In the densely packed Semifinal Round of World Cup Qualifying and having two of the first three games on the road, four points at the halfway mark is neither perfect nor unprecedented. The MNT has been here before.
Twice, in fact.
In Qualifying for the 2002 FIFA World Cup, a 10-man U.S. side dug deep to defeat Guatemala 1-0 in September 2000, giving the team much-needed momentum to propel itself to the next round of Qualifying.
Four years ago, the U.S. found itself in a nearly identical scenario to Tuesday’s upcoming showdown in Columbus. The same sequence of results – a relatively comfortable 3-1 home win against Antigua & Barbuda, followed by a 1-1 draw in Guatemala and then a 2-1 defeat in Jamaica – left the MNT in need of a result as it turned around to play the same Reggae Boyz side four days later in the Buckeye State.
Cameron (# 20) and Zusi (# 19) were in the Starting XI for the USA for the pressure packed World Cup Qualifying match vs. Jamaica in Columbus, Ohio on Sept. 11, 2012.
“It was a very similar situation to where we are now, almost a must-win,” recent camp addition Graham Zusi told ussoccer.com. "I think coming back from Jamaica, we were itching to get that game played as well.”
It showed, as the U.S. came out gunning for three points as it dominated the first half of play, hitting the woodwork three times inside the first 30 minutes. Zusi, along with Steve Cherundolo and Danny Williams, had one of those post hits, glancing a sixth minute effort off the cross bar.
“We started that game very well. We were all over them for that first half and it just wasn’t falling,” he remembered.
A relative newcomer to the National Team at the time, defender Geoff Cameron also started on the back line against the Reggae Boyz and took comfort in having two tried-and-true veterans who had been there before guide him through it.
“I remember playing aside Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo,” Cameron said. “You look over to your left and your right and you have two tested players that are calm, cool and collected saying, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll be fine.’ When things got a little anxious or weren’t going our way and we haven’t scored yet, they said, ‘In time it will happen.’”
Chance after chance came, but the U.S. went into the locker room still locked 0-0 at halftime.
“A lot of times when that happens you can become panicked,” said Zusi. “I don’t think we were. We kept at them, we kept the game plan and we knew eventually something would fall for us.”
After Clint Dempsey was fouled 30 yards from goal, Herculez Gomez stepped up to curl a free kick over the wall and past Jamaica goalkeeper Dwayne Miller inside the right post in the 55th minute.
Cameron (center) and Zusi (# 19) celebrate teammate Herculez Gomez's winning free kick goal vs. Jamaica in 2012 World Cup Qualifying.
The U.S. staved off Jamaica’s efforts to equalize and walked out of Columbus with a vital three points, propelling the side to two more wins to finish atop the group.
Now veterans in the group, both Cameron and Zusi can impart the experience from 2012 upon teammates heading into Tuesday night’s match against Guatemala.
“We’re all there for one another. We all have the same idea. We’re doing it for this reason and it’s to go to the World Cup,” said Cameron. “We know how anxious we’ll be and you want that goal to come early, but if it doesn’t you have 90 minutes to put the ball in the back of the net. So if it doesn’t happen in the first half, we have 45 minutes to do it in the second half. We believe in each other, we believe in our ability and the strengths that we have. I think it’ll come. It’s just a matter of time and breaking them down. Once one goes in, hopefully more go in as well.”
The fact that the match once again takes place in Columbus should provide some confidence as well. The legendary soccer-specific stadium has always provided strong support for the U.S., with the U.S. going 7-0-3 all-time at the ground while outscoring opponents 15-1 over those 10 matches.
“This has always been a great place for the National Team to play,” Zusi said. “We’ve had fantastic success here and every time we’ve played here the stadium is completely packed and the fans are on their feet for the whole 90 minutes. We take comfort in that. We can really gain energy from their energy. They can push us throughout the 90 minutes and more than that if necessary.”
With 28 World Cup Qualifying appearances between them, both players know the pressure situations in Qualifying well and the type of challenge they’ll be in for come Tuesday night.
“This is our World Cup,” said Cameron. “This is what it comes down to. We have 90 minutes to put three points on the board and get a win and that’s all we care about. If it’s pretty, ugly, it doesn’t matter. Results are what counts and we have to do whatever it takes to win. If we have to be nasty and be more aggressive and show our strength in other ways, then we have to do that.
“It’s going to be a tough game. It’s never easy, but if we show up and play as well as we know how to play, I think we’ll be fine.”