Greetings from Costa Rica, where the U.S. national team is making final preparations for Friday night’s World Cup qualifier against the Ticos at National Stadium (10 p.m. ET, beIN Sport).
My feature for the print edition and website sets the scene in San Jose.
After 5 v 5 staff games on an adorable mini-field (complete with nets and lines) on the hotel grounds this morning, Juergen Klinsmann discussed his team and the match.
Later, as the squad was preparing to board the bus for training, a wicked thunderstorm pelted the Central Valley. (Ticos’ tropical revenge for the Denver snowstorm in March? Taking it a step further, were Tico gods responsible for delaying the American football kickoff in Denver tonight?)
*Jozy Altidore, who missed Sunderland’s Premier League match last weekend, has recovered from a hamstring injury, Klinsmann said, but his availability hinges on fitness after a week layoff.
Will he start? I doubt it. Will he play? Eh, maybe. There is another match four days from now and Klinsmann feels he has adequate frontline depth (Eddie Johnson, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Aron Johannsson) to compensate for Altidore’s absence. The starting lineup will come out about an hour before kickoff. Unlike league matches, the 23-man roster does not have to be cut down to 18 beforehand, so unless Altidore is in street clothes, he could play a role.
*If you are expecting the Americans to sit back, put many bodies behind the ball, absorb and counterattack in hopes of stealing three points or settling for a draw, you are probably mistaken. At least that’s the take after listening to Klinsmann, Donovan and Michael Bradley today.
“We have what it takes to beat this team, and there’s no reason why we can’t go in there with the attitude that we can win,” Donovan said. “It’s going to look different than any other qualifier has looked here for the U.S. We are going in with a mentality that we want to win this game.”
The Americans have never won in Costa Rica — not in a qualifier, not in a friendly. They are 0-7-2 overall. The draws came in a 1986 qualifier and a 1992 friendly.
Thirteen years have passed since the most controversial U.S. loss here: Long before anyone had ever heard of Koman Coulibaly, Jamaican referee Peter Prendergast awarded a penalty kick in stoppage time, citing a handball on Gregg Berhalter.
Bruce Arena said Prendergast “cheated us.” Claudio Reyna tossed the captain’s armband toward the official. FIFA suspended both of them.
Four years ago, the Americans were outclassed from start to finish in a 3-1 defeat.
“I never felt like we were in the game, which is crazy for our national team to say,” Donovan recalled. “They were all over us from the beginning and never let down.”
Klinsmann promises a more aggressive approach this time around.
“We’ll play our game. We’ll try to take our game to them and see what they want to do with that. We are now having the confidence that, even away from home, that is what we want to do tomorrow night.”
*Eight players are carrying yellow cards and in danger of missing Tuesday’s match against Mexico in Columbus: Altidore, Bradley, Dempsey, Matt Besler, Geoff Cameron, Tim Howard, Fabian Johnson and Jermaine Jones.
“Certainly, when you are one yellow card away from being suspended, you want to be real careful to make sure you are not picking up any stupid yellow cards, whether it’s speaking to the referee or getting into it with a guy from the other team,” Bradley said.
(Are you listening, Jermaine?)
“Those are things you want to avoid. But when it comes to tackling, coming away with plays, stopping a play, those are things you have to do.”
In case of suspensions, “We have a bunch of guys at home on stand-by,” Klinsmann said. “They know they might get the call Friday night” to join the delegation in Columbus right away, even if they have an MLS match this weekend.
*Klinsmann reiterated his displeasure with CONCACAF’s choice of referees: Mexico’s Marco Antonio Rodriguez. Given the U.S. yellow card situation, Klinsmann said Rodriguez could “have a big say” in player availability for Tuesday’s match against … Mexico.
Call me naive, but I’m not buying Klinsmann’s argument. Rodriguez has officiated in two World Cups and is a priest. Would he prefer an inexperienced ref from Nicaragua?
*How important is Donovan’s return to the senior squad for the final stretch of qualifiers and, presumably, the World Cup next summer?
“If we want to play more than three games at the World Cup,” Bradley said, “we need Landon.”
Donovan last played in a qualifier in June 2012 at Guatemala in the semifinal round and has missed 10 qualifiers.
*If everything falls their way, the Americans could clinch a World Cup berth Friday night. They would need to win, Mexico would need to draw at home against Honduras, and Panama would have to lose or tie at home against last-place Jamaica.
“The hardest thing to do is finish it off,” Donovan said. “You don’t want to go to Game 9 worrying about trying to qualify. You want to get it done as soon as possible. We have to smell the blood and go for it and wrap it up if we can. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t attack.”