SANDY, Utah - The United States is not quite in second place and barely ahead of fourth as the World Cup qualifying stretch run begins.
Points are precious with only four games remaining and a very slim margin between being in or out of next summer’s tournament in South Africa.
The Americans host El Salvador here tonight, clinging to one of the three guaranteed spots in the region with only three points separating the top four teams.
“None of us were under any illusions. We’ve known for a long time how difficult qualifying is - particularly in this last stage,’’ US goalie Tim Howard said. “It’s never easy.’’
The US (3-1-2) is seeking a sixth straight World Cup berth. The Americans enter this round in third place in North and Central America and the Caribbean group, tied with Honduras at 10 points but behind in the standings because of goal differential. Mexico is in fourth, just 1 point behind, and Costa Rica leads with 12 points. El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago each have 5 points.
The top three teams qualify for the World Cup and the fourth-place team will have a chance to make the field in a playoff.
The Americans play another qualifier Wednesday at Trinidad and Tobago. Winning is the only way the US can ensure it remains among the top three.
“We’re going into this thinking we need two wins. That would set us up real nicely for qualifying,’’ said defender and US captain Carlos Bocanegra.
Tonight’s game is a rematch of a 2-2 draw played in San Salvador in March that left players from both sides disappointed, feeling they had let two more points slip away. El Salvador led, 2-0, but couldn’t hold off a US rally in the second half.
Howard had to sit out the first meeting to serve a one-game suspension for receiving his second yellow card in qualifying.
“There were parts of the game where we felt we should have been better,’’ US coach Bob Bradley said. “We were certainly pleased at the end, given the challenge of being down two goals on the road and to fight back. That said a lot about the mentality of the team.’’
US defender Oguchi Onyewu is suspended for tonight’s game after receiving his second qualifying yellow card during a 2-1 loss last month in Mexico. Even with that hole in the defense, the Americans are expecting a conservative approach from El Salvador.
“The longer the game stays at 0-0, the better it is for them,’’ said forward Landon Donovan.