And so, here we are.
After a year of World Cup Qualifying that started with a pretty loud clank, and brought us Jürgen Klinsmann’s lowest days as the United States’s coach, the team is in San José, Costa Rica for Friday’s World Cup qualifier (10 pm, beIN Sport). They do so on the back of a 12-game winning streak, as winners of the Gold Cup, leading their qualifying group, and in position to qualify for the World Cup proper with a win against Los Ticos (assuming the other games in the group finish in the U.S.’s favor).
It’s been quite the turnaround.
While the U.S. has not made a habit of winning in Costa Rica, there can be no doubt that the team that takes the field on Friday will be the best prepared to do so in recent memory. With a resurgent Landon Donovan alongside the rest of the first-team mainstays, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, and Tim Howard, and bolstered by the likes of DaMarcus Beasley, Graham Zusi, and Eddie Johnson, the players couldn’t be in better form or more ready.
All that’s left is to play the game.
Evans out, Altidore fit?
Seattle Sounders’ Brad Evans had to pull out of the squad with a calf injury, and was replaced by Michael Parkhurst, who did well in the right back position during the Gold Cup. The only other injury concern is Jozy Altidore’s hamstring. Held out of Sunderland’s squad last weekend, Altidore was evaluated by U.S. team doctors upon arrival. An MRI came back negative for any damage, and Altidore has trained with the team.
Given the importance of the next game, against Mexico, and the fact that Altidore isn’t simply an injury risk, but also on a yellow card, Klinsmann has a difficult choice: play Altidore and risk losing him for the home game in Columbus against El Tri, or hold him out, and give away the momentum built up during this record streak, losing to Costa Rica. U.S. fans will have to hope Klinsmann, as he has done without fail for six months, makes the right call.
Speaking of yellow cards
In addition to Altidore, Bradley, Geoff Cameron, Dempsey, Howard, Fabian Johnson, and Jermaine Jones are all carrying cards. With the exception of Cameron and perhaps Johnson, all of those players would expect to start, under normal circumstances. Losing Bradley, especially, would be a big blow to the U.S.’s chances against Mexico, but again, Klinsmann may not have the luxury of sitting any of them, if he hopes to leave San José with three points.
Costa Rica’s most recent result, a 4–1 win over the Dominican Republic in a friendly on August 14, was good, but the two matches before that, during the Gold Cup, were 1–0 losses to Honduras and the U.S. Now, as everyone will point out, that squad was not the full-strength side the U.S. will face tomorrow. In truth, after suffering what they saw as a humiliating, and possibly illegal, loss away to the U.S. in the now-infamous “Snow Game” back in March, Costa Rica has been on a fairly impressive run of their own, playing ten matches, winning seven, losing the aforementioned two, and drawing once, a scoreless draw in Mexico City. And Costa Rica is taking tomorrow’s match much more seriously than the Gold Cup, all the way around.
The Costa Rican players believe that they would have beaten the U.S. back in Commerce City if the snow hadn’t ruined the playing conditions. Now is their chance to avenge that loss, and they aren’t going to let it slip.
While fans may be looking ahead to the Mexico game, Klinsmann and the rest of the U.S. team are not. They know that the value of a good result in Costa Rica is great, especially in advance of a rivalry game. As such, Klinsmann seems unlikely to tinker too much with his team, even in the face of yellow cards or potential injuries. The biggest issue, surely, is fitting in Landon Donovan. Will Graham Zusi cede his place on the right wing, or will Johnsons Eddie and Fabian give up the left? Considering the previous work Zusi put in during Donovan’s sabbatical, he seems the more likely to retain his place, resulting in the following lineup (4-2-3-1 formation):
Goalkeeper: Tim Howard
Defense: Beasley, Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Parkhurst
Central midfield: Jones, Bradley
Attacking midfield: Donovan, Dempsey, Zusi
Likely subs include Mix Diskerud, Eddie Johnson, and possibly Aron Jóhannson. John Brooks may play if the game is in hand late on if only to secure his status as a U.S. player.
As for the result, let’s just say this: if a team piles up the wins, at some point one has to continue betting on them until they lose. The U.S. has had a lot of opportunities to lose in these last 12 games, but has found a way to pull out victory every time. There is a new reserve of resilience in this team, they believe they will win, and they give up on a game precisely never. So until some other team proves able to stop them, back the U.S.: 2–1 to the U.S.A.