Is it realistic to expect six points from these matches, leaving the US at least four points clear at the top and six points clear of the play-in? Nope. But four might be somewhere within the realm of the possible and would give us a bit of a cushion for the push through the second half of the Hex. So let's take a look at the first match, tonight (10 PM, ET) in Costa Rica...
Thinking Things Through
How about a few key points to consider?
- Cool under fire. The atmosphere will be intense. It will be key to avoid mental mistakes on the defensive end and in our tackling, particularly given how many of our players are in yellow card jeopardy. To that end, I don't think you'll see Bob throwing too many young guys in the lineup.
- Watch their midfield. They've got some trickery and long-range bombers in the attacking midfield. In some respects, this plays right into Bob's hands tactically, as he's been playing a two holding-mid set that should be ideally suited to combat this type of attack, as we saw against Mexico. The problems occur when we get stretched and pulled out of position, particularly with the bouncy-bouncy ball on that basketball court of a playing surface at Saprissa.
- Possess the ball. Easier said than done, but there's nothing, shy of an early goal for the US, that would turn the volume down on the crowd better than holding onto the ball. Of course, having said that, the aforementioned nasty turf isn't conducive to slick, one-touch, pretty play. The key will be not to rush clearances and to try and play simple when the occasion presents itself, rather than dumping useless balls over the top, which will inevitably bounce out of play or to their keeper, and trying to thread needles that don't exist.
X's and O's
Sure, it's not ideal, but it does tick some of the boxes identified above, namely (1) maintaining possession and frustrating the opposition (and their fans) and (2) going with an experienced roster that has either faced qualifiers in Central America or plays in a demanding league. A couple of words of explanation for this 4-3-3, 4-5-1, 4-4-2, whatever-it-is...
- I don't think anybody would bet against the central defense and keeper selections, so we'll leave those as given and understood.
- I like Wynne's recovery speed and athleticism at right back, but that athleticism often gets him into trouble with ugly tackles that might be card-bait in this match. Spector is a more seasoned defender who is less likely to get into such trouble. Also, Spector has faced this sort of crowd before. Wynne? Not so much.
- Left back is a great big pile of suck. If we had a reliable third option in central defense, I'd be tempted to push Boca there. If Hejduk or Cherundolo were healthy, we could push Spector to the left. If, if, if. Pearce might have recent qualification history on his side, but his last trip to Central America didn't go well. Bornstein might be the best option, but I'm not sure he's seasoned enough for a game like this. Beasley isn't exactly match sharp, and I wasn't terribly impressed by his turn at left back last time out, but he is vastly experienced and brings excellent recovery speed to the table. And, despite my doubts, Bob's been mouthing only good words about his play at left back against T&T. But the primary reason for selecting him is my midfield alignment...
- Bradley Jr. is pretty much a given, and with Edu out, Clark just flying in, Feilhaber in recovery mode, and Kljestan stinking up MLS, I think the experienced head of Mastroeni gets the call to pair with him in the holding roles. Likewise, Mastro can drop back to cover any runs Beasley may make from left back because I'd want Beasley overlapping Torres, who is playing pinched in on the left and more like a playmaker than winger (granted, we might see Kljestan in this role, but I want to see more out of Torres). Donovan has room to roam between Ching and the midfield, pulling onto the left wing for balls from Torres or to play ticky-tack stuff with Beasley. Dempsey also has freedom to roam the right flank and attacking central midfield in support of Ching and to get on the end of crosses from the Donovan/Beasley/Torres triumvirate.
- Altidore's youth, playing with a bum toe on turf, and yellow card danger argue against his inclusion from the start, so Ching gets the call to hold up play and work the ball to Donovan on the left and Dempsey on the right, though I wouldn't bet against seeing Jozy as a sub if we're down.
Is this a must-win game? No. But if we lose, the Hex is going to get really tight, particularly given that our next match after Honduras is a trip to Azteca. While I might wish for a victory, and the safety that it brings, I think a scoring draw is a more realistic ambition. I expect us to use the El Salvador wake-up call as precisely that. No early let-downs. Stay focused, remain compact defensively, use the ball wisely, and let their aggression play against them. There will be chances. The key will taking them cooly and with precision.