SALT LAKE CITY -- Apparently the late summer and fall will bring no melodrama, no handwringing and no angst.
I do ache somewhat for the angst. I love some good fan angst now and then.
Angst turned up last September after the United States lost 2-1 in Jamaica, and even though it wasn't world-class angst such as English angst or Brazilian angst or Italian angst, it was suitable angst in a country only beginning to value soccer. From there the U.S. simply swept three wins to elude the third stage of World Cup qualifying and reach the fourth.
And today U.S. qualification for the biggest sporting event in the history of the world, World Cup Brazil 2014, seems nigh enough that if you squint, you might see all the nearly naked Brazilian volleyball players of all the major genders on Copacabana.
"Now I can go home, completely relax," captain Clint Dempsey said.
"We're sitting pretty," defender Omar Gonzalez said.
It's about "getting this put to bed as soon as humanly possible so we can celebrate and enjoy some of those games that are pressure-packed," goalkeeper Tim Howard said.
Those remaining games would be September 6 at Costa Rica, September 10 against Mexico in Columbus (Ohio), October 11 against Jamaica in Kansas City and October 15 at Panama. They figured to be at least somewhat heavy.
Howard's verb above was "enjoy."
They've lightened considerably with a heady U.S. June, with its full nine points from three matches, including the unimpressively impressive 1-0 win over Honduras last Tuesday night just down I-15 in Sandy.
"No, we're not thinking about the finish line," manager Jurgen Klinsmann said.
Yeah, that's everybody else's job.
Now, you might be unfamiliar with the workings of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association of Football. That's OK. You are busy. Over a two-year process, CONCACAF has winnowed 35 nation members to six, bidding farewell to such gems as Aruba, Saint Lucia, Turks and Caicos and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
Any event without Saint Vincent and the Grenadines is diminished, but everyone has moved on.
Of the six remaining nations after six of 10 matches, the U.S. ranks first with 13 points, ahead of Costa Rica at 11, Mexico at eight, Honduras at seven, Panama at six and Jamaica at two. The key here is not to pulverize the others into submission, which does make it a difficult equation for many American fans, but to finish third or better. The top three teams qualify, while the fourth has to go into a home-and-home playoff with a representative of another continent. This year that would be New Zealand, and while New Zealand is extraordinarily lovely, the flight to New Zealand is less so.
In 2010, fourth-place Costa Rica had to play Uruguay, the South American representative, in the dreaded CONCACAF/CONMEBOL playoff, a match with such daunting acronyms that several reporters fainted.
Uruguay prevailed, then went clear to the final four of the 2010 World Cup, stoking parades and photographed meetings with politicians. While Uruguay's story points out that it's unnecessary to finish atop the qualifying group, the U.S. wishes to go ahead and do so anyway.
It did so in 2006 and 2010 if not in 2002, which did become its most successful World Cup year to date (quarterfinals).
At this same juncture ahead of 2010, the U.S. stood in a thick battle with Costa Rica, Honduras and Mexico, three points separating all; and at this juncture ahead of 2006, the U.S. looked plenty safe for qualification even though it trailed first-place Mexico by one.
So when we give you all this chirpy copy about the U.S. team of late, it's not because it's doing anything unprecedented. It's not because it's some upstart, not with six consecutive qualifications and a population 2.7 times that of Mexico, 37.4 times that of Honduras, 67.3 times that of Costa Rica, 90 times that of Panama and 108.6 times that of Jamaica.
It's because of how it looks.
It's because of the offensive quality of Dempsey and Jozy Altidore et al, that extra bit of quality that represents a new realm for the U.S. according to Dempsey, who said, "There's been more tactical play, better crosses in the box, more chances to score and, because we're creating chances, we're scoring more goals."
It's because that offense looked exhilarating in Seattle against Panama, but it also looked smartly patient Tuesday night against Honduras' stouter midfielders and such. It's because the U.S. nowadays has the kind of quality that might make teams go into the kind of shell Honduras inhabited, as it hoped for 0-0 or maybe some giddy counterattack out of the blue.
It's because of the team's gathering cohesion, and Altidore's gathering confidence and energy with four goals in the last four games, and the sense that, as Klinsmann said, "They kept on going (against Honduras' thick defense) because they believed it and kept creating chances and that's what a good team is about."
"It¹s been a very long camp," midfielder Graham Zusi said of the camp that started in Cleveland in late May, "and I think as we've progressed we've seen our team get stronger and stronger."
By now, he said, "Yeah, we feel like we stuck one foot in there."
There would be big, bustling Brazil, where a lucky foot often finds sand.