Pressure ahead of Costa Rica shows soccer's evolution in U.S.
DENVER -- The British Bulldog soccer bar was overflowing with U.S. soccer fans on Thursday night when I arrived with a crew that included ESPN's Ian Darke, Alexi Lalas, Taylor Twellman and Mónica González. The place had been taken over by the American Outlaws, the biggest U.S. supporters group, which will have as many as 2,000 members attending Friday's crucial World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica (10 p.m. ET, ESPN, UniMas).
In some ways, it was a festive occasion. Men and women decked out in U.S. scarves and jerseys cradled pints and made their way through the shoulder-to-shoulder masses to see old friends from previous games. "Sir Ian" Darke, a true rock star in these parts, graciously posed for pictures before turning in for the night to get ready for the game. And all over the bar, inside and outside, fans engaged in the kind of conversations and debates you'd expect to hear in any other soccer country the night before a big national team game.
Which is to say, the occasion wasn't entirely festive. In fact, as the U.S. soccer fan culture has caught up with the rest of the world, so, too, has its collective angst meter. And if the angst is always higher when there's pressure to win the games you're supposed to win, then the U.S. meter might be at its highest for a World Cup qualifier in nearly a decade.
Nearly every fan I met at the British Bulldog had an angst-ridden question. Has Jurgen Klinsmann lost the locker room? How is the U.S. going to deal with all these injuries and absences? Should I start making plans to go to New Zealand for the playoff involving the fourth-place CONCACAF team in November?
It felt like a giant therapy session -- which, when you think about it, is a great sign for the growth of the sport in the United States. Wondering if the sky is falling on your national team is a tradition that exists everywhere from England to Argentina to Mexico, great soccer countries where the fans and media fly off the handle all the time when a bad result sends the populace into bouts of doubt and depression.
Last month's Hexagonal-opening loss at Honduras was just such a bad result for the U.S., which coughed up another lead on the road. (In away qualifiers under Klinsmann, the U.S. has dropped eight of a possible 12 points from winning positions.) In that game, the U.S. defense looked disorganized, and when the U.S. had the ball it often gave it away far too easily.
Over the years, though, the U.S. always seems to perform at its best when you least expect it, which is one reason I think the Americans will find a way to win on Friday. Another reason is the home-field advantage in mile-high Denver, where the crowd should be overwhelmingly pro-Stars and Stripes. And another is the leadership and presence of players like Michael Bradley, who is one of those guys anyone would want as a teammate in a pressure-packed situation.
When it comes to the specifics, though -- like, say, the U.S. lineup -- it's extremely hard to predict. Klinsmann has used 23 different lineups in his 23 games in charge, and No. 24 is coming against Costa Rica. Here's my best guess on what Klinsmann will do:
Brad Guzan; Geoff Cameron, Maurice Edu, Omar González, DaMarcus Beasley; Graham Zusi, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Eddie Johnson; Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore.
As I said, it's impossible to read Klinsmann's mind these days, whether the topic is his lineup choices or his selection as captain. (He picked Dempsey when Bradley seemed much more likely.) The back line is the big concern. Does Klinsmann trust MLSers Tony Beltrán and Justin Morrow to be his fullbacks in a game this big? I don't know. Cameron plays right back at Stoke, and Beasley has a bit of experience at left back. If Edu and González pair up in the central defense, it would be their first time playing together. That said, the U.S. has had four days of training to get ready for this game, as opposed to the one day the team had last month.
If the U.S. returns to a 4-4-2 lineup, it would seem a lot like the Bob Bradley days, with a double-pivot in the middle and Bradley and Jones alternating staying at home while the other one ventures forward. As for the attacking corps, keep in mind that Dempsey has only played 45 minutes in the past three weeks due to a calf strain, and he told reporters Thursday he would probably be good for only 45 minutes at altitude against Costa Rica. In that case, Hérculez Gómez might be the guy to count on as a second-half replacement. This game seems made for Gómez's movement and work rate.
Costa Rica, meanwhile, has dangerous players, including Fulham's Bryan Ruiz (who torched the U.S. back in 2009) and Salt Lake's Álvaro Saborío, who seems to be fine after a mid-week injury concern. These Ticos are resilient: They went down 2-0 at Panama last month, only to storm back with two goals of their own to grab an important road point. The onus will likely be on the U.S. to possess the ball early, get into a good rhythm and create more chances than it did in Honduras. For all the doubts surrounding this U.S. team right now, they have been in similar situations before and responded well. Remember the Jamaica game in Columbus last fall? The U.S. played with confidence, created chances and in the end got the goal needed for victory.
I think that happens again, perhaps on a set piece against a shaky Costa Rica defense. The call: United States 1, Costa Rica 0. And the American Outlaws will celebrate afterward at the British Bulldog.