The United States Men’s National Team is set to square off Tuesday night against arch-rival Mexico in the final group stage of 2014 World Cup qualifying. With a blizzard-inspired win over Costa Rica Friday night, the Americans currently sit in second place and would be more than pleased to leave Estadio Azteca with even a point to show for the effort. Mexico, on the other hand, is very much in need of three points. With lackluster performances against Jamaica and hexagonal leader Honduras, El Tri finds itself in unfamiliar territory – in the bottom half of the group.
We can see that Honduras currently lead the United States, Panama, Mexico and Jamaica, whilst Costa Rica round out the group—unlikely to be a genuine contender for qualification.
And already, we can make a few fair predictions about the standings, starting with the fact that Honduras are likely to move through to the World Cup.
They are particularly strong at home, and have the attacking talent needed to score goals when needed, like we saw recently against Mexico.
It might not have been the first team that we expected to declare through to the World Cup, but with their games against all of the smaller teams still to be played, expect Honduras to find themselves well clear on top of the table by the time the reverse fixtures come.
Which leaves the United States and Mexico both needing to pick up those second and third spots—something they should do given their respective talent.
However, it could all come down to this match—particularly for Mexico—who can ill-afford to give up a stack of points to their rival nations here. If they lose to the United States here, or even draw against them, then their run at the World Cup will be significantly harder.
What do we know about the American side ahead of tonight’s pivotal match-up?
While much has been made of “The Snow Game” – as many will long refer to it – one would be hard-pressed to draw any any concrete conclusions about the American squad from a game that only can only generously be referred to as a soccer match. The conditions limited possession and offered very little in terms of player evaluation. And with several players currently unavailable to club and country because of injuries, more questions than answers remain for a US squad that opened hexagonal play with a loss at Honduras.
Add to the list of unknowns – a replacement for midfielder Jermaine Jones – who took an injury against Costa Rica and was not replaced on the roster ahead of the match with Mexico. If you’re keeping tabs, that will mean 25 different lineups in the Klinsmann era. The obvious choices to replace Jones are Kyle Beckerman and Maurice Edu if Klinsmann decides to keep the same formation. (Empire of Soccer’s Patrick MacDonald is leaning toward Kljestan) Brek Shea or Eddie Johnson could be options; but only if Jurgen decides to buck tradition and come out playing for an early lead. Considering he seems hopelessly in love with the lumbering Beckerman, good money’s on seeing the dreadlocks chasing El Tri midfielders in the defense third. Bunker down and hope for a point.
Unlike some, I’m not yet a Klinsmann-hater. I was ready to see Bob Bradley go and I thought the National Team needed an “outsider’s” perspective to break trends and challenge conventional thinking. The years of gritting out victories by digging in, hoping for goals on set pieces, or praying for Landon Donovan to make a game-changing appearance were frustrating and left me anything but optimistic about the future. What Klinsmann brought to the side was a hope that American Soccer would take the “next step.” We’d cultivate young talent and discover untapped resources abroad. On some levels, that’s exactly what his arrival has produced. But it has also driven a wedge between the head coach and the old guard.
The Sporting News piece by Brian Strauss shed light on that strange dichotomy. With growth and change comes pushback. With expansion and new approaches comes resentment. And as Klinsmann has appeared to favor a more German flavor to the American brand, it has also brought a new set of challenges – divided loyalty and questioned patriotism.
Fill in a name – Timmy Chandler, Jermaine Jones, Danny Williams… the story’s the same. Are they American soccer players – born in Germany to American servicemen – or are they Germans that just weren’t good enough to make the German National Team?
My position? Can they not be both?
If an American serviceman volunteers to devote his life to serving his country abroad, he’s done far more than he’s ever going to have to do to earn my respect and admiration. If said serviceman then decides to have a child with a German citizen, very little changes. His child is still the son (or daughter) of a man who has put his life on the line to serve this country. Accordingly, that child should be embraced with open arms. He’s an American. That said, the child is also the offspring of a German national. He’s German too. And if he’s been raised in Germany, odds are pretty good that he’s… ”pretty German.”
What comes with that? Being a fan of German football. Try telling a teenager with an opportunity to join that tradition to take a pass for a country that he’s only known from a distance. That’s not an easy choice. We’re blessed with the benefit of knowing how great it is to live here and to have grown up here, but not every citizen of the world is waking up every day saying “Man I wish I was American.” Why would we expect these kids to be any different?
That put out there, I’m still dumbfounded by the indecision of some. American or German? Sorry mom. I’m an American. Give me the Red, White, and Blue. So, I do “get” why some are frustrated with Klinsmann’s German obsession. Either they’re with us, or they’re not. Make a choice. We’re moving on.
But I do believe there is something to be said for a fair amount of outreach. By bringing dual-German-American players into the fold, Klinsmann has managed to do what his predecessors never could – create competition at every position. And in doing so, he’s substantially deepened the player pool. Four years ago, we’d all be terrified at just the thought of facing Mexico with seven regulars on the shelf due to injury and Landon Donovan on hiatus. Today, we’re confident we’ll be angry if we leave Azteca with anything less than a point.
People have long sought the “first great American soccer talent.” They speak about it as if it is somehow written in the stars. A combination of American athleticism and the right tactical upbringing manifesting itself in a prodigy the great clubs of the world will be lining up for. Well, where do you think that kid’s going to come from? Jackson? Topeka? Playing for Stones River FC in Smyrna, Tennessee? Maybe, but the more likely scenario is that he’s going to be a kid raised abroad in the development academy of a team waving a flag of another country. And if Klinsmann wasn’t looking for that kid in Germany – or anywhere for that matter – would he really be doing his job?
But enough of that, I’m very much looking forward to tonight’s match with El Tri and I’m optimistic about our chances. Frankly, I lost sleep last night thinking about it. Maybe because the Costa Rica game left me wanting a bit, I’m ready to see where the team stands at this point in qualification. A point would be great; three would be amazing; but even a good performance that earns no points would be acceptable at this point as long as the team begins to show progress.
Much has been made of Klinsmann’s reported lack of tactical prowess. And on that front, I’m right there with the haters. He says he wants an attack-minded aggressive mentality; but he repeatedly marches out a team in a formation that is anything but. See Kyle Beckerman and any formation that includes his name. While I could easily see Klinsmann bunkering in tonight to play for a tie, nothing would please me more than a swing for the fences. With a banged-up back line, maybe the best defense is a good offense. And considering how dreadful our defense has looked of late, we may need a really frigging good offense this evening.
I wouldn’t expect to see these players or this formation tonight, but if I could fire Klinsmann for a day, this would be my starting eleven…
Via US Soccer – “Name your starting eleven.” Give it a shot…
The full slate of televised World Cup qualifying matches available at Soccer Insider…
Photo Credit: US Soccer