By Michael Lewis
COMMERCE CITY, Colorado -- The United States' charge seems simple and direct enough when it hosts Costa Rica in a World Cup qualifier on Friday night: win and get three points.
But it might not seem that simple to the Americans because they enter the CONCACAF hexagonal round match a bit thin in the back.
No. 1 goalkeeper Tim Howard has been sidelined for several weeks after breaking some bones in his back. Aston Villa's Brad Guzan is expected to replace him in the net. Veteran central defender Carlos Bocanegra (110 international appearances), who has captained the team, wasn't chosen because he isn't playing regularly with his club, Racing Santander.
Injuries to Steve Cherundolo, Timmy Chandler, Jonathan Spector, Danny Williams and Fabian Johnson have forced head coach Jurgen Klinsmann to pick a defense that had a combined total of 12 qualifying matches under its belt, 11 between central defenders Geoff Cameron (six) and Clarence Goodson (five).
Yet, Klinsmann was optimistic that the back four will gel and excel against the Ticos (0 wins, 1 draw, 0 losses; 1 point) in Commerce City, Colo.
"We have a roster together that gives us the confidence to approach both games very, very positively," he said. "I think we have a group of players coming in that have everything to get the job done."
Central defender Omar Gonzalez made his qualifying debut in the 2-1 loss at Honduras on Feb. 6. Tony Beltran, Matt Besler and Justin Morrow have not played a qualifier, at least not yet.
"You only get experience if you play," Klinsmann said. "If you don't have the experience yet, then you have to get your games under your belt and gain that experience. I think the players that are here for the upcoming challenges, they definitely have the qualities and the confidence to get the job done. Experience is built over years, and it's definitely an important factor. This is the roster we have total trust in and they will gain more experience by doing that."
After opening the final round with a loss at Honduras, the last-place U.S. (0-0-1, 0 pts.) cannot afford to give away any points, especially with a Tuesday confrontation against Mexico at the Azteca in Mexico City looming.
The Americans last lost a home qualifier more than 11 years ago. They bring in an impressive 21-game home unbeaten streak (19-2-0) into the encounter, last falling at home when they dropped a 3-2 decision to Honduras in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 1, 2011. Two of those draws were earned after the U.S. had clinched a spot either in the World Cup or for the next qualifying round.
"Every home game in the hexagonal is a must-win situation," Klinsmann said. "You want to get all the points possible in your home games so, independent of the result in Honduras, it's a must-win on Friday night."
Klinsmann felt the U.S. would rebound from the Honduras defeat.
"We couldn't adjust to the climate circumstances," he said, adding that the team "just played under our usual level.
"We learned quite a bit from that game but I think you're going to see a completely different game on Friday night and then as well in Mexico. We get challenged in several areas. We want to keep a high tempo. We want to go forward and create chances and we want to get the crowd behind us as quickly as possible and get the necessary points."
The Costa Rican and Mexico qualifiers both will be played at altitude. Klinsmann, however, said he did not choose his team based on whether a player could play at rarefied air.
"It has no influence at all," he said. "We're going to choose the players based on their qualities and based on how we put the puzzle together in different areas of the team. Yes, it might be easier for certain players to adjust to altitude based on where they play, but that had no influence on this roster at all."