With a few hour to kickoff out in Colorado, the stakes are unbelievably high for the USMNT. Off the field controversy, sparked by the inflammatory Sporting News article that came out earlier this week, has dominated the headlines in ways that soccer players in the United States are hardly accustomed to. But that all ends tonight. At 10 p.m. EST, the focus will turn to the field. Hopefully, all can be healed just by blowing that whistle.
Expectations are muted by a fear of internal strife, but that doesn’t make this next five days any less important. Rooted to the bottom of the Hexagonal after one round of fixtures, 2014 World Qualification begins in earnest against Costa Rica. If we wake up next Wednesday and the USMNT is on three points — maybe even four — it has been a success. Anything less, and it will go down as a failure for the Jürgen Klinsmann regime.
Points won’t come easy in either matchup. Here is what to expect in each game.
March 22 vs. Costa Rica (Commerce City, CO)
Forecasts for tonight are, well, snowy. So, first concern is whether or not the game will be played. A close second has to be Bryan Ruiz. The Fulham attacker is always dangerous Costa Rica frontline that includes Real Salt Lake’s Álvaro Saborío and 20-year-old Real Betis striker (on loan from Arsenal) Joel Campbell. One problem, Costa Rica is a warm country, not exactly accustomed to a lot of snow.
Granted, it’s not as if USMNT players are constantly trotting out to the in six inches of powder, but, coupled with home support, it is the type of weather that plays in the American’s favor. With a more talented side and the extreme home field advantage, three points has to be the minimum. A draw would not end the Hexagonal, but with a trip to Mexico City looming — and more than two months of speculation until the next round of qualifiers — it could be an ominous early death knell for what once seemed a promising campaign.
March 26 at Mexico (Mexico City, Mexico)
There is little I can say about a trip to Estadio Azteca that hasn’t been said already. Sure, the 1-0 friendly victory in Mexico City last August may have taken some of the pre-match tension out of the equation, but the USMNT has still never won a competitive match in the 100,000-plus-seat venue. And let’s be honest, fans won’t throw beer bottles and bags of urine with the same venom in a friendly as they will on Tuesday.
Mexico’s team itself is pretty damn good. They rank 15th in the world and have been the dominant CONCACAF throughout its history, regardless what some Americans may think. With the USMNT saddled with a grossly inexperienced backline, thrust into one of the world’s most hostile atmospheres, and the presence of Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, one of the best finishers in soccer, even pulling out a single point would be tantamount to a huge cue. If Klinsmann can lead his team to a victory? All this drama might just be forgotten.
What are your expectations for this round of qualifiers? Where will the USMNT stand in the Hexagonal table by the time of the June games?