Somehow, Monday night, I found myself forced into a decidedly unplanned “pop-in” at my parents house. Don’t ask me why. It just sort of happened. My head was (and still is) pounding — hopefully it’s only allergies — yet my dad immediately started grilling me about the U.S. 3-1 loss to Costa Rica last Friday.
“They looked terrible!”
“How can they win without Bradley?”
“I’m worried they might not make the World Cup.”
Worried? Really Dad? The U.S. clinches a place in Brazil tonight with a win over hated rival Mexico in steamy Columbus (8 p.m., ESPN) along Honduras beating or drawing with Panama. It’s almost academic, even after the loss to Costa Rica snapped the team’s record 12-game winning streak. The U.S. remains five points clear of fourth-place Mexico and six ahead of fifth-place Panama.
On the surface this does however look a dicey game for the Americans. Michael Bradley — arguably the squad’s most important player — won’t play due to an ankle sprain suffered in warm ups vs. Costa Rica. Jozy Altidore, Geoff Cameron and, unbelievably, Matt Besler are suspended via yellow-card accumulation. It’s going to be a patchwork lineup and coach Jurgen Klinsmann will face first, second and even third guesses about his starting XI choice. (The level of rancor will likely be tied to lightning-rod midfielder Jermaine Jones’ play.)
These are problems on paper, but the U.S. is still in fantastic shape compared to Mexico, which finally fired ‘Chepo’ de la Torre after it lost 2-1 to Honduras at the Azteca. In 2013 mighty Mexico — a darkhorse World Cup candidate, mind you– is a paltry 6-5-8, including an 0-1-3 mark in Mexico City. Chepo is lucky he survived that long, considering both Carlos Vela and Guille Ochoa refused to play for him.
Mexico is broken. As good as Javier Hernandez is at scoring goals, he’s not the type of forward that dominates games all by himself. The lack of offensive creativity — a true No. 10 shirt to pull the strings — means other than meandering crosses from Andres Guardado, Mexico doesn’t have a lot of ideas going into the attacking third. El Tri seems caught between generations, too. Chepo was unsure whether to bring up the youngsters who won the Gold Medal at the London Olympics and ultimately that indecision cost him.
Luis Fernando Tena is now in charge of El Tri. He’s the same man who led the U-23s to the Olympic Gold. If he’s around for the long haul to usher in a new era isn’t exactly a storyline for today. Mexico, even in its diminished current state is probably still going to find a way to squeeze its way in to the World Cup even if that means a two-leg playoff with New Zealand.
Mexico will play like it has nothing to lose tonight, but will that be enough given its lousy recent form?
The U.S. has won its last three home qualifiers vs. Mexico 2-0 — Dos a Cero — at Crew Stadium. Still, it’s hard to remember a game between these two border rivals with so much uncertainty on each sideline. Fortunately for Klinsmann, this should be a one-game occurrence; it just happens to fall against the team’s biggest rival. Mexico’s problems run much deeper.
I’m Still Here
Donovan is about to enter the elder statesman portion of his career. It’s hard not to always think of him as the kid who shredded through defenses in South Korea — even if that took place 11 years ago.
This evolution should suit the Los Angeles Galaxy-man just fine. If you go back and watch the Gold Cup final, you can see how much the younger players revere Donovan. This sounds lame, but Donovan wearing the U.S. shirt and playing at a high-level still counts for something. Like him, hate him or mock him still for his now nearly decade-old decision not to play for Bayer Leverkusen, Donovan’s achieved far more positives than negatives during his U.S. career.
What’s going to be different about the “old man” Donovan is — for the time being anyway — he still has his legs. He’s not going to morph into one of those older players who slows down the game and controls it with his precision touch or passing. Look at Thierry Henry, he could probably play forever and contribute, so long as he doesn’t have to run. Yet, at age 31 Donovan remains a disruptor, stretching defenses with his speed and as he’s gotten older he’s only become a better finisher.
People have alway been dismissive of Donovan — myself included. It’s strange, as sports fans, we do weird things like not properly crediting Donovan’s achievements (56 international goals) mainly because he doesn’t fit the rugged macho tough-guy mold we associate with most star players. Like a lot of athletes we’ll all likely appreciate him more after he’s gone.
On a smaller picture, the theme of this game is who isn’t there for the U.S. either through injury or suspension. The guy who is there is Donovan, the same guy who decided to take a self-imposed sabbatical from the game. Donovan didn’t get a lot of heat for that decision at the time. He escaped further flogging since Klinsmann eventually righted the ship just as it looked like it was about to steer into an iceberg in February. A throwback performance against Mexico and Donovan’s sabbatical becomes even more of a footnote on his resume.
Donovan scored his first international goal vs. Mexico all the way back in October, 2000. He’s scored against them in the World Cup. He’s scored five times vs. El Tri but never in a qualifier. It’s time for Donovan to change that and make up for some lost time in the process.
Who’s No. 1?
Tim Howard didn’t look good, allowing three goals vs. Costa Rica on Friday. The third goal was a save Howard usually makes. Until Howard plays better in a pressurized spot, the calls for Brad Guzan will continue. Either Howard improves or Guzan gets his long-awaited short at the No. 1 shirt. It’s as simple as that.
Goalie is one spot on the field there’s an expectation the U.S. will have an advantage over its opponent. Howard isn’t washed up, far from it. All keepers have dips in form, but if there’s a better option Klinsmann will explore it perhaps as soon as next month’s final qualifiers vs. Jamaica and at Panama. As Ty Duffy pointed out when we picked a hypothetical U.S. World Cup roster, Klinsmann dropped Oliver Kahn when he managed Germany prior to the 2006 World Cup.
“Must win” scenario?
It’s hard to believe, but more than one place over the last 24 hours I’ve seen this match described as a “must win.” It is not. Win, lose or draw the U.S. is still on track for its seventh straight World Cup appearance. Qualification isn’t in jeopardy based off this result. That said, it does feel like a “must win” for one group of people: U.S. fans. Lording 2-0 wins over Mexico is one of the few things they’ve got to hang their hats on. Failing to lodge three points vs. Mexico in Columbus would be a major psychological bummer, again, for the fans a lot more than the professionals who comprise the team.
As with any U.S. result, a non-win vs. Mexico on Tuesday would not automatically exclude them from any chance of advancing into the knockout rounds of the World Cup should they qualify for Brazil next June, or vice versa.
A Dos A Cero Refresher Course, Columbus Edition
The U.S. goes for its fourth consecutive win by the 2-0 variety tonight at Crew Stadium. Here’s what happened the last three times:
Bonus point from 2009, Mexico’s coach that game was the immortal Sven-Goran Eriksson.
GK — Howard
DEF — Beasley — Gonzalez — Goodson — Parkhurst
MID — Zusi — Diskerud– Jones — Bedoya
ATT MID — Donovan
FOR — Dempsey
Not crazy about this 4-2-3-1 set up, isolating Dempsey alone up top. In truth, any potential starting XI by Klinsmann wouldn’t be a shock.
Something tells me Donovan plays his best game in the U.S. shirt in a long time. … U.S. 2, Mexico 1.