The World Cup qualifying picture in our corner of the world, a murky hodgepodge of supposition and "what-ifs" up to now, may soon clear up substantially.
Starting Wednesday, Bob Bradley's U.S. side will take the field twice in four days, and the results could say a lot about the Americans' bid for a sixth consecutive World Cup.
By Saturday, the United States will have finished half its final-round qualifying. If things go OK, American fans can't necessarily start booking their travel packages for South Africa, but they sure can start Googling for hotel deals and such.
But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. Up first is a big test in sultry Costa Rica, a historically nasty cauldron where U.S. teams have limped away like most other visitors.
In qualifiers in San Jose, Costa Rica, the United States' record is a humbling 0-6-1.
So the temptation may be overwhelming at some point to play for the draw on the artificial turf -- yep, the hated fake stuff -- at Estadio Ricardo Saprissa, then seriously lean into a full three-point assault on Honduras three nights later in Chicago. Remember, a draw in Costa Rica isn't just one U.S. point earned, it is two points not earned by the Ticos, who are nipping at the first-place Americans' heels.
So as U.S. athletes assembled in Miami in two waves -- foreign-based players arrived last week, and MLS types joined Sunday -- Bradley had plenty to ponder.
These so-called "double dates" are nothing new around the U.S. camp. Much energy and effort during the past two-plus years has gone into making things as predictable as possible within the U.S. camp's infrastructure. Bradley wanted players to parachute in comfortably, knowing what to expect in terms of support personnel, expectations, practice sessions, etc.
But extra considerations throw a monkey wrench into this particular two-fer. For instance, Bradley generally has declined significant lineup changes for the two matches on double dates. But this one looks different for several reasons.
First, there will be one fewer rest day. Three full days between matches is typical, but the U.S. will get just two between Wednesday and Saturday, one of which will be gobbled up by serious travel from Costa Rica to Chicago. Then, there's the artificial turf to consider, and the fact that some MLS players could be playing three matches in eight days. L.A. Galaxy forward Landon Donovan will be one of them if he's picked for duty in both U.S. matches.
Further subtracting from the predictability Bradley has worked hard to create was a recent staff change. Assistant Peter Nowak left U.S. Soccer last Thursday to assume the expansion Philadelphia Union's managerial seat.
The ship was tossed even more with Sunday's revelation that in-form midfielder Maurice Edu would be unavailable for the Costa Rican trip with a knee injury. He apparently was injured on May 24 in his final Scottish Premier League match, an injury a little more serious than Rangers officials initially understood.
Now consider that five U.S. players are carrying yellow cards: Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Frankie Hejduk and Oguchi Onyewu. You may recognize that list as almost half the starting lineup from the most recent U.S. qualifier test, an April 1 win over Trinidad and Tobago. So you can see how Bradley is clearly playing chess, not checkers, when it comes to picking Wednesday's side.
Oh, and did we mention that it's the rainy season in Costa Rica? Yeah. That, too.
Bradley acknowledged the difficulty in what he calls a "unique double fixture date."
"Whenever you play the first game, when you're done, you obviously have to assess: How did the game go?" he said Friday via a national-media teleconference. "Physically, how did you come out of the game? What's the situation with cards? We feel like, up until now, we feel good about the different decisions that have been made. That may mean changes, and that may mean in some cases a decision to stick with a certain player. … We understand the different challenges that go with this one."
Still, the collective mood remains confident, and one nugget of good news did drift in Sunday. Hejduk's groin injury improved enough for him to join Monday's charter out of Miami. Whether he'll play remains uncertain; Hejduk certainly would bolster a right fullback spot left thin by Steve Cherundolo's injury.
So, what awaits Bradley's bunch down on the "Rich Coast"?
The world's 41st-best team (according to those flaky FIFA global rankings) is a bugger at home, for sure. The Ticos are 18-1-2 at Saprissa since 2000. Strikers Bryan Ruiz and Andy Furtado were pouring in goals as the Ticos exploited a weak group (El Salvador, Haiti and Suriname) in a 2008 waltz through Confederation of North and Central American and Caribbean Football semifinal qualifying. The offense runs through Walter Centeno. He's 34 years old but still has the feet to go with the vision.
"I've been impressed with the way he's played in recent qualifiers," said U.S. assistant John Hackworth, who does much of the team's in-person scouting. "I don't think he's come down [in form] at all. He's still someone who can play at this level, and he's certainly an important player for them."
Barring unforeseen adjustments, the Ticos' 4-4-2 arrangement will attempt to parlay high pressure with the opposition's unease of playing inside the octagonlike fences surrounding the pitch. The fullbacks will get forward liberally, and the outside midfielders will pinch in to allow a freer role for Centeno.
"They're very comfortable there, they have great confidence there, and we are aware that we've never won there," Bradley said. "We know that these kinds of games require a real commitment as a team, a good game plan and finally just good efforts on the day. It's a big challenge but one that we're very excited about."
Road qualifiers are rarely lovely affairs, more back-alley brawl than Joga Bonito. A trip to Costa Rica, a side with three previous World Cup appearances, might have been one of the few chances for the Americans to go on the road and actually play a little soccer.
But word is out that the FieldTurf at Saprissa is a gnarly, overused mess. It was installed in 2004 and has been bypassed by major upgrades in the turf technology since. As it is, five years of concerts and heavy play have left this version more beaten up than a Supreme Court nominee. So we're probably in for another night of brass-knuckle tactics on both sides.
Inconceivable as it may seem, the United States could emerge bloodied and suddenly on very unstable ground with a couple of losses this week. (Honduras was, after all, the last CONCACAF team to conquer the Yanks on U.S. soil.)
No one from the U.S. camp is saying so out loud, but you can wager a Sam's Army scarf it would happily pull four points from this prickly pair. A draw on Wednesday would be a dandy start. If Bradley's boys do gather up four points, the back half of final-round qualifying could be decidedly less adventurous.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.
|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