After 12 straight wins, which included improbable triumphs against world powers like Germany and Bosnia and dominant victories against all comers during the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the USMNT finally lost on Friday, 3-1, in a World Cup qualifier away to Costa Rica. Costa Rica, for some reason still seething from the fact that the Americans would schedule snow during a soccer game, trolled U.S. Soccer when they landed in Costa Rica, then sabotaged them, before ultimately whooping that Yankee ass for the entire first half, taking just nine minutes to score two goals and tallying the third off a counter in the 75th minute to leave no doubt. It's cool, though. The United States are past it.
The good thing about winning most of the time, as the Americans have done throughout the final qualifying round, is that a loss isn't too much of a setback. With three matches remaining in the final round the USMNT has 13 points, only a point behind Costa Rica, three points clear of third-place Honduras, and a massive five points above fourth-place Mexico, who really, really choked on Friday by losing to Honduras. (As a refresher, the top three places automatically qualify for the 2014 Brazil World Cup, and the fourth-place team has a playoff with New Zealand to qualify.) The USMNT takes on Mexico tonight in Columbus, Ohio, and a win against their southern brothers would all but guarantee the Americans' place in next year's tournament. A win paired with a Honduras win or draw against fifth-place Panama puts the U.S. through, no matter what. Wouldn't even have to play New Zealand. That's the end of the good news for now.
Because the United States look suspect. They've enjoyed a renaissance this year, largely due to manager Jürgen Klinsmann. But it's also because some guys have been playing out of their minds. Jozy Altidore has been scoring for fun. Clint Dempsey proves virtually every time he laces up that he's one of the two best Americans to ever play the game. Landon Donovan is back in the first team, and that boy is still nasty. But none of them right now are perhaps as valuable as USMNT's most important player, the engine of the midfield who wins ball, dictates tempo, and creates goals: Michael Bradley.
Bradley was fit to play for the Costa Rica game, but he sprained his ankle mere minutes before the kickoff. He had to be replaced by Geoff Cameron. And while we like Cameron a whole lot, no one is saying he's a Michael Bradley. So in the decisive first half of the match, Costa Rica waltzed through the midfield while the USMNT failed to create many chances. Bradley also wasn't on the pitch to direct traffic, provide cover, and hide some of the squad's problem areas, like their flank play.
DaMarcus Beasley, once again filling in at left back, wasn't great. And Michael Orozco-Fiscal, filling in at right back, was the worst player on the pitch. He was getting abused out there. It was humiliating and sad, but in a perverted way, hilarious, in that it was almost slapstick how he waved Costa Rican players through to make uncontested crosses into the box. Beasley may make the start tonight against Mexico, but anyone watching the Costa Rica match knows that Orozco-Fiscal, bless his devotion and service to these stars and stripes, probably needs to be as far away from onrushing attacking players as possible, lest he suck ass again.
Unfortunately, Klinsmann doesn't really have that option now, because just about everyone who could get suspended for the upcoming match did. Our boy Cameron, who was actually everyone's favorite choice to start the Costa Rica match at right back instead of Orozco-Fiscal, picked up a yellow and can't play tonight. Altidore wasn't even fit enough to start and came on in the 71st, which provided him just enough time to shove a Costa Rican, get booked for it, and miss tonight's match. And then this happened to starting center back Matt Besler. Poor Matt Besler.
Not having Bradley, Cameron, Altidore, and Besler available against a desperate, incredibly talented Mexican side may prove to be the biggest loss from the Costa Rica match. The USMNT lost a lot of its creativity, defensive bite, goalscoring, and depth. And if nothing else, Orozco-Fiscal will probably play tonight at center back. Though it's his more natural position, we can't stop recalling how many Costa Ricans were ran unmolested behind, across, or past Orozco-Fiscal all game long.
Still, it's reasonable to expect that U.S. Soccer will be able to handle El Tri tonight. Mexico has been looking shaky recently. They were ousted early from the Confederations Cup, lost in the semifinal CONCACAF Gold Cup, and haven't won in four World Cup qualifiers. In Friday's shock 2-1 loss to Honduras in Mexico City, they conceded two second-half goals in two minutes. El Tri may have the most ability of any squad in CONCACAF, but their play has been uninspiring, and they're in a fix.
The Mexicans, remember, were already in the early stages of what was starting to resemble something conspicuously similar to a crisis. Then, at 3 a.m. following the Honduras result, Mexico manager Chepo de la Torre was fired, and replaced by assistant Luis Fernando Tena. Tena led Mexico's U-23 side to 2012 Olympic gold in London. But this ain't the Olympics. His team will be fighting for World Cup qualification against a capable American side that hasn't lost to Mexico since Klinsmann was appointed two summers ago.
If El Tri lose, they'll be in a very dangerous position going into the final two matches of World Cup Qualifying, with difficult fixtures at home to Panama and in Costa Rica to play. If Mexico lose or draw and Panama win at Honduras tonight, Mexico would drop out of the all-important top four.
So tonight's a massive match, with direct World Cup implications. The Yanks, with a win, can start planning their trip to South America. If El Tri lose, they'll suddenly in a fight to hold onto fourth place. And if the Mexicans somehow do escape Columbus with a win to pull within two points of the Americans, it's squeaky bum time for the USMNT.
Kickoff is at 8 p.m.
Photo Credit: Getty