In little more than two weeks the United States men’s national team will host Costa Rica at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colorado. The good news is that the stadium quickly sold out, and that the crowd is expected to be largely for the home team, always a concern for the U.S. side.
But what about the bad news. Let’s start with the Americans place in the standings of the six team Concacaf World Cup qualifying group. As the only team in the Hex to lose their opening match, 2-1 at Honduras, the U.S. currently sit alone at the bottom, with zero points. Conversely, Honduras is on top with three points. The other two matches ended up in ties, with Mexico being held 0-0 at home by Jamaica, while Costa Rica came back from 0-2 down on the road to take a point from Panama, 2-2.
But that is just one round of games in a 10 round series, right? Right, but four days after the U.S. hosts the Ticos in Colorado, the Yanks visit the always-inhospitable Estadio Azteca to take on Mexico.
A positive spin would note that the U.S. beat El Tri in Azteca for the first time ever last August 15, 1-0 on a goal from Michael Orozco Fiscal. More realistically, that game was a friendly and Orozco-Fiscal has dropped off of the U.S. radar, despite continued problems at his center back position. But more on that later.
Now I don’t mean to come off as Chicken Little, running around claiming that the sky is falling, but; what if the U.S. don’t take the maximum three points from Costa Rica? After Mexico, the U.S. are off until June 7, in Jamaica. Remember that the Reggae Boyz upset the Yanks 2-1 last September in Kingston in the semifinal qualifying round, and that the U.S. only managed a 1-0 victory at Columbus in the return leg on September 11, despite a dominant first half.
Would zero points from the first four games of a 10 round tournament be cause for panic? How about one point? Home games versus Panama and Honduras follow the Jamaica game, so the U.S. would be well set up if they can garner, say a win against Costa Rica, and even a point at Azteca. A loss to Mexico wouldn’t be too harmful if Costa Rica have already been dispatched.
With that Costa Rica game looming as hugely important, let’s look at what has happened since the U.S. lost that road opener to Honduras on February 6. Right now Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey are sidelined with injuries. Dempsey has a calf strain, and Howard with back trouble. Howard has been Mr. Reliable for club and country, and this injury kept him out of action for Everton for the first time since September 2007, leaving him two games shy of Neville Southall’s Toffee’s record of 212 consecutive games.
Both are expected back in time for the upcoming national team games, but backs can be tricky, so Howard could be a problem. And then there is Dempsey. If the Tottenham man’s recovery goes wrong, U.S. fans may well be looking up to see if the sky is in its usual spot. That is how important Dempsey is right now to the otherwise anemic U.S. attack.
“Duece,” scored a beautiful goal against Honduras, and if he were to miss the upcoming game(s), where would the goals come from? Jozy Altidore just bested Dempsey’s U.S. record for goals by an American in Europe, but he simply seems incapable of scoring in a U.S. jersey since Klinsmann took over. Altidore led the Nats in scoring with five goals in 2009 WC qualifiers and he has scored 24 this season, including 17 in Eredivisie action. Herculez Gomez would be another potential source of goals if Dempsey were to miss out and he is in good form with a recent two goal game for Santos Laguna, his Mexican club.
But Clint is expected back soon, so the forwards should be ok. What about the rest of the team? Like Dempsey, Tim Howard is also expected back. Unlike Dempsey, his absence can be absorbed by the Yanks. Aston Villa number one Brad Guzan would be an able deputy, as his Man of the Match effort in a 1-0 loss to Manchester City at the weekend showed.
The midfield is healthy, although a coaching change at Roma has seen Michael Bradley scrapping for playing time, coming off the bench in recent games. Bradley’s importance to this team cannot be overemphasized and anything that disrupts his game is a cause for concern.
Since Honduras we have also heard from Landon Donovan, and we learned that he would not be making himself available for these next two matches. So, no help there for the midfield. Hoffenheim’s Danny Williams is another who has found regular starters minutes harder to come by these past few weeks, while Brek Shea is just getting his feet wet at Stoke, and the Stuart Holden watch reveals a player a long way from 100%.
And then there is the defense. A shambles for the most part in Honduras, can we expect better in Colorado? Fullbacks Fabian Johnson and Timmy Chandler were poor against Honduras, where veteran Steve Cherundolo’s cool head was missed. Cherundolo remains sidelined for Hannover, where he is the captain, and he will be hard pressed to make it back in time for the Costa Rica game.
Johnson was also mediocre at best in that opening loss, and his likely back-up Edgar Castillo, has just been ruled out with broken bones in his face. Castillo has been playing well for his Mexican league club Tijuana, and could have provided an option at the back, or as a wide midfielder for the coming qualifiers. But while both young fullbacks can reasonably be expected to bounce back, can the same be expected from the U.S. center back pairing?
In Honduras, Klinsmann made the move away from captain Carlos Bocanegra to the younger Omar Gonzalez. It was a move that raised eyebrows, and a move that did not work. The experienced Boca was missed and his replacement was at least partly culpable on both Honduras goals.
Does that mean Bocanegra will be reinstated as a starter? Probably not. Since Honduras, Bocanegra has been unable to get his place back for Racing Santander, a team that is battling relegation from the Spanish Second Division. Geoff Cameron has also been having some problems at Stoke City. With Bocanegra’s ouster, Cameron has gone from the being the new guy in the group, to a new role as the leader of the U.S. back four. It did not work out in Honduras, where communication between Cameron and Tim Howard played a big part in the winning goal.
Cameron has not played a single minute at center back for the Potters this season, and in the weeks since the Honduras loss, he has lost his first choice status at right fullback. Cameron has been moved around the midfield and was eventually benched. Last weekend against West Ham, Stoke City coach Tony Pulis left Cameron on the sideline despite the absence of center back mainstay Robert Huth, raising the question of whether Pulis even sees the U.S. central defender as an option in that position.
So, is the sky falling, or can the U.S. rebound with a strong effort at home against Costa Rica? We’ll keep a close eye on the injury reports and the team sheets in the run up to Colorado. And maybe we’ll take an occasional glance up at the sky, just to see that it is in its rightful place.