DENVER – A year and a half into his tenure as US national team coach, Jurgen Klinsmann and his charges face a watershed moment on Friday night as they host Costa Rica for a CONCACAF Hexagonal qualifier at Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colo.
Sitting in last place in the Hex standings with zero points after last month's 2-1 setback against Honduras in San Pedro Sula, the Yanks have the toughest trip in CONCACAF up next – Tuesday's visit to Estadio Azteca in hostile Mexico City – and are keenly aware that victories at home are crucial to their qualifying hopes. But injuries have swept through Klinsmann's usual cast of characters and he must engineer a winning team despite the absence of Landon Donovan, veteran goalkeeper Tim Howard and most of his Germany-based contingent.
Herculez Gomez back in Colorado
Meanwhile, Costa Rica travel north on their second straight road match of this round with confidence gained from a two-goal comeback that earned them a road point in Panama on Feb. 6, but worries over the fitness of linchpin striker and Real Salt Lake forward Alvaro Saborio.
The gametime forecast in Commerce City predicts a 90 percent chance of snow showers, with as much as four inches of accumulation by the end of the night, adding yet another wrinkle to this intriguing affair.
Time: 10 pm ET
TV: ESPN (English), UniMas (Spanish)
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These two teams have tangled constantly over the years, and the hosts have generally dominated. The US holds a 5-1-2 all-time home qualifying record against the Ticos, while the Yanks have yet to taste victory in the Central American nation. Costa Rica hold an overall edge in qualifying meetings with a 8-5-3 mark.
In their last World Cup-related meeting, these perennial Hex participants wrapped up the 2010 cycle with an unforgettable 2-2 draw at RFK Stadium on Oct. 14, 2009, where Jonathan Bornstein's last-gasp equalizer denied Costa Rica an automatic berth in South Africa.
The Yanks find themselves – in their own words – in a must-win situation just one game into the Hex as an injury epidemic, last month's underwhelming loss to Honduras, reports of confusion and questionable leadership in the camp and Tuesday's dreaded visit to Mexico have all combined to produce a pressure-cooker atmosphere, even in the thin air of the Front Range.
“It's a big home qualifier that's going to call on every single guy to step on the field with a commitment, determination and pride that says 'This isn't going to be an easy game, but we're gonna leave everything out there and walk off the field with three huge points.'"
As usual, Bradley is expected to pair with Jermaine Jones in the center of midfield, with Graham Zusi, Clint Dempsey and in-form goalscorers Herculez Gomez and Jozy Altidore the probable starters out in some combination of wide and advanced roles.
The shorthanded defense will feature yet another new combination of characters with Omar Gonzalez, Geoff Cameron and Clarence Goodson likely to get the nod, while left back has once again become a problem spot that could be filled by winger DaMarcus Beasley, who has been called into the squad for the first time in well over a year.
COSTA RICA OUTLOOK
Jorge Luis Pinto and his squad have maintained the nation's proud tradition of punching above its weight in international soccer and have reason to feel bullish about their prospects of reaching a fourth World Cup. The Ticos have netted a CONCACAF-leading 16 goals during the current qualifying cycle.
Their MLS ties are rich, with current league standouts Alvaro Saborio -- who is nursing a small knock to his knee -- and Jairo Arrieta possible starters on Friday, Red Bulls left back Roy Miller in the squad and former Galaxy and Chivas USA defender Michael Umaña a regular contributor in the back.
Smart, skilful and experienced, the Ticos will probably sit deep on Friday and force the USA's misfiring attack to take the initiative. But when they do venture forward, the powerful Saborio – who is nursing a bruised knee but is determined to play – tends to be the touchstone for their passing combinations and has scored a goal and an assist in two meetings with the Yanks.
Costa Rica will return to San Jose for their first Hex home game on Tuesday, as Jamaica drop in on Estadio Nacional.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
USA – Clint Dempsey
With longtime skipper Carlos Bocanegra left at home for these two qualifiers, Klinsmann handed Deuce the captaincy on Wednesday. The honor has had a galvanizing effect on many players and US fans will hope the same applies for the hard-charging Texan, who has scored six goals during this cycle and appeared in all seven of his team's matches. However, he only recently overcame a nagging calf injury and was wearing a brace on the affected area during USMNT trainings this week.
Costa Rica – Bryan Ruiz
Dempsey's former teammate at English Premier League side Fulham is a talented yet mercurial presence, capable of virtuoso goals like the brace at RFK in 2009 that gave Costa Rica the lead Bornstein so famously erased. His inconsistency has infuriated some Fulham supporters but his creativity, especially in combination play with Saborio, makes him a lurking danger the Yanks must track diligently.
GOALKEEPERS (3): Brad Guzan (Aston Villa - 5/3 SO), Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire - 0/0), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake - 0/0)
DEFENDERS (6): Tony Beltran (Real Salt Lake - 0/0), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City - 0/0), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City - 6/0), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy - 1/0), Clarence Goodson (Brondby - 5/0), Justin Morrow (San Jose Earthquakes - 0/0)
MIDFIELDERS (10): DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla - 26/6), Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake - 2/0), Michael Bradley (Roma - 20/5), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana - 1/0), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo - 0/0), Maurice Edu (Bursaspor - 10/0), Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04 - 6/0), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht - 13/0), Brek Shea (Stoke City - 2/0), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City - 4/0)
FORWARDS (5): Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar - 18/6), Terrence Boyd (Rapid Vienna - 2/0), Clint Dempsey (Tottenham Hotspur - 27/11), Herculez Gomez (Santos - 6/2), Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders FC - 12/10)
GOALKEEPERS (2): Keilor Navas (Levante), Patrick Pemberton (Alajuelense)
DEFENDERS (9): Juan Diego Madrigal (Santos de Guapiles), Christian Gamboa (Rosenborg), Michael Umaña (Saprissa), Johnny Acosta (Dorados de Sinaloa), Giancarlo Gonzalez (Valerenga), Roy Miller (New York Red Bulls), Bryan Oviedo (Everton), Christopher Meneses (Alajuelense)
MIDFIELDERS (10): Celso Borges (AIK), Osvaldo Rodriguez (Santos de Guapiles), Cristian Bolaños (Copenhagen), Ariel Rodriguez (Perez Zeledon), Keylor Soto (Perez Zeledon), Yeltsin Tejeda (Saprissa), Michael Barrantes (Aalesund), Diego Calvo (Alajuelense), Bryan Ruiz (Fulham), Mauricio Castillo (Cartagines)
FORWARDS (3): Alvaro Saborio (Real Salt Lake), Joel Campbell (Real Betis), Jairo Arrieta (Columbus Crew)