It feels like we’ve been saying this for the entirety of this World Cup qualifying cycle, but this next game for the U.S. Men’s National Team is (yet again) an important one. Perhaps it’s not the do-or-die sort of game that many made previous matches out to be, but with the Yanks sitting three points behind Costa Rica in the Hexagonal standings it certainly wouldn't hurt to win this one. Coupled with the fact that after this game Costa Rica plays Mexico while the U.S. takes on a Honduras team that it dismantled 6-0 in March, if everything goes to plan then the USMNT could potentially be sitting second in the standings. With all of that being said, let’s get into this list.
A Fast Start
This is something the team has always seemed to struggle with. Too often it seems like we’re going into halftime biting our nails nervously because of a lackluster first half performance. Obviously, there are games where we score early or get off to a strong start (Clint Dempsey’s goal against Ghana in 2014 and Michael Bradley’s against Mexico this June come to mind) but the trend seems to be that we can’t really kick our rears into gear until near or after halftime. Against weaker opposition this usually isn’t a problem and the team can still continue and get a result, but against stronger teams that we’ll encounter in the World Cup (including a Costa Rica team that’s proven it can beat the U.S.) the importance of starting well cannot be understated.
A Settled Back Line
This one goes hand in hand with getting off to a good start. For most of last year, the U.S. back line has not been the same four players starting from game to game. And it's shown. While the team might not have leaked goals (aside from the 4-0 drubbing against Costa Rica last November), there have been plenty of scares. Whether we're talking about a Kenwyne Jones header off the crossbar against Trinidad and Tobago in June or going to sleep defensively and allowing a Carlos Vela equalizer against Mexico, there have been plenty of times where the U.S. back line has not quite looked comfortable in its own skin. Further complicating matters is the absence of John Brooks, who will be out for three months following an injury he sustained while playing for Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga. Brooks had been playing well, both in recent appearances for the U.S. and in the Bundesliga at the end of last year, and it's certainly a blow not to be able to call upon him. Get well soon, big guy.
A Clean Sheet
It sort of goes without saying, but the more clean sheets you can keep, the better. Out of the six games played in the Hex, the USMNT has only kept a clean sheet twice. And in both the 1-1 draw against Panama and the 1-1 draw against Mexico, the U.S. scored first; only to be pegged back by a goal within 20 minutes. Part of this goes along with what I said above about having a settled back line, and another part of it simply has to do with not losing focus immediately after scoring.
The U.S. was guilty of this during the Panama game in particular; only four minutes passed before the Panamanians equalized, and when they did it was because of an inability to deal with a long throw in, and then being second to react when the ball fell in the box. Eliminating mental mistakes like that one will go a long way towards keeping only the third clean sheet of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying and it would surely give the team a good confidence boost heading into a tricky game against Honduras in San Pedro Sula, a notoriously difficult fixture.
A Positive Style of Play
A question that seems to be asked about every time the Yanks play a game: wouldn’t it be nice to see the team come out with energy, purposeful possession, and attacking intent? Without getting into the argument about whether we have the talent pool to play like that against the top teams in the world (because you and I both know we could have that conversation until we’re old and gray), it isn't absurd to say that the U.S. can absolutely come out and play that way against Costa Rica, especially on home soil. No disrespect at all to Costa Rica, but if we don't come out and try to dictate the game then what are we really doing?
Against teams like Mexico or some of the opponents that we saw in last year’s Copa America, it would be understandable to sit back and try to play on the counter. But with the chance to jump into joint-second in the Hex standings if the team can come away with a victory, I can scarcely think of something that would be more frustrating than coming out and playing timidly.
Killing Off the Game
Playing positively is pretty closely related to this one. Something that bothers the living daylights out of me is when a team scores the opening goal and then either sits back and goes into its shell completely or takes its foot off the gas and allows the other team to find inroads back into the game. This is something that the U.S. can be pretty hit and miss with. There are some games, like the 6-0 dismantling of Honduras, where all three points have never looked in doubt. And yet, just four days later was the aforementioned 1-1 draw to Panama, which saw the U.S. only lead for four minutes before conceding. Granted, the U.S. had to travel from Salt Lake City to Panama to play that game, so talk of tired legs might not be entirely without merit, but at the same time the team has to find a way to be clinical and get the job done.
That’s my spiel done, so what would you guys like to see a week from today? This is a game that I’ll actually be attending in person, so keep an eye out for me. I’ve always wanted to be on national TV.