Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann will need to juggle his roster like a game ball on Tuesday when he chooses his starting XI to take on Mexico.
He will be without four first-choice players—Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron—arguably his best overall player, best offensive player, best defender and most versatile player. And some kid named John Brooks went home.
The Nats called in three players from the reserve side that won this summer's Gold Cup: Clarence Goodson, Joe Corona and Jose Torres. Curiously, Klinsmann also chose veteran MLS midfielder Brad Davis over a Sasha Kljestan, who has Champions League experience.
The only like-for-like replacement was Goodson for Besler, centerback for centerback.
Otherwise, it's two creative attacking midfielders and a crafty one-footed veteran midfielder for a classic box-to-box midfielder, a target forward and a physical deep-lying presence. Four players will replace five.
A Perfect Storm
One week before game day, the Americans' luck quietly began to run out on them.
The U.S. dodged a cannon ball when FIFA denied the Costa Rican Federation's request to move the game to the worn carpet and imposing stands of Saprissa. The game would be played in a new stadium, and on new turf, with the rabid fans a safe distance from the field behind a track.
Circumstances were aligning just so, and the Americans began to believe that they could play for the win. Then it started to rain.
The first drop fell when CONCACAF assigned a Mexican officiating crew to do the game—four days before the U.S. plays Mexico. Bad news for the eight Americans with yellow cards.
The next raindrop made a slightly larger splash, as later raindrops always do. Klinsmann broke with his own tradition and released his roster one week before the game, but two starters—Altidore and Brad Evans—were injured over the weekend.
Still, the team only experienced a sunshower. In various interviews prior to the matchup, U.S. players reported seeing the sun shining despite the rain. The rainbow was due and would point the way to the pot of gold.
Then, it really began to rain. A full inch and a half of precipitation fell on Estadio Nacional between noon and kickoff. No playing surface can take that kind of water without some dilatory effects.
The actual rain abated just before kickoff when lightning struck. Bradley rolled his left ankle warming up on the soft surface. Twenty minutes before the start of the game, the Americans lost their field general.
As Scooby-Doo might say, "Ruh-roh!"
An Oblique Look at "The Disaster"
It looked bad, giving up a goal inside of two minutes and conceding again in the first 10. Right back Michael Orozco couldn't cover a Tupperware bin. Jermaine Jones and Cameron turned the ball over in dangerous positions.
The Nats were clearly rattled and out of sync, thrashing around ineffectually like a snake without a head.
Still, the Americans stuck to their system and continued to grind their opponents with possession and as much pressure as they could build. Down 2-1 at half, they seemed to have weathered the storm.
On paper, the U.S. outplayed the Costa Ricans. The U.S. possessed the ball for more than two-thirds of the game, attempting 511 passes and completing 81 percent. The Ticos managed only 243 passes and completed 71 percent.
The Americans maintained this passing dominance in the attacking third, completing 69 of 123 passes (63.3 percent) to the Ticos' 42 for 65 (60.5 percent). The Nats' aggression earned them five corners to their opponent's two.
If those numbers don't jibe with the game you thought you saw, it's because we haven't mentioned the 2 to 1 shot advantage posted by the Ticos (16 shots to eight). The Americans also coughed up 132 dribbles compared to the 100 they claimed.
The holding midfielders lost 37 of those dribbles (22 for Jones to lead the team), but posted a respectable 81 percent pass rate between them (84 percent for Cameron to lead the team).
This game was far from a disaster. The win streak was going to end some time, and when a streak ends, it's normally pit-mine ugly.
Yet despite the tough breaks and conceding a couple of queer early goals, the Americans fought hard for the remainder of the game. As the metrics show, they actually dominated long stretches of play, nearly conjuring an equalizer.
And It's Deep Too
Every USMNT fan has been relishing the recent depth of the player pool. Thirty-seven players contributed to the 12-game win streak and new players are still arriving.
It is apparently deep enough that Klinsmann feels he can be eclectic with his roster choices, going light on forwards and centerbacks but heavy on wingers and midfielders for the Mexican cage match.
UPDATE: Click here to see the squad Klinsmann has named to face Mexico.
If Michael Parkhurst gets the start at right back with Goodson stepping into centerback and Kyle Beckerman starting at defensive midfield, plus Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, half of the starting lineup against Mexico will come from the group Klinsmann used in the Gold Cup.
Several other Gold Cup standouts—Alejandro Bedoya, Mix Diskerud, Joe Corona and Jose Torres—could be called off the bench. Eddie Johnson could start and will surely come off the bench if he does not.
This is quite a journey from the inconsequential squad that occupied Nats fans over the summer to potential World Cup qualifying saviors. And they will need every bit of mojo they can muster to take down the physically and psychologically wounded Mexicans on Tuesday to clinch their World Cup berth.
So this is what we do, right? Speculate first, second-guess after? Truth is, this lineup choice would make a decent betting pool game—who can get the most positions on Klinsmann's lineup against Mexico?
With strange selections to replace the missing first-choice players on the team's roster, predicting the actual lineup will be like picking Powerball numbers.
So, once more into the breach:
Formation: 4-2-2-2 (the main Gold Cup formation)
GK: Brad Guzan (why not?)
LB: DaMarcus Beasley (completed 86 percent of his passes)
CB: Omar Gonzalez (going to need a monster game from him)
CB: Clarence Goodson (keeps getting his chances)
RB: Michael Parkhurst (at least he'll know how to switch on the overlap)
HM: Jermaine Jones (will Klinsmann push him forward or have him pivot with the other holding midfielder?)
HM: Kyle Beckerman (started alongside Jones for the Americans' historic win at Azteca last August)
LW: Fabian Johnson (connected well with Donovan and Dempsey)
RW: Alejandro Bedoya (could be Eddie Johnson or even Aron Johannsson)
F: Clint Dempsey (nearly had an equalizer and showed his skills more than once)
F: Landon Donovan (Expect the two forwards to alternate checking back into the hole where the No. 10 would normally roam, as they did in the Gold Cup. Watch the Johnson goal below to see how this movement works at its best.)
Put your pool entry in the comments below. Sorry, no wagering.
*All stats are courtesy of MLSSoccer.com.
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