What a difference five months has made for the U.S. men’s soccer team. In March, there was pressure on the players and coach Jurgen Klinsmann after a lackluster qualifying loss to Honduras to start the CONCACAF hexagonal of World Cup Qualifying in February. The U.S. faced two tough qualifiers in late March against Costa Rica in Denver and at Mexico. To make matters worse, the U.S. had a long list of injuries to key defenders and goalkeeper Tim Howard wasn’t fit for either match.
In what felt like a must-win game at home against Costa Rica, the U.S. won the match and rode the momentum throughout the summer. It wasn’t the prettiest performance by the Americans in a snowy climate where the ball could barely be seen. However, it was a gutsy showing and one that defined a Klinsmann coached soccer team. The U.S. scored an early goal through Clint Dempsey and the rest of the match relentlessly defended to preserve three points. Four days later the U.S. went to Mexico City and again defended strongly in a 0-0 stalemate. The man who replaced Howard, Brad Guzan recorded his second straight clean sheet.
This summer a full strength U.S. team played positive, attractive soccer in three qualifying wins and their “B” team strolled through the Gold Cup. The memorable summer was capped off with a 4-3 victory in Bosnia that saw Jozy Altidore score a second half hat trick to shock the crowd in Sarajevo.
The match in Bosnia was a friendly and now the games that count start again. This Friday the U.S. plays Costa Rica, a team that thinks they were unfairly beaten back in March because of the snowy weather in Denver on a cold Friday night. The Ticos will look for revenge playing at their raucous home stadium. The U.S. and Costa Rica are first and second in the hexagonal.
One certainty to the U.S. lineup on Friday will be Tim Howard between the goalposts backed up by Brad Guzan. Howard has recorded two clean sheets in three starts for Everton to begin the EPL season.
Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler will likely be the center back partnership. The question is, who will play by their flanks at left and right back. The injury to Brad Evans (calf), means that Geoff Cameron could get the nod at right back. The versatile Cameron played center back in Bosnia and starts at right back for Stoke City in the EPL. DaMarcus Beasley and Fabian Johnson are in contention to start at left back. I give the edge to the experienced Beasley, especially with a possibility of Fabian Johnson playing left midfield.
The most interesting storyline of this match lies in the midfield and that is the return of Landon Donovan to World Cup qualifiers. After a great Gold Cup, Donovan should be a confident player especially in midfield with Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey. Jermaine Jones will likely partner with Bradley at defensive midfield. If Donovan plays left midfield, then Graham Zusi will command the right side and Dempsey will play in the middle right behind the striker.
Speaking of strikers, in an ideal world Jozy Altidore would be fit and ready to start. However, Altidore has a hamstring injury and might be rested for Tuesday’s qualifier against Mexico in Columbus. If Altidore can’t start then I can see Eddie Johnson getting picked by Klinsmann, but don’t be surprised if Aron Johansson somehow figures into this match.
The last time the U.S. played Costa Rica, there wasn’t much excitement about Klinsmann’s team. Over five months later and after a 12-match win streak, the U.S. isn’t just trying to make a statement in their continent, but throughout the soccer world.