Or the Cauldron, if you will. Less than a day from now the Yanks will be fully engaged in their toughest qualifying test to date– a night match in San Jose, Costa Rica at the fabled Saprissa, a venue where the United States have never taken even a point in World Cup Qualifying play.
What is certainly true is that all qualifying campaigns have their Shakespearean “once more into the breach” moments– and for the Yanks, it doubtlessly begins tomorrow. Participation in the Confederations Cup (a test that in and of itself would be more than enough for even a bolder side) has shortened rest afforded the Americans by a day– and as such the Yanks play Wednesday and Saturday instead of the June 6 and June 10 fixtures that await other CONCACAF sides. What this means essentially is that the Yanks play Los Ticos tomorrow evening in a 25,000 man mad-house of horrors with all the amenities: plastic field turf, temperatures in the 80s with intense humidity and perhaps tropical rain, flares, chain length fences, pounding drums, and for at least a few Americans, the nightmare of a 3-0 defeat in 2005. While that trip’s beating meant little as the Yanks had assured themselves of qualifying– it means much more tomorrow, especially given the last side to topple the Giants of CONCACAF on U.S. soil is the rested team they will play Saturday night in front of 60,000 (Mostly friendly) plus @ Soldier Field in Chicago.
There are essentially two ways to look at the next two matches. First, there is the common notion that the Americans ought to play for a point. A point in the Cauldron means the U.S. retain their lead in the Hexagon and come home, knowing that three points holding serve nearly assures them a trip to South Africa.
The second is that a point is disappointing for a program that has done everything you could want regionally except win in Estadio Azteca, (where they have, you should note, at least secured a point in qualifying) and that the logical next progression in become a force in the World is winning in the Saprissa. Let’s call this the “Rule with an iron fist” way of looking at the match.
History indicates a point would be a fantastic and positive result. In 2000, with a point certainly there for the taking, the Americans were victimized by the intensity of the Saprissa. Greg Berhalter was penalized for a handball that ultimately led to the Americans defeat. Bruce Arena remains convinced that the “handball” was a result of the ruthless chanting and threatening Tico supporters– who are about as close to the field at the Saprissa as the Cameron Crazies are to the basketball court. Only difference is once you get past the face paint and the 1500 SAT Score level insults– the Cameron Crazies don’t really make you fear to be alive.
So, think like– Cameron Crazies, except more drunk and with drums and knives and stuff.
The bottom line is thus far– the best three sides in CONCACAF have all held serve at home with 6, 6 and 3 points respectively. All the panic in Mexico is all the more laughable given that El Tri won comfortably in their only home qualifier. This places great pressure on Bob Bradley’s side (and Costa Rica too- depending on how you want to look at it) to get at least one win in the next two matches. The failure to secure at least three points of the next two means the U.S. could be looking at the CONCACAF 4th place vs. South America 5th place qualifying playoff– a terrifying result given that those spots appear to be a battle between two very solid teams, Columbia and Uruguay. If the Yanks do fail– the qualifying journey that started so splendidly in Columbus against Mexico becomes a full-scale assault, with a Confederations Cup and a Gold Cup in between to let the panic fester.
The pressure on the U.S. is magnified by a variety of fitness issues. Frankie Hejduk has a groin injury and appears poised to miss at least the trip to San Jose. While he will travel with the Yanks from their training launching pad in Miami, (where they’ve been running around on field turf for a week waiting on the European contingent to fully arrive) he will not suit up and will hope to recover fully by Chicago. His absence is further complicated by the continued injury problems that sidelined Steve Cherundolo for yet another training camp, and the knee injury to Mo Edu, one of the Yanks in best form abroad, which will keep him out at least until Saturday while Rangers doctors figure out the extent of the injury across the pond in Glasgow. If his physical goes poorly– he could be out for the Confederations Cup, which brings along with it the headache of finding a suitable replacement for that tournament as well.
On top of the Hejduk/Cherundolo/Edu fitness issues, you have Jozy Altidore, who for reasons known only to our Lord has not played a match since the U.S. April win over Trinidad and Tobago. Even discounting the rust, he had a minor toe surgery and is not yet up to 100 percent fitness. This likely means Landon Donovan in a CF/Shadow Striker role with Brian Ching holding the ball up, and the Americans cynically moving forward when they can tomorrow evening. Ching’s fitness and effort is never an issue, and his Hawai’i roots and the fact he’s played all over the continent for the Dynamo, who play in the oven that is Houston, mean the weather, heat, and venue won’t effect him– but it is likely the Yanks will still be shy in attack.
All the doomsday aside– the Americans are deeper now and they finally have players who can drive the attack when the main engines aren’t ready to run. They finally have defenders who excel internationally, instead of withering after one splendid half. (I’m still looking at you Jon Bornstein!!) Clint Dempsey’s form at Fulham this spring was nothing short of spectacular, Tim Howard led an Everton side whose injuries made the Yanks look like they had a couple guys with stubbed toes to the FA CUP Finals, and both Carlos Bocanegra and Gooch won championships abroad. Michael Bradley was instrumental in helping Gladbach avoid Bundesliga relegation. So there are reasons for a sunny disposition as the Yanks head for the Saprissa in the hot and rainy season.
All said– a bold challenge for the Yanks tomorrow night as they head into the breach of their most brutal month until South Africa 2010. More on the game, and a projected starting 11, tomorrow. And of course, June Yankette of the Month coming soon.