Photo by ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — The U.S. Men’s National Team may be just around the corner from securing a berth at the 2014 World Cup, but the only sure way to move closer to that ultimate goal is by grabbing a result on Friday against a foe with plenty of reasons to be motivated.
The Americans are set to play in the seventh World Cup qualifier of the CONCACAF Hexagonal on Friday night, as they take on the same Costa Rica team they beat, 1-0, twice this year. Those victories in qualifying and the Gold Cup, especially March’s unforgettable World Cup qualifier played in a blizzard in Denver, have the Ticos and their fans foaming at the mouth ahead of the game on their home soil, but they are not the only reasons for why Costa Rica is eagerly looking to once again playing a U.S. team that is currently riding an impressive 12-game winning streak.
With a win, second-place Costa Rica could leapfrog the top-of-the-table Americans in the Hexagonal standings while also taking a big step towards Brazil 2014. That is a realistic goal for the Ticos given their dominance over the U.S. in games played in Costa Rica, where the U.S. has never won in qualifying, and the Americans know another difficult match against its familiar opponent awaits.
“We expect them to play off the emotion in all ways,” said midfielder Michael Bradley. “To play off the emotion of the crowd, to play off, I’m sure in a lot of ways, their emotions left over from the game in March, to play off their emotions of us knocking them out of the World Cup last go-round.
“There’s a lot of things that go into this game and for us, we need to be ready to step on the field in a tough environment and be ready to stick together, be ready to know how to manage certain parts of the game, like is always necessary in these games, in these atmospheres.”
What is playing in Jurgen Klinsmann’s side’s favor is that Friday’s game will not be played at Estadio Saprissa, a well-documented house of horrors for the United States. Instead, the match will take place at Estadio Nacional, a fairly new home for the Costa Ricans and one that might suit the Americans better than Estadio Saprissa has in the past.
For instance, the surface on Friday night will be grass and not the infamous rock-hard turf that the U.S. has become all too familiar with. Then there’s the racetrack at Estadio Nacional that creates some space between the fans and the field, a stark difference than at Estadio Saprissa, where the fans were seemingly on top of the field.
“In theory, it’s an advantage to not have to play there but that doesn’t guarantee anything,” said Landon Donovan, who is back with the U.S.’s A team for the first time in a while. “We like our chances playing against this team on the grass field vs. turf in a stadium that’s relatively safe vs. one that feels relatively unsafe. But it’s only an advantage if we make it an advantage.
“It doesn’t mean that anything changes on the field. We still have to do the things that you need to do to win and we’re playing a good team, so it’s still going to be difficult.”
The U.S. has been on the receiving end of some gamesmanship since landing in the Central American country on Tuesday night, but the Americans have said that they are not overly bothered by what they have had to deal with. What they are more focused on is their gameplan against Costa Rica, a team that has thrown numbers behind the ball and absorbed the U.S.’s pressure while trying to hit back on the counter in their previous two meetings.
The Americans are expecting the Ticos to be a little more attacking-minded since Costa Rica is playing at home and have crafty veteran strikers Alvaro Saborio and Bryan Ruiz at their disposal. But that will not prevent the U.S. from trying to continue to play its attacking style under Klinsmann, a style that has the Americans on the best winning streak in all of international soccer right now.
“We’ll play our game, we will try to take our game to them, and see what they want to do with that,” said Klinsmann. “I think we are now having that confidence to do that even away from home. It doesn’t mean that we necessarily always win, get the result, but from a style of play, that’s what what we’re working on, we understand that, and that’s what we’re going to do also on (Friday).”
One concern for the U.S. heading into Friday is the status of Jozy Altidore. The in-form veteran forward is still recovering from a thigh problem sustained while with Sunderland, and he might be forced to sit it out against the Costa Ricans after being limited in training earlier in the week.
Another worry for the United States is that they have eight players sitting on yellow cards, one more away from a one-game suspension. Altidore is one of those players as are Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones, Tim Howard, Geoff Cameron, Fabian Johnson and Matt Besler.
Still, don’t expect the U.S. players to go about things on the field much differently on Friday, not even with a match against arch-rival Mexico looming.
“We’re all aware that we have yellow cards,” said Bradley. “Certainly, when you’re one yellow card away from being suspended you want to be real careful to make sure that you’re not picking up any stupid yellow cards. Whether it’s speaking to the referee, whether it’s getting into it with a guy on the other team, those are things you want to avoid, absolutely.
“But when it comes to playing in the game, tackling, coming away with plays, if necessary stopping a play that’s going the other way, those are things you have to do and those are things you can’t be worried about.”
The Americans have recorded a bunch of firsts under Klinsmann, and topping Costa Rica away from home would be another notable accomplishment for the confident squad. The main task for the U.S., however, is simply to grab three points on the road so as to near earning a berth next summer’s World Cup.
“The hardest thing to do is finish it off,” said Donovan. “These are arguably the two hardest games we’ll play aside from away at Azteca. But you don’t want to go to Game 9, even if it’s against a team that may be eliminated, without (having qualified).
“You want to get it done as soon as possible and if we can do it Friday and results go our way, we have to do it. We have to really smell the blood and just go for it and wrap it up if we can.”