After all of the controversy and injuries, the talk of must-win games and panic buttons, it's finally back to soccer for the United States national team. Now, all the Americans have to do is play—under pressure, of course.
The U.S. and under-fire head coach Jurgen Klinsmann return to CONCACAF World Cup qualifying Friday night against Costa Rica in Denver (10 p.m. ET, ESPN). It is the team's first home match of the "Hexagonal" final round, and even at this early stage, plenty is already at stake.
Last month, the U.S. performed poorly in the Hexagonal opener and lost 2-1 at Honduras. The result meant that the Americans were the only team in the region to start qualifying without a point. It also set off a storm in the media.
The Sporting News' Brian Straus published a bombshell report this week containing quotes from current U.S. soccer players criticizing Klinsmann, assistant Martin Vasquez and the team's direction and tactics. The report dominated the discussion around the team this week, and Klinsmann was forced to respond.
“It shows you that people care. It shows you that people question things," Klinsmann said (per American Soccer Now). "It shows you that maybe people get worried about, you know, we lost one game to Honduras. One out of ten in that moment. And you take that as a positive sign.”
Klinsmann's words suggest that he has kept his cool in the face of controversy, but make no mistake: The U.S. will be under pressure Friday night.
As the only CONCACAF team without a point through the first round of matches, the U.S. has another tricky game up next. After hosting Costa Rica, the Americans will travel to Mexico, where they have never won a World Cup qualifier.
"The thing that matters is getting three points, winning the game and qualifying for the World Cup..." said midfielder/forward Clint Dempsey (per Yahoo! Eurosport), who will serve as captain for the match with Carlos Bocanegra left out and Tim Howard injured. "It doesn't matter about the little petty things here and there. We're focused."
Howard and Bocanegra are not the only high-profile American absentees. Defenders Timmy Chandler, Fabian Johnson, Steve Cherundolo and Edgar Castillo are all injured, meaning the U.S. defense could have an unfamiliar feel.
Brad Guzan, who has shined recently with Aston Villa in the English Premier League, is expected to start in goal. Jozy Altidore, meanwhile, could receive another chance to translate his sparkling club form—25 goals this season with AZ Alkmaar—to the international level, where he has not scored since November 2011.
“It’s very simple. We believe that the group that is here absolutely has the quality to beat Costa Rica and to get a positive result in Mexico as well," Klinsmann said (via Sporting News).
For Costa Rica, Real Salt Lake forward Alvaro Saborio is recovering from a bruised knee but is expected to play. Bryan Ruiz, a former teammate of Dempsey's at Fulham, is another threat in the attack along with Joel Campbell and Christian Bolanos.
The Ticos started the final round with a 2-2 draw at Panama and are unbeaten against the U.S. since 2005.
"Every home game in the Hexagonal is a must-win situation," said Klinsmann (via USSoccer.com). "You want to get all the points possible in your home games so, independent of the result in Honduras, it’s a must-win on Friday night here against Costa Rica."
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