USA captain Landon Donovan can not help but feel a few jangling nerves as he gets set for his third FIFA World Cup™ qualifying campaign.
The Americans will meet Caribbean minnows Barbados over two legs in June and are nothing short of overwhelming favourites. But as FIFA.com found out in a recent chat with the Los Angeles Galaxy player and all-time US top scorer, anything can happen in football and any opponent, no matter how unheralded or unlikely, can have their day in the sun.
"It doesn't seem fair that we (USA) have to play a home-and-home series just to qualify for the region's group stages," said the Southern California native, who is one game away from becoming the youngest American to hit the 100-cap mark. "If you look at our recent history in the qualifying rounds, and Mexico's too, it seems like we should be given direct passage to the groups. Anyway, the system is what it is and we just need to make sure that we are ready."
Enter the giants
USA, Mexico and the ten other highest-ranked teams in North, Central America and the Caribbean all enter the qualifiers in June, in what is the region's second round. In February and March the first round of qualifiers saw 11 sides eliminated, while another 11 moved on for a chance to take on the more established powers.
Although many of the upcoming meetings may seem like walkovers on paper, they can cause a good deal of stress for the sides expected to win them. "Anything can happen," Donovan, 26, told FIFA.com.
"When you meet one of the so-called smaller teams, nothing is going to be given to you. You still have to go out there and beat them. Who knows, we could hit the crossbar eight times and they could have the game of their lives. We could find ourselves out of contention before the real competition even begins," he added. "This is soccer, man, and it's not played on paper."
Of the 12 so-called lesser teams remaining (St. Vincent and the Grenadines join the other 11 via a bye), Barbados represent one of the trickier propositions. Though they are relative newcomers to international competition and sit over 100 places below the US on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, coach Eyre Sealy has a stable of no less than eleven England-based professionals to call on.
Emerson Boyce of Wigan Athletic played in last month's leg against Dominica (Barbados won the series 2-1 on aggregate). Also, Aston Villa striker Marlon Harewood, Tom Soares and Paul Ifill of Crystal Palace and Mark McCammon of Doncaster Rovers are just some of the English brigade eligible to play for the Bajan Braves.
The prospect of a test against a powerhouse like the US might just tempt them to make the trip, leading coach Sealy to pronounce that "we can beat the USA" in recent interviews.
"If Barbados want to call in their big guns from Europe, and it's all fair and legal, then more power to them," Donovan continued with an air of confidence. "We (the US) have naturalized players in the past and it's something everyone does nowadays. We can only worry about the things we can control."
*Urgency needed * According to the captain and two-time FIFA World Cup veteran, one thing the US can control is their mindset before their home leg in early June. "We need to make sure we go out with a sense of urgency," said the American, who is expected to lead the line in upcoming friendlies against Argentina and England.
"You need to worry about things and go out looking to get two or three goals as quickly as you possibly can. The more time goes by at 0-0, the more they (Barbados) will begin to believe and we could find ourselves in big trouble."
The reigning CONCACAF champions have reached the last five FIFA World Cup finals, have never lost to Barbados or tasted defeat by Caribbean opposition since 1994. The last time USA met Barbados - in qualifying for Korea/Japan 2002 - they ran out 8-0 winners over two legs.
But as the young American skipper is eager to point out: anything can happen in football.