Now things are getting getting serious. We all had some fun at the Gold Cup. Sarajevo was a freakin’ blast. Even the US Soccer Centennial win over Germany was as jovial and open as a part at Jürgen Klinamann’s California beach house. But we ain’t playing no more.
As of this writing, it’s highly likely that 23 red-blooded Americans will be pulling on the Stars & Stripes in Brazil next year. We’re not there yet, however. Then there is that matter of the longest winning streak in the world. THE WORLD. If we want our beloved USMNT to be associated with the best in the world in any other sense, we have to cross the next mountain: Winning in Costa Rica.
At 0-7-1 all time in World Cup Qualifying, there is no better time than the present. It’s a squad full of new additions and returning veterans. Of injury questions and pending yellow card suspensions. As much as we may think we know about this team’s construction, we really know very little. Klinsmann proves that every game he coaches. It makes prediction kind of futile, right? Probably, but we don’t listen to logic. These may not be what you might call projections, but it is who Steve Fogarty and I would throw out on the field Friday night in San Jose.
Steve Fogarty: Dan Popko and I have spent the better part of the last few months debating the closeness of the race between Tim Howard and Brad Guzan. However, until something gives, Howard starts between the pipes for the Stars and Stripes.
Dan Popko: Exactly, this is Timmy’s team. Guzan has been gaining a lot of steam with the punditry and might be the better keeper in all honesty, but it hasn’t become so clear that you can ignore all the other things Howard brings to the team. For one, serving as a constant pillar for the very unstable group in front of him. Speaking of that rag-tag bunch…
Popko: …there are a lot of issues to address in these four positions. While there does seem to be a growing sense of continuity throughout the entire squad, not one of these four spots is locked down for the trip to Costa Rica, yet alone Brazil next summer. After Brad Evans seemingly backed into the right back spot for the rest of the cycle, he goes down injured. I thought Clarence Goodson had earned himself a starting berth in this game — really, I did — but then Klinsmann doesn’t even call him in. Omar Gonzalez is a national team enigma. DaMarcus Beasley is still in the picture by the thinnest of margins, but is holding on for dear life and Geoff Cameron can’t seem to stake a claim to any position other than Jermaine Jones yellow card insurance policy. Matt Besler, he of all of 10 caps, looks like a stabilizing veteran force. That said, Beasley is still hanging on and Cameron should finally get another shot at right back, his position at the club level. All that’s left to decide is who will partner Besler and, despite the likelihood John Anthony Brooks will moonlight for cap-tying purposes, it might just have to be Gonzalez.
Fogarty: Evans’ injury threw everything out of whack, and now the USMNT will have to settle for a backup right back. Michael Parkhurst and Cameron are the obvious options. Alejandro Bedoya has played some right back for Nantes in France, but I’m already struggling to live in a world where two midfielders are on the back line. That being said, Parkhurst has been better in the back than Cameron and earns my start here. In the middle of the defense, Besler is a lock. He has done everything asked of him and then some since debuting for the national team. Next to him is more wide open. Cameron, Brooks and Gonzalez all have a shot to start. Hell, even Michael Orozco Fiscal was called in. While I may not be driving the Brooks bandwagon, I have a comfortable window seat in the back. He would be my starter tomorrow. Klinsmann has given Beasley the left back job. He’s proven me wrong and I have confident in him tomorrow night.
Fogarty: After screwing with the status quo for this exercise against Bosnia, I have come to my senses. Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones, although the latter will be on a short leash after inconsistent play for Schalke and in his last friendly.
Popko: I’m glad you finally weened yourself off whatever it was you were smoking in Sarajevo. Bradley is the best player in the USMNT pool (yeah, I said it) and he and Jones are the heartbeat of this team. That said, we can revisit this next week when JJ is inevitably suspended on yellows.
Popko: A little further up the pitch, things are a little more confusing. Attacking midfield is one of the deeper groups in the pool, but in reality this is four players competing for three spots. Sorry Alejandro, we’ll always have Chestnut Hill! Clint Dempsey will start, somewhere, and there is no way I’m personally leaving Landon Donovan on the bench. There is no telling what Klinsmann will do in that respect, but for me it really makes it a two-horse race between Fabian Johnson and Graham Zusi with the other two fitting in around them, which seems backwards but is unavoidable. On American soil, I take Zusi, as his crosses would create chances against a inevitably shelled group of Ticos. In San Jose, with the Costa Ricans looking to destroy our very essence, they are hardly expected to park the bus. That means it has to be Johnson, thanks to his defensive accumen — however marginal — and ability to hit on the counter. From there, it’s really about positioning. I see Donovan slotting into Zusi’s role for now, with Dempsey in his usual hole. That may very well change more than once throughout the match, however.
Fogarty: Donovan and Dempsey are locks. The only issue with the two greatest scorers in USMNT history is where to put them. I am putting Deuce at right wing over Donovan for one simple reason. Dempsey’s work rate is key in this game, and his willingness to defend could play a pivotal role in stopping Costa Rica’s counter attack. With Donovan tucked in neatly behind the striker the left midfield role goes to Fabian Johnson. He’s the most creative option on the wing, and probably the most athletic. As someone with defensive experience, he will also be able to back track when Beasley gets the urge to go forward.
Fogarty: If Jozy Altidore is healthy and in the squad, he will be the first choice striker. Always. In case Altidore cannot go, Aron Jóhannsson is my choice to fill in at striker.
Popko: The closer we get to game time, the more I get the sense Jozy will come off the bench. If he’s 100 percent, he has to go. If he’s even 98 percent, throw him on the bench and bring him in for the second 45 if needed. I do love me some Jóhannsson, but he’s more of a late spark guy at this point. Despite all the crap I give him, the lone striker role probably better suits Eddie Johnson. His physicality is so far ahead of the Ice Man that I am left with little choice. That said, if Landon moves up as a partner or Altidore comes on, I’m all for sitting EJ down right quick.
Steve Fogarty’s Preferred Starting XI
—————— Howard ——————
Parkhurst — Besler — Brooks — Beasley
———— Bradley —– Jones ————
Dempsey —— Donovan —— F. Johnson
—————— Altidore ——————
Dan Popko’s Preferred Starting XI
—————— Howard ——————
Cameron — Besler — Gonzalez — Beasley
———— Bradley —– Jones ————
Donovan —— Dempsey —— F. Johnson
—————– E. Johnson —————–