By George Quraishi
For fans of the U.S. men's soccer team, this week has been the most fun you can have without winning. That may sound like a strange view of things since, you know, we lost down in Costa Rica; and because our most important player went down with an ankle injury; and because we now have to play Mexico with a couple of key players serving suspensions, including starting center-back Matt Besler for this piece of theater. None of those things is very good. But if you wanted to describe what happened in San Jose on Friday in a positive way, if you were inclined to take a slightly longer view about what all of this will mean for the team, here's how you'd do it.
First, the trip to Costa Rica proved that there's some fight in CONCACAF, after all. Back in July, a U.S. team made up mostly of second stringers won the Gold Cup far too comfortably. And though Jurgen Klinsmann has been scheduling friendlies against top European teams, the U.S. needs a healthy diet of real competition in its real competitions in order to improve. By the time we get to the World Cup, the team will be far better off if it's found answers for the hard questions-- the kinds of questions Costa Rica was asking on Friday when they beat the U.S. 3-1.
Most of those inquiries were directed to the back four, particularly Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez in the center. Both were caught woefully out of position on Costa Rica's second goal, when a well-placed cross into the box found three Ticos marked only by DaMarcus Beasley. Besler was poorly positioned on the third goal, as well. A long clearance by Costa Rica found him on the wrong side of the very impressive Joel Campbell, who dribbled from half-field, fending off Besler and beating Tim Howard with his shot.
One of the team's narratives coming out of the summer is a newfound sense of depth. To Klinsmann's credit, there is competition for nearly every spot on the field. There's no doubt that the team has able replacements; the question now is whether Klinsmann will be able to fashion small adjustments to his plan in order to accommodate the players he has available. That's the second upside coming out of Friday: the coach will be forced to reckon with all the permutations of his squad, and how best to cover for the inevitable injuries, suspensions, and runs of poor form.
For instance, with Clint Dempsey playing up top in place of the recovering Jozy Altidore, the team lacked a focal point on attack. Graham Zusi's excellent service from the flank has been a big factor in Altidore's recent goal-scoring form, but without him or Eddie Johnson on the field, Zusi has no target.
Landon Donovan operated behind the striker, where Dempsey himself typically plays. Behind Donovan, Jermaine Jones and Geoff Cameron (filling in for Michael Bradley) tried to hold the center. Klinsmann has come to rely on Bradley's ability to sit deep and break up plays, then get forward and make dangerous passes in the opposition's third. Straight up swapping Cameron for Bradley gave Klinsmann a pale shade of the former but nothing of the latter.
Jones on Friday night was no more capable of retaining possession and dictating play than Cameron. Opta stats show that he was caught in possession 22 times and misplaced a full 25% of his passes. This sloppiness has a knock-on effect. Without central midfielders who could feed him the ball higher up the field, Donovan went missing from the game for long stretches: he didn't attempt a single pass between minutes 32 and 45 and attempted only one between minutes 69 and 83.
Klinsmann's challenge is to find a way to control the midfield and create a link to his attackers in the absence of Bradley. Kyle Beckerman is my bet to take Cameron's place against Mexico. He's good in possession but doesn't provide a substitute for Bradley's forward thrust. For that, Klinsmann has several choices, none of whom is particularly seasoned at the international level: Mix Diskerud was on the bench in San Jose, Joe Corona was with his club, Tijuana, but has been called in for the Mexico game, and Sacha Klejstan, unwanted, was at the U.S. Open. Fielding any of them would require the coach to rethink the role Donovan played on Friday if he intends to play two more defensive-minded central midfielders again.
The team goes into Tuesday's game against Mexico without needing to win but motivated by the next best thing: the knowledge that Mexico does need to win. And Mexico has been really bad at winning, both in Columbus in the past decade and anywhere in this Hexagonal. Taking three points from El Tri would be sweet. Depending on the performance of Honduras, it might be enough to qualify the U.S. for the World Cup. Better yet, from the perspective of U.S. fans, is the blow it would deal to Mexico's own chances of qualifying, even for CONCACAF's fourth-place playoff spot against New Zealand.
As dreadful as Mexico has been, the performances of other CONCACAF teams at the Azteca have been really impressive. It's one of the most difficult places to play in the world. Along with Costa Rica's 90 minutes of dominance over the U.S., these signs of improvement from CONCACAF's also-rans bode well for a more competitive region. It's bad news, in the short term, for the United States. But in the bigger picture, nothing could be better.