In regards to the USMNT team qualifying for the upcoming World Cup in Brazil, I wish that Bane was right. Unfortunately, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I am actually starting to fear that the Stars and Stripes might not be making the trip to Brazil.
Qualifying for the World Cup was as much of a lock for the United States as Manchester United winning another Premier League title this year just as recently as the qualifying cycle for 2010. The United States and Mexico still remain the regional powers, but the overall quality of soccer has gone up exponentially over the last few years in CONCACAF. If you want an example just look at the opening games of the Hex. Unfathomable 10 years ago, Jamaica played Mexico in Azteca Stadium to a 0-0 draw and really they should have walked away with all 3 points. We all also know how the United States played at Honduras (sigh). The increase of quality in the CONCACAF region will eventually be a good thing for the United States as it will better prepare them for World Cup level games, but right now it is making life as a USMNT fan a bit harrowing.
The listless performance by the United States in Honduras on February 6 saw many supporters greatest fears about this team realized as they fell 2-1. The lack of width and relative inexperience in the back line were the main factors that led to our defeat. With no real wide players in the midfield, Timmy Chandler and Fabian Johnson were forced to contribute, at time too much, in getting forward leaving our center backs without a lot of protection. Omar Gonzalez and Geoff Cameron were often in disarray leaving Carlos Bocanegra’s exclusion as a huge talking point after the game. With Danny Williams, Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones left to roam the midfield, our attack became stagnant and the front line was devoid of quality service as the inclusion of 3 centrally minded midfielders left us with virtually no width (aside from out outside backs getting up on the flanks). This defeat in the opener was not the end of the world as we know it for US Soccer, but it has left us in a precarious situation heading into the next two qualifiers.
On Friday, the United States will host Costa Rica in Denver and then they will travel to Mexico City to play Mexico in the vaunted Azteca Stadium (a site that has seen us garner exactly one victory ever). It is difficult to label any game this early in qualifying as a “must win” but let’s face it, we all know that the Stars and Stripes must take care of business against Costa Rica. Azteca Stadium has been a house of horrors for the United States and to expect to walk away with points from that game is wishful thinking.
This brings us to Friday’s game against Costa Rica. If we walk away with anything less than a victory, we are facing the real possibility of coming out of the first three games of the Hex with either one or zero points. A situation that would put us in a proverbial “uphill battle” for the rest of the Hex and quite possibly usher in the end of the Jurgen Klinnsman era.
With all of this in mind, let’s take a look at the roster for the upcoming qualifiers and go over the questions concerning the Costa Rica game (I am not yet ready to talk about the possible blood bath in Mexico).
Goalkeepers: Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
Seemingly for the first time since Kasey Keller manned the posts for the United States in the 2006 World Cup, Tim Howard is not available as our first choice goalkeeper. As everyone knows, Tim Howard was injured playing for Everton the other week and is out of the upcoming qualifiers.
The good news is that the one position the United States has never been absent of talent is in the net. Brad Guzan is set to step up in Howard’s absence and we shouldn’t see a huge drop off, if any. Guzan has been playing — and well I might add — in front of a porous and inexperienced defense all year at Aston Villa and should rise to the occasion for the USMNT as well.
While certainly we will miss Howard’s experience and leadership, Guzan has been making huge saves all year and given the experience and quality our back line will be providing, look for him to make a few more. I certainly am not as worried about Howard’s absence as I was two weeks ago especially since we should be focusing our angst toward the back line.
Defenders: Tony Beltran (Real Salt Lake), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy), Clarence Goodson (Brondby), Justin Morrow (San Jose Earthquakes)
With the addition of Timmy Chandler and the emergence of Fabian Johnson and Geoff Cameron, it was only a few months ago that Unites States fans finally seemed to breathe a sigh of relief about our longstanding issues on the back line. We seemed to find an answer to our Achilles heel at left back with Johnson. We finally had an heir apparent to Steve Cherundolo at right back with Timmy Chandler’s commitment. We finally had a replacement for our aging center backs in Geoff Cameron.
However, the back line for the United States has been wrecked by injuries. Chandler, Johnson and Cherundolo are all out with injuries. In a surprise to many, longstanding captain, Carlos Bocanegra, has lost his starting role with Spanish side Racing de Santander and was not called in either. This leaves the USMNT very very inexperienced on the backline.
For both qualifiers it is anyone’s guess as to whom Klinnsman will trot out on the backline. If I had to put money on a back four pairing though, I suspect we will see Cameron, Gonzalez, Goodson and Morrow.
Geoff Cameron is slotted to become part of the first choice pairing at center back for the US moving forward, but with the string of injuries to defenders I think he will be asked to play right back for the Costa Rica game. He has suited up there several times this season for Stoke City and by playing him out wide it would allow Klinnsman to get a modicum of experience in the middle of the back line by opening up the other center back position for Clarence Goodson. Omar Gonzalez is a lock for the other center back position. Don’t be shocked if you see Maurice Edu line up next to Gonzalez either as he put in an admirable performance against Mexic0 in Azteca last August.
The only natural left back that Klinnsman has on this roster is Justin Morrow. It is hard to see anyone but him getting the start here. If Morrow is ineffective, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility to see DeMarcus Beasley introduced at left back. He has played there before and to be honest crazier things have happened.
Midfielders: DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla), Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Michael Bradley (AS Roma), Joe Corona (Tijuana), Maurice Edu (Bursaspor), Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht), Brek Shea (Stoke City), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
The injuries sustained to the USMNT are not limited to the goalkeeper and back line. Danny Williams and Jose Torres are both unavailable due to injury as well. Notably absent, still, is Landon Donovan.
This group of midfielders offers more width than the team was afforded for the qualifier against Honduras. Brek Shea is back from injury and starting to get some playing time for Stoke City and DeMarcus Beasley is in a fine run of form for Puebla.
Against Costa Rica, I expect to see a starting midfield of Zusi, Jones, Bradley and Shea.
Jones and Bradley are virtual locks and one of those two will also be wearing the captain’s armband. They will both be charged with providing cover for our inexperienced back line. Michael Bradley will probably play more of a box to box role with Jones player closer to the backline.
The outside midfield positions are the two spots with question marks. Klinnsman should look to start Shea out on the left to provide some much-needed width that was missing against Honduras. On the right side, for me at least, Graham Zusi is the only logical option to start. You could make an argument for Joe Corona or even Sacha Kljestan, but my instinct says Klinnsman will go with the midfielder from Sporting Kansas City.
Forwards: Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar), Terrence Boyd (Rapid Vienna), Clint Dempsey (Tottenham Hotspur), Herculez Gomez (Santos Laguna), Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders)
For the first time in a long time, I think fans of the United States are actually feeling pretty good about our group of forwards.
Klinnsman should be starting Altidore up front along with Dempsey. Jozy Altidore has been in sweltering form for AZ Alkmaar and US fans are praying that he can convert his club success into goals for the Stars and Stripes. While Clint Dempsey is coming off of an injury, he did play 45 minutes for Tottenham this weekend and he has to be an automatic starter even if he isn’t at 100 percent fitness. Dempsey won’t play next to Altidore, but look for him to slot in behind him giving him more room to roam and operate.
While I am deathly afraid that with two losses we won’t be watching our boys over in Brazil, I am going into the Costa Rica game with tepid optimism that we can find a way to get 3 points at home. These two games are going to show us what the current incarnation of the United States Men’s National Team is made of. I think the USA puts on an inspired performance in front of the home crowd in Colorado and wins 3-1. As for the Mexico game, I think we lose but I won’t say by how much.
COME ON YOU YANKS!