As of today, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil is exactly two years and four days away. But if you think that means you don't have to think about it, come on, that's no fun: The World Cup is always going on. The process of qualifying for the World Cup is an arduous, sometimes meandering one, but know that with still two years left to go, according to SI's Grant Wahl, "already 79 countries comprising 56 percent of the world's population have been eliminated from World Cup 2014." (Sorry, China, North Korea, India, and Saudi Arabia.) In fact, CONCACAF qualifying has itself been going on for a year now. Sorry, Montserrat, Belize, Turks and Caicos, and Cayman Islands. Your World Cup dreams are long over.
Anyway, the United States kicks off its qualifying tonight in Tampa against Antigua and Barbuda. (Two extremely lovely Caribbean islands.) Before we get into the details of the game, we should probably explain how CONCACAF World Cup qualifying works. Over the last year, 23 nations have been eliminated; only 12 remain. Of those twelve, three of them will qualify for the World Cup, and a fourth — who finishes fourth in qualifying — will play the OFC's first-place team (probably New Zealand) for the last World Cup spot. But we've got a while before then. First, we have to get through this third-round stage, which will cut down the list of possibilities from twelve to six.
That's gonna take a while itself. The United States is in Group A, along with Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, and Guatemala. The top two teams of that group will advance to the fourth round, which won't begin until February 2013. (It's the long game, here.) The U.S. will play a total of six games in this group, home and road games with each team, starting this weekend and then picking up again in September and October.
The first game is tonight in Tampa against Antigua and Barbuda, currently ranked 105th in the world by FIFA. (The United States is ranked 28th.) All the old names will be in uniform tonight for the U.S., from Landon Donovan to Clint Dempsey to Tim Howard and all your pals from World Cup 2010. The difference this time is the coach. Gone is bald Bob Bradley — though his equally bald son, Michael, is still on the team and might be playing better than anyone else right now — and here is Jürgen Klinsmann, the German World Cup winner who is trying to remake the whole U.S. side in an attacking, aggressive style. That formation looked fantastic in a thrashing of Scotland in a friendly match a couple of weeks ago, less so in a loss to Brazil and a tie with Canada last week.
The U.S. should honestly thrash Antigua and Barbuda tonight and then Guatemala on Tuesday night. Anything less than that would be a huge red flag. But that's the point of these early qualifying games: figure out what needs to be done, figure out roughly where everybody's at, figure out who should start and what style works best. It's rare the U.S. is the obvious, dominating favorite in a soccer match, so enjoy this.
By the way, if you want to watch tonight's game, it's on ESPN at 7 p.m. But Tuesday's game is gonna be tough to catch. Because it's in Guatemala, the home country has the ability to sell the broadcast rights to whomever they'd like. They sold them to some shady pay-per-view company, which means you can only watch the game Tuesday if you're willing to pay $29.95 and you have Dish Network or DirectTV. U.S. Soccer is not happy about this at all, which is why they've made a list of bars that'll be showing the game publicly available on their site. (We will be at Nevada Smith's or Legends on Tuesday; we're not sure which.) USA! USA! USA!