EDGAR ZUNIGA - Friday, May 29, 2009
If you thought Team USA had a tough time in El Salvador, just you wait until they head down to Costa Rica.
Oh boy, that's going to be fun.
Estadio Ricardo Saprissa Aymá is one of the most hostile environments for any visiting team to suffer. The stands are practically on top of the field with a fence separating visiting teams just feet from a ravenous and, sometimes, vile crowd. You can bet the Ticos are going to do whatever they can to get the best of the US - again.
They always do.
In case you're wondering how the US has done in Saprissa, let's go back in time...
While the US had already qualified for World Cup 2006, it does not excuse the 3-0 beating Costa Rica laid on the US. That's just ugly.
In qualifying for World Cup 2002, a shaky US team, still reeling from consecutive losses to Mexico and Honduras, came into Saprissa and left with a 2-0 stamped across their faces. The loss nearly pushed the US out of the World Cup.
As if having to travel down there once during qualifying isn't hard enough, for the World Cup '98 qualifiers, the US got beat both times they stumbled into Saprissa.
In '94, the US hosted so they didn't have to go through qualifiers.
However, in qualifying for World Cup '90...yep, Costa Rica won again.
You'd have to go as far back as May 26, 1985 for the last time the US came out of Saprissa with any points - a 1-1 draw.
The sad fact is that Team USA has never won in Saprissa during World Cup qualifiers. Will this time around be any different?
The Ticos defeated the strong Honduran team 2-0 in the first match of the final hexagonal. However, Costa Rica looked very weak in a 2-0 road loss to Mexico, and, most recently, sweated out a 1-0 victory over a very feisty El Salvador squad. They will be counting on their intimidating home-field advantage to bounce back with a quality win over a quality opponent.
That's not to say that Team USA is completely toothless. But if the so-called CONCACAF giants don't want to be cut down to size by the Ticos, there are some issues they need to address now.
After jumping onto the field in El Salvador to help save the US from an indignant loss and ripping the nets with a hat trick against Trinidad & Tobago, Jozy Altidore has finally demonstrated the physical and speedy presence that has long been absent in Team USA's offensive scheme.
His performances have entrenched him as the team's main offensive threat, and, with Landon Donovan backing him up, it allows Bob Bradley to add another dimension to the dynamics of the team's attack.
However, if the US wants to succeed in Costa Rica (and against the other heavyweights in this final hexagonal) the team needs to establish a consistency up front. The most glaring absence in the US midfield is that the team lacks a true playmaker. We've seen Donovan feed Altidore some sweet passes, but, what if Donovan becomes unavailable for some reason? Who could step up in his absence?
Although he's shown a fearless penchant for going at opposing defenses, Altidore still hasn't fully developed the ability to create scoring opportunities on his own time and again. And, if you think about it, there really isn't anybody that has shown a constant ability to get the ball up to the forwards.
Some have pointed to Freddie Adu, whose impressive performances in the 2007 Under-20 World Cup showed everyone his ability to distribute the ball and create numerous scoring chances for his teammates and himself. He certainly created a lot of buzz, especially when he transferred to Benfica.
But, for some reason, Adu's performance for the U-20s hasn't yet translated to the professional stage and the senior US squad. During those rare opportunities when does come in for the US, he seems very subdued, although he has shown flashes of brilliance. He spent most of last season languishing on the bench for Monaco.
So, if Adu isn't the answer, then who?
Maybe it's time that the US starts paying more attention to Maurice Edu, who could function as Michael Bradley's partner in the midfield.
In case you haven't been keeping up with him, after overcoming injuries, Edu earned a starting spot with Scottish champions Rangers, scoring a pair of goals in 11 appearances. If he can maintain this pace and bring that energy to Team USA, it will be vital for the team's aspirations in Saprissa.
Another issue the US needs to address is the back line, which has been unreliable all too often, allowing opponents unnecessary scoring opportunities. One of the biggest issues is at left back, where Heath Pearce has been flat, as of late.
Well, how about giving Jonathan Bornstein another chance? There are some who might shake their heads at this notion. Yeah, he might have lost some form last year due to injuries and what not, but he has bounced back and is one of the reasons why Chivas USA is currently enjoying the best record in MLS this season.
The 2006 MLS Rookie of the Year may yet have an important part to play in his team's fortunes as they head into the toughest part of their qualifying schedule.
After the excursion to Costa Rica, the US comes home to face a very explosive Honduras team that crushed Mexico 3-1 in their last encounter. Despite being still winless away from home, the Catrachos are expected to join the US in South Africa and will prove to be a very worthy opponent.
Then, comes the trip to the filth of Mexico's Estadio Azteca, where the US has yet to record a win in qualifying.
But, we're getting too far ahead with that one.
For now, Team USA has the daunting task of enforcing their hegemony as the class of CONCACAF against some tough opponents. A win against Costa Rica, although not expected, would be significant, and the team could ride that wave of confidence over Honduras.
It won't be easy.
It will probably be ugly.
However, the US still has time to prepare and shuffle their cards. Let's hope Bradley chooses right and deals a winning hand.