Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By IVES GALARCEP
SAN JOSE, Costa Rica– We heard how things would be different. How Friday night’s World Cup qualifier vs. Costa Rica would look different than any road qualifier we had seen the U.S. Men’s National Team play before.
What we saw instead of different was a scene that was painfully familiar. The U.S. team that put together a 12-match winning streak, and came here with so much confidence, played more like the American teams of hexagonal rounds past. Overwhelmed and buried early, even if an improved second half provided more consolation than some past blowouts.
The reality is the U.S. couldn’t impose themselves on the Ticos, not with a stadium full of fans who had spent the past six months stewing over the perceived injustice of March’s snow-covered World Cup qualifier in Colorado urging them on. And not with the pre-game loss of Michael Bradley to an ankle injury costing the U.S. team its most poised player.
Losing Bradley hurt, make no mistake, but to pin the defeat on that twist of a fated ankle is too easy and a cop-out. Yes, we were reminded that Bradley is the most irreplaceable player on the U.S. team, but Friday night’s loss wasn’t about Bradley’s ankle injury. It was about much more.
It was about Jurgen Klinsmann’s lengthy streak of smart lineup moves coming to an end in the wake of Michael Orozco’s forgettable turn at right back. It was about a defense that simply couldn’t cope with the speed and skill of the Tico tandem of Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell. It was also about some normally reliable veterans turning in subpar performances.
In fact, there weren’t many positives you could point to. Yes, the U.S. team did play better from about the 35th minute to the 75th minute, and early in the second half it did feel like they might just find a way to come all the way back. A strong Costa Rica finish put an end to those hopes though, and made it much more difficult to shine a light on any sort of moral victories.
No, the U.S. aren’t suddenly a terrible team because they lost a road qualifier to a good Costa Rica side that is now topping the Hex standings. What they are is a team that have made things much tougher for themselves by not only delivering a flat performance, but also picking up a trio of yellow cards that will leave the U.S. even more short-handed on Tuesday against Mexico.
Now, the Americans face a struggling and desperate Mexico side that knows winning Tuesday is a must, and they must do so without Jozy Altidore, Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler and possibly Michael Bradley. That is four starters from the team that tied Mexico in March.
Those absences will create opportunities for other players to step up. Players like Aron Johannsson, Kyle Beckerman, Mix Diskerud and Michael Parkhurst. It will also be an opportunity for Klinsmann to recapture his magic touch when it comes to selecting lineups and personnel deployment.
On Friday, it was tough to look at the production if his attacking quartet and say he made the right calls. He chose to deploy Dempsey as the lead forward in a 4-2-3-1 rather than Eddie Johnson, and chose to deploy Graham Zusi on the right wing rather than Landon Donovan or Alejandro Bedoya. The result was Dempsey struggling to connect with the midfield, while Zusi was largely invisible on the right wing, save for his great pass to help Fabian Johnson draw a penalty kick.
Then there was the decision to start Orozco at right back. He chose Orozco over Cameron, who is starting regularly at right back at English Premier League side Stoke City, and Michael Parkhurst, who started and played very well at right back in the Gold Cup. He chose Orozco despite the fact Orozco had never played right back for the national team before.
Now Klinsmann’s right back quandary grows worse. Cameron’s yellow card suspension leaves the U.S. coach with the options of either trotting Orozco out again, or starting Parkhurst despite the fact Parkhurst hasn’t been playing for his club team.
Klinsmann might rue his bad luck at right back, but it’s a mess of his own making. His failure to incorporate Eric Lichaj remains perplexing, and he has yet to offer an explanation for why Timmy Chandler has been sent to the national team wilderness Landon Donovan was previously sent to.
If anything, the fact Klinsmann’s maneuvers didn’t work was more surprising because of just how well his moves had panned out over the past three months, and in some ways you almost came away from Friday feeling like Klinsmann’s recent success had emboldened him to try new things, and take some risks. But like a Blackjack player riding a hot streak only to run out of luck by making riskier and riskier plays, Klinsmann saw his moves miss the mark and end the hot streak that had him looking like he could do no wrong.
The biggest consolation to come from Friday’s loss, the U.S. team’s eighth straight qualifying loss in Costa Rica, is the fact that the evening’s other CONCACAF qualifying results went about as well as the Americans could have hoped for. Panama dropped points at home to last-place Jamaica while Honduras stunned Mexico with a 2-1 victory at Estadio Azteca.
That small consolation won’t ease the pain of yet another disappointing trip to Central America in the Hex, and yet another loss in Costa Rica. The good thing for the U.S. team is the fact they don’t have much time to dwell on the loss. They have four days to shake it off and prepare for a match against Mexico that not only could book their place in the 2014 World Cup, but strike a major blow to arch-rival Mexico’s World Cup hopes.
In order for that to happen, both Klinsmann and his players will need to be much better than they were on Friday, when they delivered a disappointing effort and squandered a chance to make history, and secure their place at the 2014 World Cup.