CHRISTOPHER MCCOLLUM - Friday, September 6, 2013
On Friday night, the U.S. National Team will try to move one step closer to next year's World Cup in Brazil. Standing in their way is an angry Costa Rican team, along with even angrier fans.
When the U.S. slogged their way to a 1-0 victory over Costa Rica during the snowpocalypse in March, there were bound to be hard feelings on the Ticos' end. What was perhaps unexpected were the catty revenge tactics utilized for the return game in San Jose. Doing away with traditional codes of conduct in airport decorum, the U.S. team was exposed to the public throughout their entry into the country, from the gate, to customs, and finally to the team bus was that pelted with eggs.
Doing away with codes of conduct in training decorum, the Costa Rican federation did not help secure a training facility for the visiting U.S. team, nor did they provide them with the game balls to be used in tonight's game. These kinds of gamesmanship tactics are not unheard of, but they resonate with the lasting bitterness that the game in March created.
Starting with that win, the U.S. team has taken 13 of a possible 15 points out of the last five Qualifying games after the opening round loss to Honduras, putting them in the favorite's seat to win the group with four games remaining, and all but guaranteeing their spot in Brazil. It's possible for the U.S. team to clinch advancement with a win tonight, but a number of other results need to happen between Mexico and Honduras, and Panama and Jamaica.
Going in to tonight's game, Costa Rica sits in second place in the group with 11 points to the U.S.'s 13, and they will be looking to apply intense pressure to feed off of the crowd's emotion to put the game away early. For the U.S. side, there are lingering doubts about the status of Jozy Altidore, who suffered from a mild hamstring injury over the weekend while training with Sunderland. He has resumed light training with the National Team in Costa Rica, but with Mexico coming up on Tuesday and the importance surrounding that rivalry, he may see limited action against Costa Rica if he's not deemed to be at full fitness.
Another story line going into the game is the slew of American players sitting on yellow cards, with over half the projected starting lineup being a card away from sitting out against Mexico. With the intense atmosphere expected, it's going to be of the utmost importance to keep a lid on the heated emotions that are sure to flare up at some point.
This game marks the World Cup Qualifying return for Landon Donovan, who has not played in a Qualifier since Guatemala, last June. After a scintillating Gold Cup, Donovan is enjoying a year that has him on pace to break his own record for most American points during a calendar year. With a renewed vigor, it's going to be interesting to watch his play with Clint Dempsey and the striker choice for Jurgen Klinsmann.
On the subject of strikers, with Altidore's questionable fitness, it could fall to Arron Johannsson to do the lion's share of the work in only his second appearance with the National Team, though Eddie Johnson will certainly play a role as well. With Johnson being a decent target player but weak with his feet and Johannsson's international ability still being tested, Klinsmann will likely look to build through the midfield and place an even heavier emphasis on flank play than he has during the team's recent unbeaten streak. The keys to the game will be Dempsey and Donovan's combination play with Michael Bradley to unlock the Costa Rican defense, and Fabian Johnson's attack down the left. Graham Zusi, who Klinsmann will be desperately trying to figure out how to involve now that Donovan has returned, could also be a key from the right side.
John Anthony Brooks is expected to be cap tied tonight, cementing his future with the National Team and putting him on the road to being the youngest American player at the World Cup. He will be 21-years old at the tournament, giving him the opportunity to have played in three World Cups before he turns 30.
The weather tonight in San Jose is expected to be cloudy with a strong chance of rain, with the temperature dropping to the low 60s.