As you know by now, from time-to-time I feel compelled to write a little bit about soccer, particularly international soccer and the US men's national team. For those who don't know, I worked for the organizing committees of two different World Cups, here in the US in 1994 and in France in 1998. That was my introduction to high level soccer, and I've been something of a World Cup junkie ever since. Over the past couple of seasons, with the increased availability of games on US cable channels, I've taken an interest in the English Premier League -- but the World Cup and other major international tournaments really get me going.
I told you last month about the USMNT's 12 game winning streak -- the longest active streak in the world and easily the longest in US history. Tonight in Costa Rica, World Cup qualifying continues with a very important match. The US and Costa Rica are currently first and second in their six-team CONCACAF qualifying group -- the Hexagonal as it is called. The top three teams will earn spots in next year's World Cup in Brazil, and the US is getting close to clinching one of those spots -- it could in fact happen tonight if everything goes their way (they have to win, Mexico and Honduras have to tie, and Panama has to lose or tie against Jamaica).
Even if it doesn't happen tonight, the US is in a solid position to qualify with three games left after this one, and two of those at home where the US almost never loses in CONCACAF qualifying. Still, it would be great to keep the momentum of their current streak going, and as well as they've been playing, there's a very good chance that the team will get their first ever win on Costa Rican soil (the Ticos have beaten the US six straight times in fact).
The selection that coach Jurgen Klinsmann has in Costa Rica may be the best US soccer team ever. As effectively as the team has been playing during the streak, they have yet to have all of their best players in uniform at the same time -- until now. Landon Donovan, the leading goal scorer in US history, took a sabbatical after last year's MLS Cup and this will be his first World Cup qualifier with the team in over a year. Donovan did feature prominently in the team's Gold Cup win in July, but that team was without most of their European-based stars like Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley. I can scarcely remember the last time all four of those difference-makers took the pitch at the same time for the USMNT. (In fact, it was June 12, 2012, but Altidore was hardly in his current form at that time.)
The bad news is that it may not happen tonight either. Altidore has a hamstring problem that kept him out of action with Sunderland in the EPL last weekend, and has yet to train with the team in Costa Rica. The thinking at this point is that he's unlikely to be ready to play tonight -- though hopefully he'll be ready for the home game against Mexico on Tuesday. Too bad -- Altidore has scored in five straight appearances, a US record, including a hat trick in the last game.
The good news is that Altidore's absence may not matter much with Team USA's newfound depth. Eddie Johnson has been in terrific form and could fill in up front; or Klinsmann could slide Dempsey forward in the formation and slot Donovan in behind him since he has both of them together for the first time in over a year; or he could turn to Aron Johansson, the 22 year old from Iceland who made his debut for the USMNT just three weeks ago. Johansson looked absolutely scintillating in a substitute role against Bosnia, and has already netted three goals for AZ Alkmaar this season after replacing Altidore as the lead striker for the Dutch Eredivisie side. (For more on Johansson, check out Grant Wahl's great piece from SI today.)
The US win streak has been built on a relatively soft stretch of schedule, that much is true. It is currently bookended by 4-3 wins over European powers, Germany and Bosnia, with the latter coming away from home, so those wins are impressive. But 10 of the 12 wins have come at home, including all of the Gold Cup games, and the only away win aside from Bosnia was against Jamaica, currently last in the Hexagonal. An away game at Costa Rica and home against Mexico (where even in Columbus, Ohio, there will be plenty of Mexico fans in the stadium) will be much tougher tests.
Costa Rica has a little added incentive tonight as well. The last time these teams met in the Hex, the US prevailed 1-0 in a driving snow storm in Denver in March. Costa Rica feels like the conditions in that game were unacceptable -- to be honest, it was a bit ridiculous -- and that the game should have been replayed, lodging a formal complaint with CONCACAF. The result was allowed to stand, and the Ticos are looking for revenge -- they've even been participating in a bit more gamesmanship than usual in advance of tonight's game, withholding their cooperation on several niceties like customs and scheduling a training ground.
Tonight's game is being carried by beIN, which is not included in any basic cable packages as far as I know -- so unless you're springing for the sports package, you probably won't get the game. Tuesday's game is on ESPN, and I'll post a game thread for that one. I'll be heading to a bar to watch tonight -- do any citizens have favorite soccer bars near Long Beach? The game starts at 7:00 PM.