By Jamie Trecker for Fox Soccer Channel -
The USA will get perhaps its last chance to win a big game on American soil Saturday in Columbus Ohio when it faces continental rival Mexico in a World Cup qualifying match.
The USA needs a win to mathematically clinch its berth in Germany — a draw will also clinch their place Saturday should Trinidad and Tobago tie Guatemala and Panama get at least a point in their match with Costa Rica.
Now realistically even with a loss at Crew Stadium the USA would have to tank their final three games not to qualify — with 15 points the Americans have pretty well solidified their place.
However a win against Mexico would do more than end the qualifying cycle early. It would be an important psychological boost for a team that still has only occasionally fired on all cylinders in 2005.
The USA has never won a game at the Azteca (the Americans are 0-22-1 away lifetime against Mexico) of course but since manager Bruce Arena took the reins the Mexicans have been equally stymied here.
It's been six years since Mexico last won a game in the USA (a 2-1 win in the 1999 U.S. Cup) and the last time Mexico won a qualifier on U.S. soil was in 1972.
Perhaps more important under Arena the United States has consistently beaten Mexico when it mattered most especially that World Cup second-round game in South Korea three years ago. They have established themselves as Mexico's equal something preposterous to think about even 15 years ago.
So the odds are that the USA will win Saturday's game — the question is how.
When the USA played Trinidad and Tobago in East Hartford on the 17th the Americans looked addled against a side they should have put away early.
Arena true to form told the media he was pleased that so many chances were 'created'. This of course is a canny way to obscure the fact that the USA muffed early and often in front of the net. If we're being honest neutral observers would think a team that scored once on 18 shots on frame was actually pretty ineffective. Unfortunately that's exactly what the USA did last time out.
The Americans have holes too. The defense remains dicey with several players who can be exposed the forwards haven't been consistent and the fact that the team lacks a backup goalkeeper has to be worrying to the U.S. staff.
On the plus side the midfield looks much better with Claudio Reyna pulling the strings. Striker Eddie Johnson is returning from a toe injury and may get a chance to show he can answer some of the questions up front and DaMarcus Beasley — also back from injury — remains a dominant force on the outside. The USA always looks more dangerous when Beasely is in the starting eleven.
Also notable is the fact that in the weeks following the T&T game the European-based players on the squad have acquitted themselves well. Beasley Reyna Bobby Convey and Brian McBride have all scored at least once in the past two weeks with their club teams and look sharp (Convey of course is suspended for the game due to picking up a card against T&T).
The question that still remains is whether or not Arena can create real drive in this squad.
In 2002 Arena was lucky to have young players pushing veterans for slots raising everyone's game in the process. This time around there isn't that pressure — most of the youngsters remain a good length behind and you get the feeling that a number of players feel that they've already locked up a roster spot. That can create some complacency something that the coaching staff may have to address sooner or later.
While most American soccer fans' eyes will be Columbus there are plenty of other important qualifying games Saturday and next Wednesday.
Start in Europe in Group One where Romania hosts the Czech Republic Saturday and must win to have any hope of snatching second place from the Czechs or group-leading Holland.
In Group Two where Ukraine is seven points clear a spot in Germany can be wrapped up with a Saturday win Georgia and victory Wednesday against the Turks. Denmark will be looking to bump the Turks out of second when they visit the World Cup 2002 third-place finishers on Saturday.
In Group Three the crunch match comes Wednesday with Russia hosting Portugal while wide open Group Four features Israel at Switzerland Saturday and France at Ireland next Wednesday.
Italy is four points ahead of Norway in Group Five but faces an interesting road trip in Scotland Saturday then Belarus next Wednesday while Poland's home games against Austria and Wales are matched by England's trips to Wales and Northern Ireland. The Poles are two points ahead of England in Group Six but have played one more match.
Group Seven may well turn on Wednesday's visit of Serbia & Montenegro to Spain while in Group Eight the qualifier likely will be decided until the October 8 visit of Sweden to Croatia.
In South America Argentina has already qualified and Brazil can think about booking hotels if they defeat Chile Saturday. The real race here is among Ecuador Paraguay Colombia and Chile with Uruguay an outsider for the last two automatic spots and the playoff option. Thus Colombia at Uruguay Saturday is a showdown of sorts.
In Africa the match of the weekend has Ivory Coast hosting Cameroon knowing that a win will get them a spot in the finals for the first time in their history.
Here in CONCACAF the pressure is squarely on Trinidad & Tobago. If there is to be a Caribbean nation in Germany then the Soca Warriors must get results against Guatemala (Saturday at Port of Spain) and in Costa Rica Wednesday. It's a huge order.
Oceania is straightforward: Favorites Australia play a two-leg final against the Solomon Islands to see which nation goes into a playoff against South America's number five finisher.
Jamie Trecker the Windy City resident writes about soccer in the USA every Wednesday for FoxSoccer.com. Jerry Trecker contributed to this report. You may send comments questions tips and gripes to Jamie Trecker directly at email@example.com. Due to the overwhelming volume of mail he can no longer promise a personal reply but all letters are read and greatly appreciated.