Ahead lay a landscape of suffering. The ardent fans of the U.S. men’s national soccer team faced the kind of fretful evening that often grips pockets of the world. Barely had any sweat glands so much as activated in Kansas City when team trailed after five measly minutes. Worry got its chance to start seeping, and worry does love to seep. The choppy six-match ride through the semifinal qualifying round for Brazil's 2014 carnival (lower-case version) had reached another squall.
The night could be long and savage. The diversion could be watching the score from the match of Jamaica versus Antigua and Barbuda, and while U.S. soccer might remain something of a minnow worldwide -- really more of a guppy -- it has qualified for the last six World Cups, and it likes to think it has progressed beyond evenings spent eyeballing the match between Jamaica and Antigua and Barbuda.
At best, maybe these two hours of suffering would build some more national soccer character. Maybe they would provide another memorable chapter, some saving finish, some sort of minimal version of Landon Donovan's searing save of a big blush against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup. Maybe the hours would further unite American fans with what the world endures in so many "football" places on so many "football" occasions while nobody in the United States much notices. Probably the U.S. could forge a 1-1 draw and move on to the six-team "hexagonal," the final round of qualifying, but when? How?
What a worst-case start. What a mass blunder, the long ball through to a free-roaming Carlos Ruiz, the American defense needing cots to just go ahead and sleep instead of doing it standing up, Ruiz plucking a goal past a hopeless and flailing Tim Howard.
What a …
So here's how many minutes the devoted spent with the daunting uphill view, with the thought of hoping Antigua and Barbuda could do something at Jamaica just to be sure of passage to the final qualifying round of 2013: five. Five little minutes. Five minutes, and then exhilaration broke out. An attacking prowess that would have savaged this whole semifinal round all along broke out. A team you could like all the way into 2013 showed up, just like that.
At 1-1 on 10 minutes, the United States seemed solid.
At 2-1 on 18 minutes, the United States seemed surefooted.
And at 3-1 on 36 minutes, the Guatemalan defense seemed shredded.
Just like that, Michael Bradley got masterful from midfield, Clint Dempsey got presented with gimme bits of finishing (which he then finished, of course), Eddie Johnson got a long ball to make a cross that sang as it skittered, and that second goal from Steve Cherundolo to Johnson to Dempsey featured such style that some dared to note it looked a little bit like Spain itself. That's OK. Fans reserve the right to get carried away. The whole clunkiness had turned melodic, and the overriding mood rang on Dempsey's face. One moment you could start wondering at 0-1, and the next you could start seeing Graham Zusi's corner and Dempsey's header to Carlos Bocanegra's flick for 1-1. Not much suffering there.
Through a well-crafted second half in which the U.S. attacked still, the only interest in Jamaica versus Antigua and Barbuda was trivial: Could Antigua and Barbuda provide enough resistance to prevent Jamaica from snaring from Guatemala the second spot in the hexagonal? It could not, and Guatemala's exclusion from its first-ever World Cup went cemented, and it would not join the throngs in the world's most fascinating country (that being Brazil).
It became possible to feel sorry for Guatemalan players as they grappled with this thought. To begin the night, they shared a three-point lead in the table and held a 1-0 lead in the closing match. To end the night, they had dipped to third and out.
Their hosts had waited to the last match, unlike Mexico. Along the way they had the snags of a 1-1 draw in Guatemala, a 2-1 loss in Jamaica that made people start to worry, and a preposterous 2-1 win last Friday at Antigua and Barbuda that really did test the last nerves of the concerned, as it did not see a winner until the 90th minute.
Then four nights after that they had Ruiz finishing, the chance of some real horror.
Now, in an appealing whoosh, they head for next year, from the fun stuff to the really fun stuff: Mexico, Honduras, Panama, Costa Rica and Jamaica, 10 matches between Feb. 6 and Oct. 15. They might go into this with some injuries healed, but they definitely go into this after treating their followers to a blip of angst that dragged on … for five minutes.
It could have been something memorable to suffer. But then, in general, people would rather not.