained ankle suffered a few days ago.
In general, the competition for playing time has intensified as Arena's player pool deepened with the emergence of new talent from MLS and the youth national teams.
"We've rebuilt the team in a lot of ways since 2002," Arena said. "We've used 2003 and the first half of 2004 to introduce the national team to a number of new players and give them experience as well. . . . We've been able to mix that group of players and our MLS players with our foreign-based players. As we've moved closer to this date, we've added experience and talent to our group and it has shown on the field."