The United States Men’s National Team (or USMNT in blogger parlance) comes into this round of World Cup Qualifiers with the opportunity to cement its place in Brazil next year. Standing in its way are familiar CONCACAF foes Costa Rica and Mexico. The team will first travel to Costa Rica on Friday September 6th, and then return to Columbus, Ohio to face Mexico on Tuesday September 10th. Although the temptation for many fans will be to look to Tuesday’s matchup in Columbus with our South-of-the-Border archrivals and focus on Landon Donovan’s return to the fold after an extended exile, Friday’s test in Costa Rica provides potential storylines with even more intrigue.
Nearly six months ago, a resilient USMNT faced off against Costa Rica in Denver, with the field covered in snow shortly after kickoff. Early in the second half, the referee blew his whistle and indicated that he was halting the match (with the US leading 1-0 on the back of a first-half Clint Dempsey strike). After several minutes of protests, particularly from US Coach Jurgen Klinsmann, the match resumed and the US ultimately prevailed. Costa Rica subsequently lodged a formal complaint with FIFA over the referee’s decision the next day. FIFA declined to grant a replay of the match, ensuring that the US grabbed three vital points and galvanizing the team before their trip to Mexico (where the US played to 0-0 draw). In response, Costa Rica attempted to move Friday’s match from its newly-built National Stadium in San Juan to the old (and similarly named) National Stadium. The old stadium, first constructed in 1924, was renowned in CONCACAF for being a cauldron of Costa Rican fervor, and a place the US often struggled to play. The artificial turf surface and sweltering heat did opponents no favors, either. Fortunately, this rather blatant attempt to exact payback on the USMNT for its victory in Denver was unable to go through, and the Americans will instead kickoff at the new stadium.
Unfortunately, it appears that the game’s location at the new National Stadium may be the only break going in the USMNT’s favor. Principally, striker Jozy Altidore was kept out of Sunderland’s weekend match against Crystal Palace with a hamstring strain. Although he will join his teammates stateside, there is no word yet on his availability. Altidore has been on fire for the National Team in recent months, demonstrated not only by his hat-trick against Bosnia-Herzegovina three weeks ago, but his torrid form during the June World Cup Qualifiers. He also opened his account at new club Sunderland in mid-week in the English League Cup. If Altidore misses either (or even worse, both) of the matches in the next week, the team will struggle to replace him. As goalkeeper Tim Howard emphasized recently, "Jozy’s our money-maker."
However, even lacking the physical presence that he adds, Altidore’s potential absence poses questions that may still be answered satisfactorily. His former teammate at AZ Alkmaar (Holland) Aron Johannsson, recently of Iceland, has been called up by Klinsmann. Appearing in either of the upcoming matches in a US shirt would "cap-tie" (i.e. lock-in) Johannsson as an American player for the rest of his career. Johannsson only decided to make himself available for the USMNT in early August. His decision generated significant controversy in Iceland, where he was raised and played as a youth. (Note: Johannsson was born in Alabama to Icelandic graduate students studying stateside. Given his "dual" nationality, FIFA rules allow such a player to choose between national teams, and additionally permit a one-time switch between the youth level and the senior level. Although Johannsson played for Iceland’s youth national teams, he remains eligible to appear for the US in these upcoming games.)
In addition to Johannsson, Altidore’s potential absence could allow Seattle Sounders forward Eddie Johnson to move to his more natural position up top, rather than as a winger where he has often plied his trade since being recalled to the USMNT by Klinsmann. Johnson has made headlines both for his career resurrection since moving back to MLS with the Seattle Sounders eighteen months ago and his "Pay Me" celebration after scoring against Columbus on Saturday. It is worth noting that, after Seattle’s acquisition of Clint Dempsey, the Sounders have reached their limit of three "Designated Players", with Obafemi Martins and Mauro Rosales occupying the other two slots. In short, Johnson’s not-so-subtle demand would be augmented significantly if he continues to score both in MLS and for USMNT. Coupled with the questions surrounding Altidore’s availability, these two fierce tests provide the absolute best opportunity for Johnson to showcase his skills and offer a compelling argument for his demands.
With two important rivalry matches in the way of a guaranteed place in Brazil next year, the USMNT enters this round of qualifiers with lingering question marks over injuries and returning players. Fortunately, the ever-increasing depth of the "player pool" has provided Klinsmann with an ability to adjust to the inevitable absences that come with international-level players playing so many games in short succession. Ideally, Jozy Altidore will be available for both matches this week. If he is not though, there are hungry and more-than-capable players hoping to impress and seize their chance at a roster spot in next year’s World Cup in Brazil.