There are no shortage of storylines heading into this game. The two top teams in the standings, revenge, gamesmanship, a place in Brazil 2014 on the line. And it all kicks off late tonight from San Jose, Costa Rica.
Nearly dead even in the all-time series, the USA leads 13-12-6 thanks to their Snow Clasico win last march, the United States will travel to Estadio Nacional for their seventh CONCACAF World Cup Qualifier holding a slim lead over Los Ticos for top of The Hex.
And already there are some great stories coming out of Costa Rica. And while having to wait in line at customs/immigration, cab driver collusion and a giant cow with an air horn might not seem like a big deal, that's how seriously the people of Costa Rica are taking this game. And I can't imagine their national team is taking it any less seriously.
We all remember the USA's 1-0 win over Costa Rica in snowy Denver back in March as well as Costa Rica's failed protest from that game. But this is a chance for both teams to cement their spot in Brazil 2014, the USA can extend their lead over Costa Rica and maintain their lead over Mexico and the rest of CONCACAF while Costa Rica can move to the top of the table with three games remaining.
But that was a very different US team all those months ago, with he United States was coming off a loss at Honduras and needing to get a win to get out of last place. Now, with the USA in the middle of a 12-game international winning streak and coming off a Gold Cup title, they don't need to beat Costa Rica at this point in the qualifying stage, grabbing a draw would be sufficient. But that's easier said than done, considering the USMNT is 0W-7L-1D all time in qualifiers at Costa Rica. Had the Snow Clasico been just a sloppy 0-0 draw, the US would actually be in second place, one point behind Costa Rica at the top of The Hex.
The US roster and starting lineup remains very much intact tonight with the exception of two key spots. The first is Brad Evan's injury which will force Geoff Cameron or late addition Michael Parkhurst into the lineup at right back. The second is the presence of Landon Donovan, back with the first team since his winter sabbatical and fresh off leading the US to their sixth Gold Cup title.
The rest of the US backline will likely remain unchanged, with DaMarcus Beasley on the left paired with Omar Gonzalez and Matt Belser in the center. While Parkhurst had a solid Gold Cup, Cameron has seen more time at the position with the first team and Cameron is actually getting playing time at Stoke, something Parkhurst isn't getting in Germany with Augsberg.
Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones are still a dominant force in the holding midfield, shielding the defense from the Costa Rica strikers Alvoro Saborio and Bryan Ruiz. Kyle Beckerman and Cameron will be the ones behind them on the depth chart. Bradley and Jones will also be tasked with getting the ball to the plethora of attacking options Jurgen Klinsmann has selected for the next two qualifiers.
Clint Dempsey is a lock to start in his usual roaming, withdrawn striker/attacking midfield role. But who will be around him is a great mystery. Fabian Johnson has done well on the left side along with Eddie Johnson at times. Graham Zusi is trying to cement his starting spot on the right side of the midfield with Ale Bedoya and Mix Diskerud also in the mix. The real question is that of Landon Donovan and where he could potentially line up, which could be anywhere quite frankly. With several players on yellow cards (more on that in a minute) and the first team line up that has done well without Landon earlier in the summer, I'd think he'd feature in the second half off the bench at a minimum.
Striker is the more pressing issue, even more so than right back, with the news yesterday about Jozy Altidore's status from MLSSoccer.com's Andrew Wiebe. He picked up a hamstring knock and didn't feature for Sunderland last week and if he can't go it will likely be Eddie Johnson up front with Aron Johannsson behind him on the bench.
Naturally, the US isn't short on attacking options, but they do need to think about tactics and about yellow cards. Seven players (Cameron, Howard, F. Johnson, Jones, Bradley, Altidore and Dempsey, eight if you counted Brad Evans) are carrying yellow cards into Costa Rica, if they get another one, they'll miss the Mexico game, and with Mexican referee Marco Rodriguez in charge of the match, conspiracy theories are flying.
Regardless of the yellow situation, the USA should be careful and I'd expect Jozy to be held out altogether for tonight's game. But I'd expect more or less the same lineup from the USMNT.
4-2-3-1: Howard (GK); Beasley, Gonzalez, Belser, Cameron; Jones, Bradley; F. Johnson, Dempsey [C], Zusi; E. Johnson
This is not going to be the same listless Costa Rica team that couldn't score against anyone in the Gold Cup. Saborio and Ruiz up front are a tremendous striker pairing, but the difference will be in the midfield and defense. Michael Barrantes was a menace during the Gold Cup and I think he'll have more support around him.
It won't be easy, but the US is just four points away from qualification according to ESPN's Paul Carr and detailed in this ProSoccerTalk article. It's not assured yet, but a win against either Costa Rica or Mexico in the next week will all but assure the USA's place in Brazil next summer. Mexico hosts Honduras tonight while Panama entertains Jamaica in the seventh matchday of The Hex.
On a side note, I will be running tonight's live thread from Buffalo Wild Wings at the Westfield Connecticut Post Mall in Milford, CT. The game starts at 10pm on BeINsports (Ch. 620 on DirecTV) for you readers in the southern Connecticut area (or as some New Englanders say, that corner that wears the Yankee hats) who want to stop by and watch the game. Check with your local American Outlaws chapter for their watch events as well.
More from The Bent Musket:
- Revolution 1-1 Toronto: Player Ratings and Man of the Match
- Breakers' Forward Sydney Leroux Scores Four in USWNT Rout of Mexico
- The 3rd Yellow - Revolution at Toronto FC - Part 1 - Goals and Non-Goals
- Parkhurst Called Up for United States World Cup Qualifiers, Replaces Injured Evans
- United States Announces Roster for September Qualifiers