When Keith Olbermann, of all people, takes time to chime in on tonight’s World Cup Qualifier between the U.S. and Costa Rica you know it’s achieved some level of critical mass, even if the match will air on beIN Sport rather than ESPN (10 p.m., EDT). If you’ve been following along there’s been no shortage of stories from journalists with their boots on the ground in San Jose detailing the escalating ways Costa Rica and its fans have attempted to “troll” the American team throughout the week.
As much as we all love to glorify trolling cows and the like, it remains an important match independent of all the off-field hullabaloo.
The U.S. sits atop the CONCACAF Hex with four matches to go with 13 points. Costa Rica is two back on 11 points. Jurgen Klinsmann’s team comes in with 12 straight wins, three short of Spain’s all-time international record. There’s some breathing room here since the U.S. is six points clear of fourth-place Honduras. (Top three teams automatically qualify for Brazil, while fourth place gets a two-leg playoff with New Zealand.)
And to reiterate, all the prematch nonsense likely means the game itself will fall short of expectations. That’s how it works in U.S. Soccer if you’ve been paying attention.
Here’s how the U.S. can wrap it up tonight:
Costa Rica has spent months bitching about the snow game in Denver and how Friday night’s game will be a chance for revenge, but it seems to have blown its chance to truly make the U.S. suffer. Instead of playing the game at the Saprissa Stadium, it will be played at the new Estadio Nacional, which is replete with a running track around it. Sure you’ve spent $100 million-plus to build a nice new facility that opened in 2011, but if you really wanted revenge … bite the bullet and play on the artificial turf at the Saprissa.
In the last four qualifiers, dating back to 1997, Costa Rica played the U.S. at Saprissa — winning all four games by a combined 11-3 line. (Turf came into play for the 2005 game the U.S. lost 3-0.)
At the highest level of the game turf and field conditions shouldn’t be an issue, but Costa Rica gave the U.S. a big time break when it picked venues for the match.
There’s also this novel idea: Costa Rica goes out and beats the U.S., instead of worrying about how they can make the Americans time in San Jose miserable. If we’re being honest, is messing with the U.S., be it at the airport or denying them use of the match balls, truly going to rattle professionals who’ve mostly been through CONCACAF qualifying previously?
Granted, tonight might not present the best environment for Tim Howard to yell at Omar Gonzalez and or Matt Besler. If the speedy Joel Campbell and Bryan Ruiz are allowed to get their rhythm, it could create some gaps in the U.S. defense.
Mixing it up?:
When the U.S. started to click back in June, it was when Klinsmann switched (and settled) on a 4-2-3-1 formation. It helped massively that a) the U.S. trained together for a solid three weeks — a rare amount of consistency in international soccer outside of major tournaments — this has as much to do with the improvements as any sweeping ‘philosophical’ changes instilled by Klinsmann — and b) Jozy Altidorefound his form and hasn’t stopped scoring with five straight games with a goal.
Klinsmann started his tenure with the U.S. with 26 different lineups in 26 games. Now he’s found something that works. The question, do you change that up since you’d assume Costa Rica will be prepared for the current U.S. lineup? Adding a wrinkle to this question, Landon Donovan is back with the ‘A’ Team lineup for the first time since June 2012. As usual, both he and Clint Dempsey like to operate in the similar space in the shoulder off the lead forward, Altidore.
Moving forward, there are two types of good teams that win soccer games. There’s the Barcelona-type, which throws out its best XI regardless of the situation and forces you to beat them. Or you can be more like Sir Alex Ferguson was at Manchester United, tinkering with different players and combinations as the situation demands.
The U.S., even with 12 straight wins, isn’t at that talent overwhelmingly superior talent level yet so it’ll be interesting to see if Klinsmann keeps going gung-ho, throwing his best out there for all three points or if he’ll be more pragmatic, especially Friday night in a tricky place where the Americans have never won a game. There’s also the issue of yellow cards and a Mexican official who loves to book players. Altidore, Matt Besler, Michael Bradley, Geoff Cameron, Dempsey, Tim Howard, Fabian Johnson and Jermaine Jones would all miss Tuesday’s showdown with Mexico in Columbus if booked vs. Costa Rica due to CONCACAF’s asinine rules.
One thing we’re all but assured: Bradley and Jones will be the engine in the middle of the field for the team. It’s matches like this where Bradley can once again assert himself as the most important player in an U.S. shirt.
DEF — Cameron — Gonzalez — Besler — Beasley
MID — Dempsey — Bradley — Jones — F. Johnson
FOR — Donovan — Johannsson
Klinsmann’s led the U.S. to a win at the Azteca, he’s guided the U.S. to a win in Italy and beaten Germany, yet getting a result of any kind in Costa Rica would be one of his finest accomplishments, as crazy as that sounds. . … Costa Rica 1, U.S. 1