SAN JOSE, Costa Rica -- Catch a glimpse of the exterior of Estadio Ricardo Saprissa at dusk, with mountains in the distance and urban decay surrounding it, and you just might find yourself wondering if you're staring at a stadium or the set of the latest "Terminator" movie.
From the dilapidated concrete columns and steep rows of seating that make up the stadium's body, to the crude fencing that keeps fans from running onto a field they sit spitting distance from, Saprissa needs a wrecking ball more than a coat of paint, and that is coming as San Jose has a new soccer stadium being built.
Before that brand new and less intimidating home is built, however, the U.S. men's national team will get one last crack at conquering Saprissa on Wednesday night when they face Costa Rica in World Cup qualifying (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2). The Americans will try to do what they have never done and something Costa Rica's opponents have failed to do in the past six Hexagonal Round qualifiers to be played at Saprissa.
Win a game.
"They're very comfortable there and they have great confidence there," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said of Costa Rica playing at Saprissa. "We are aware that we have never won there, so when we look at different challenges, and talk about things we want to achieve, this is a good example."
To beat Costa Rica, the Americans will need to be disciplined defensively, dangerous when the chances come and resolute in the face of one of the most hostile environments they will face in World Cup qualifying.
"This isn't the easiest place to play, but they have to play on the same field," said midfielder Pablo Mastroeni. "We just need to focus on what we need to do as a team and get over this whole atmosphere and environment in the first few minutes of the game.
"This is just another tough place to play, but I think we've got the experience and the kind of players on this team who can overcome those challenges and do what we need to do to get a result."
History isn't the only thing keeping the U.S. team from being considered heavy favorites in Wednesday's match. Question marks at a handful of positions has the U.S. starting lineup more unsettled than it has been at any point in qualifying.
One of the areas for the U.S. team that will be tested the most is the defense, where veteran central defenders Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra will likely play alongside two inexperienced fullbacks.
"We've got faith in the players who could wind up playing in the back and they've all played in tough matches before," said goalkeeper Tim Howard. "It's an experienced group of guys who I don't see being intimidated by this place."
Here is a closer look at the positions in question for the U.S. heading into Wednesday's match, and what the solutions could be for Bradley:
Forward We all saw how well Brian Ching and Jozy Altidore could work together, and Bradley has stated that Altidore is healthy enough to start if called upon. Seems like a no-brainer to start the two up top. So why might it not happen? Bradley could choose to employ a 4-5-1 formation, with the hoping being to control possession and keep "Los Ticos" from getting off to a fast start. If Bradley goes that route, then you'll likely see Landon Donovan lined up in an attacking midfield role, with Altidore as a second-half substitute.
Central midfield The question of who will start alongside Michael Bradley in central midfield is the easiest to answer on this list. Pablo Mastroeni has the experience and toughness to work well in the hostile Saprissa setting, and he looked good in his last national team start two months ago. With Sacha Kljestan out of form and Jose Francisco Torres still a bit green, Bradley should turn to the veteran to help keep things settled.
Left wing Remember when DaMarcus Beasley was an easy player to pencil in here? Not so much anymore. With left back such a questionable position, and Beasley looking good there vs. T&T, Bradley could turn to Donovan again to play on the left flank, where he can have the freedom to take on defenders in space.
|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
Right fullback No Steve Cherundolo and no Frankie Hejduk means the Americans will need Jonathan Spector or Marvell Wynne to step up. Spector should get the call and he just might hold on to the position with a strong showing.
Left fullback Heath Pearce and Jonathan Bornstein are both with the team, but Beasley is still the most intriguing pick for the position. Pearce's poor form, and unsettled club situation, have dropped him from lock starter to third choice, with Bornstein playing well in MLS and looking like the best natural pick for the spot.
While history will be on Costa Rica's side come Wednesday, the current American squad is aware of the circumstances of those past losses in Saprissa. In 2001, the U.S. team was struggling when it ran into a very strong Costa Rica team led by Paulo Wanchope in his prime. In 2005, the Americans had already qualified for the 2006 World Cup and sent what effectively was a B team to San Jose to face a Costa Rica team that needed a victory to qualify.
This time around, the circumstances are set for a perfect test for both teams. They're both playing at a high level, sitting in the top two spots in CONCACAF qualifying, and the winner will set itself up very well for qualifying for the 2010 World Cup.
"There's going to be pressure in this game, but it's going to be on both teams," Howard said. "Right now we're a veteran group that has played in games like this and we're looking forward to the challenge of winning here."
|U.S. vs. Costa Rica
|Last five World Cup qualifiers
Oct. 8, 2005 -- L, 3-0, San Jose, Costa Rica
June 4, 2005 -- W, 3-0, Salt Lake City
Sep. 5, 2001 -- L, 2-0, San Jose, Costa Rica
April 25, 2001 -- W, 1-0, Kansas City
Oct. 11, 2000 -- T, 0-0, Columbus, Ohio
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN Soccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.