Every successful World Cup qualifying campaign goes through a critical stretch where a team can look back and say, "That was where qualification was won." Such a period usually involves difficult opponents, tough away environments or a compressed schedule. As luck would have it, the United States will encounter all of these factors next week when it plays Costa Rica away on June 3, and then returns home to play Honduras in Chicago three days later.
While it's true that every qualifier is important, what makes these games even more vital is the way the final round of qualifying has played out so far. From the moment that the Americans' Hexagonal opponents were set, it was clear that a game of qualifying musical chairs would ensue for the four favorites. The U.S., Mexico, Costa Rica and Honduras would all slug it out for the three guaranteed seats. The unlucky fourth team will win a home-and-home series with the fifth-place finisher in South America, which at this point looks to be Uruguay, Colombia or some other difficult opponent; something the U.S. will be looking to avoid at all costs.
So far, each of the CONCACAF heavyweights has held serve on its home turf, meaning no team has either pulled away or put its qualifying bid in serious danger. (And yes, that includes Mexico, whose two losses both came on the road.) Two positive results for the U.S. -- say a draw at Costa Rica and win over Honduras -- and the Americans will have taken a huge step toward securing a berth in South Africa. Anything less than one win, however, and they will likely be in the uncomfortable position of needing their rivals to start dropping points at home.
There is certainly no guarantee that the former scenario is the one that will play out. While the Americans' road mentality has improved under head coach Bob Bradley, the U.S. owns a wretched 0-6-1 (W-L-T) record in World Cup qualifiers held in Costa Rica. The Americans were also less than impressive during their last trip to Central America, in which they were fortunate to escape El Salvador with a 2-2 tie. It's expected that the Costa Rica team will be fitter than El Salvador, and spurred on by its vociferous home support, will be more than capable of taking the game to the U.S. for the entire 90 minutes.
|U.S. men's schedule|
|U.S. vs. Costa Rica
At Costa Rica
9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2
U.S. vs. Honduras
8 p.m. ET, ESPN
As for Honduras, the last time it contested a qualifier in the U.S. was in 2001. The Catrachos handed the Yanks a 3-2 defeat, which just so happens to be the last time the Americans lost a World Cup qualifier on home soil. And with a 3-1 victory over Mexico last April still fresh in the Catrachos' minds, they'll feel plenty confident heading into their match on June 6.
"I think this is probably going to be the most difficult test," said U.S. forward Brian Ching about the upcoming games. "We've got two really athletic and good teams that we're up against. Costa Rica is always a difficult place to play, and they're always at their best at home. Then to come back and play Honduras, they're an extremely physical team, extremely athletic, and they have some dangerous players. To have those two games back-to-back, it's going to take a lot out of us."
But adding to the challenge is a quirk in the schedule brought on by the Americans' participation in the upcoming Confederations Cup. While most teams will play their upcoming games on June 6 and June 10, the Yanks' match with Costa Rica was moved to June 3, meaning the U.S. will have just two full days of rest between games. Honduras, meanwhile, will be rested and ready.
"The quick turnaround is tough, to be honest, especially in the amount of energy and mental [effort]," said U.S. midfielder Pablo Mastroeni. "A lot goes into each and every game and to travel as much as we're going to travel, it takes a toll on a player.
"That's where a good pool of players is critical to that qualifying process. Some guys recover a lot quicker than others, so it's important leading into these games that guys can step in."
This inherent disadvantage will put the onus on Bradley to manage his roster effectively over the two games, as well as have the training staff monitor the recovery of the players, especially since the weather in San Jose, Costa Rica, is expected to be hot and very humid.
"You really have to do the right things to rehydrate and recuperate," said Ching, who in playing his club matches in the oven that is Houston knows a thing or two about drinking enough fluids. "It's all about how fast you can recover."
Complicating matters is the different levels of fitness within the American player pool. Players like Ching could be faced with three hot-weather games inside of a week. Others like defender Oguchi Onyewu are coming off long European seasons in cooler climates. Then you have performers like Jozy Altidore, whose recent recovery from toe surgery means he hasn't played a competitive game since the last World Cup qualifier in April against Trinidad & Tobago.
Of course, it's not all doom and gloom for the Americans. Their deep pool of players has been key in performing well in tournaments with compressed schedules, like the CONCACAF Gold Cup. That might not strike most fans as the most onerous of competitions, but it does give the team some experience in such matters.
Outside of injured right back Steve Cherundolo, the U.S. also enters this stretch largely in good health, although Frankie Hejduk's recent groin injury will bear watching. It means Bradley should have a relatively full squad from which to select his lineups.
"We're an extremely talented team, and I think Bob has done a great job of instilling his work ethic and his tough mentality into the team," added Ching. "So regardless of who we put on the field, we know our roles and we're going to make it difficult to break us down and we're going to create chances going forward."
That mentality could be the difference between a smooth road to qualification, and an odyssey.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at email@example.com.