When the United States walks out onto the field at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on Friday in front of a sold out, deafening crowd, they will be be one loss away from the brink of World Cup qualifying disaster. And that will be the easy part.
Four days later they will head to Estadio Azteca, where more than 100,000 ruthless fans, altitude and smog will be aiding Mexico, who are already the best team in CONCACAF.
With all of that against them, and a spot in the 2014 World Cup up for grabs, the U.S. will have to be in top form. That is especially true in defense, where the Americans will be facing the two best attacks the region has to offer in Costa Rica and Mexico.
Tasked with that, Jurgen Klinsmann's options at the back will be Tony Beltran, Matt Besler, Geoff Cameron, Omar Gonzalez, Clarence Goodson, Justin Morrow and maybe midfielders Maurice Edu and Demarcus Beasley. That is it.
Klinsmann has called in a crop of defenders short on experience and who have hardly played together, who will then be thrown to the dogs of the Ticos and El Tri. The defensive selections have pushed U.S. fans, whose nerves were already piqued by the stakes of the matches, into full-on panic mode.
But Klinsmann didn't have any other options in defense. Injuries to Steve Cherundolo, Fabian Johnson, Timothy Chandler, Edgar Castillo, Jonathan Spector and even Jose Francisco Torres, who Klinsmann was crucified for using at left back in a pinch last summer, left the U.S. manager without a bare cupboard of defenders. The best suggestion to strengthen the back line was Carlos Bocanegra, who would bring experience and leadership, but who also hasn't played a match for his second division club since February 2.
If Carlos Bocanegra is the answer, you are asking the wrong question. Klinsmann just doesn't have the players available to him to call in a better defense.
The result is a seemingly new batch of defenders, but that isn't unfamiliar for the U.S. While most of the focus since Klinsmann took over the U.S. 20 months ago has been on the Americans' attack and their inability to create chances and goals, the defense has been a revolving door of players. New players in, old players out, old players back in and new players shifted around have been the norm at the back.
For all the change, though, there has been one constant -- it doesn't matter who is in the U.S. defense.
Not one defender started in all six matches in the third round of World Cup qualifying. Seven different players started along the back line and even Oguchi Onyewu made a cameo off the bench. But no matter how much Klinsmann shuffled around the defense the results were the same.
The U.S. has allowed one goal per match in the World Cup qualifying, conceding twice to Jamaica before keeping a clean sheet against the Reggae Boyz and allowing one goal in their other five matches. The defense was amazingly consistent, teetering on the brink of disaster, but doing just well enough to churn out results and top their group.
When Klinsmann shocked observers by putting Torres, a midfielder, at left back against Antigua and Barbuda, the U.S. allowed one goal. Four months later when the U.S. played the Benna Boys again, the veteran Bocanegra, who was playing regularly for his club at the time, got the nod at left back, but the result was the same -- one goal conceded.
In the Americans' worst defensive performance of the round came at Jamaica, where they conceded on two direct free kicks. Both were given after fouls by midfielders, and the unheralded and often mocked Michael Parkhurst was the team's best player. The next month, Parkhurst moved from his right back spot against Jamaica to start at left back against Guatemala. The U.S. needed a win to avoid elimination from the World Cup with Parkhurst clear on the other side of the field, the Americans still gave up just one goal.
Klinsmann has built a system with the U.S. that minimizes the importance of any one player, or even any two players. That is especially true at the back. The U.S. doesn't have Thiago Silva, Vincent Kompany or Dante to stick in the center of defense and completely transform what is a very flawed group. They have a system that has proven at least successful enough so far to mask their deficiencies and do just enough to get results.
Giving up one goal has become the norm for the U.S., with the worst case scenario being a very managable two, as was the case in Jamaica and in the first match of the Hex in Honduras. At this point, with trusted veterans at the back or kids like Gonzalez, Morrow and even converted midfielders like Edu and Beasley, the defensive production is a known entity.
What is unknown is where the goals are going to come from. There is much uncertainty in the attack -- will Clint Dempsey be 90 minutes fit, can Jozy Altidore finally translate his club form to country, and can the U.S. transition quickly? The answers to those questions will determine whether the U.S. will win or lose, qualify or not qualify, because the defense answers every question the same way: one goal.
When the U.S. walks into Denver -- and then four days later into the cauldron that is Azteca -- with the cliff of elimination creeping ever closer, they will do so with a defense full of flaws. But that is no different than usual. Klinsmann has drawn the short straw, and it doesn't matter. Who is in defense rarely does with the U.S. anymore.