San Jose, Costa Rica – We’ve had the Gold Cup, we’ve seen the USMNT travel to Sarajevo and topple Bosnia-Herzegovina, Landon Donovan is back, the 12 game winning streak has been great, but now, tonight, at last, it’s time for the real thing, the U.S.A. versus Costa Rica in a World Cup Qualifier.
Although the Yanks are flying high at the top of the Hex with 13 points and four games still to play, there is still work to be done. Second place Costa Rica have 11 points and are tied with the U.S. on goal difference. And let’s not forget that the United States has never beaten Costa Rica, in Costa Rica, in a World Cup Qualifier.
The Ticos have beaten up on the U.S. to a tune of a 0-7-1 record for the Americans in these matches. So, if historical form holds, and Costa Rica get their snow revenge, then the U.S. will be in second place as they head home to Columbus to take on old rivals Mexico, on September 10.
To Costa Rica, the federation, the fans, and probably the team as well, tonight’s match has taken on an importance even beyond a usual home World Cup Qualifier.
From the moment the USMNT slipped and slid their way across that snow covered field outside of Denver for a 1-0 victory, this date has been circled on calendars throughout Costa Rica.
The reception for the U.S. since their arrival here on Tuesday evening has been as cold as the Colorado temperatures when these rivals met last March. Fans have serenaded the U.S. with derisive chants, practice fields were strangely difficult for the Americans to secure, even a cow mascot got into the act, blasting an air horn inches from Omar Gonzalez’ ears, as the U.S. defender spoke to the media on Thursday.
500 police will reportedly be deployed tonight, on horseback, bicycle and on foot and one can only wonder what it would have been like had Concacaf ceded to the Costa Rican Federation’s request to play the match in Saprissa?
Long considered the most intimidating stadium in the region, yes ahead of Azteca, Saprissa has been replaced by the shiny, new, somewhat antiseptic Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica, which opened in 2011.
AKA, the National Stadium, the new park features an atmosphere deadening track, circling the field and keeping fans far from the action, unlike at Saprissa, where the fans were notoriously on top of the teams.
Landon Donovan returns to the side for a World Cup Qualifier for the first time since June 2012 and he knows Saprissa well. “We think it ( playing at the National Stadium) can be an advantage.” “There’s a reason why they played at Saprissa all these years,” Donovan explained. “They know,” Donovan continued, “they have a big advantage there over any team, for a lot of reasons.”
Donovan feels, “that psychologically, that helps us and probably hurts them.” But the returning U.S. superstar cautions, “that only matters if you play on Friday night, when you show up and make it an advantage.”
Donovan has expressed confidence throughout the week that this USMNT is capable of claiming a first ever WCQ win over the Ticos on Friday.
“It’s not a fluke that our team has won 12 games in a row,” Donovan told the press on Thursday. “You could say a few games along the way maybe we didn’t deserve a win, here or there, but to win 12 in a row is impressive.”
Donovan, the all time USMNT leader in goals and assists, is feeling confident in his own game as well. “I guess if I had to evaluate I’d say this is the best I’ve ever played.” The 31 year old explained saying, “the energy I had when I was 20 is pretty close to being matched now, but I have the experience of all the years.” Donovan added that, “everything has really slowed down for me now, I see everything very clearly on the field.” “Not every play is perfect,” Donovan concedes, “but I feel like every time I get the ball I have a real chance to impact the game.”
As well as Donovan is playing, there is a real possibility that he could start this game on the bench, a scenario that Donovan acknowledges. “I really want to help,” the veteran said, “and that doesn’t have to mean on the field, but I want to contribute.”
Donovan realizes that this is the deepest U.S. team he has been part of. “Yeah, no question,” was his immediate response when asked. “When you see a bunch of guys that don’t get called in, that absolutely deserve to be here too, it tells you that the team’s very deep.” “It’s tough,” Donovan adds, “and it’s going to be that way all the way through to Brazil next year, assuming we qualify.”
Donovan is glad of the competition. “I think that’s a good thing. That’s how the best national teams in the world operate, and that’s how we want to be, if we are going to get to where we want to go.”
So, who will Jurgen Klinsmann turn to against Costa Rica to get the Americans where they want to go tonight?
As always, Tim Howard is the keeper. DaMarcus Beasley is settled in at left back, Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez are the expected center back duo, and Geoff Cameron should start for the injured Brad Evans.
Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones are the central midfielders, in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2. The U.S. usually starts in the former, and it looks like Fabian Johnson will be at left midfield, with Clint Dempsey at center mid/withdrawn forward. Red hot striker Jozy Altidore could start this one on the bench with a hamstring problem. Klinsmann called his forward, “day to day,” on Thursday and with a chance of rain tonight, it might not be wise to risk Altidore with Mexico on deck.
If Altidore is out, then Klinsmann could play Graham Zusi at right midfield and start Donovan further up the field than Dempsey. Or he could go with Eddie Johnson in a straight swap for Altidore. That move could see Donovan in the supersub role. Talk about depth!
I think we will see this lineup. Howard, Beasley, Besler, Gonzalez, Cameron, Jones, Bradley, F. Johnson, Dempsey, Donovan, Johnson.
As for the score, this looks like a tie to me. Costa Rica are good, and they are fired up. But the U.S. are riding a wave of confidence. The winning streak may end tonight, but the U.S. should move one valuable point closer to Brazil.