With only a historically unprecedented disaster standing between the team and automatic qualification for the World Cup, Gregg Berhalter’s USMNT squad will look to notch their first-ever win in Costa Rica on Wednesday night.
Forget the math, the historically young American squad has secured their place in the 32 teams that will compete in the World Cup in Qatar later this year. The foul stench of 2017’s failure is almost washed away.
In theory, a six-goal loss could drop Berhalter’s team into the playoff spot to face (almost certainly) New Zealand in June, however not even the most pessimistic of fans could envision a loss this lopsided in Wednesday’s game.
Nevertheless, the team still has plenty of play for, both in terms of the current qualifying round and the broader history of the USMNT in CONCACAF. Most obviously, the Americans have never won in Costa Rica, and this is likely their best-ever chance to carve that notch on their bedpost.
Los Ticos have significantly improved over the last few games after a rather embarrassing start to the final qualifying round, however are faced with the near certainty of high-pressure, one-and-done game in June to reach Qatar.
As they currently have several players on yellow cards who are at risk of missing the likely play-off against New Zealand, there is a strong likelihood that head coach Luis Fernando Suárez will hedge his bets, and trot out a lineup more designed to avoid any risk of difficulties further down the line.
For the Americans, the pride of beating Costa Rica on their home turf is not the only potential reward in sight, but the slim chance overtake Canada for first place, or at least finish ahead of rivals Mexico in the qualifying group will also be a motivation.
Granted, winning the qualifying round will only happen if a demotivated Panama squad can get the job done at home against the Canucks and the USMMT can score a big win, however even a simple victory in San José’s Estadio Nacional will be almost certainly be enough to finish ahead of Mexico in the standings to claim second spot.
When the ball starts rolling on Wednesday night, the big question is whether Berhalter will put out the strongest lineup possible for his team – starters Tim Weah and DeAndre Yedlin will return from suspension – or use the opportunity to experiment with his options in a low-pressure setting.
A wild card is how players have recovered from an apparent stomach bug that ran rampant amongst team and staff following their draw in Mexico last week. While this didn’t keep any important pieces from playing Sunday for the 5-1 victory over Panama, it has been an issue that the staff has had to take into consideration during their game-planning and preprations. On Wednesday, Berhater estimated that more than 30 players and staff had been impacted by the illness.
In his pre-game comments, the coach indicated that any long-shot plans they might have had to eventually work Gio Reyna back into the starting lineup during this window were likely derailed by the rampant illness, stating “One of the concerns we had was how the stomach virus affected him, and how it’s continuing to affect him.”
“He was on the field for 45 minutes [against Panama] and he was struggling. After the game it was a tough time, he wasn’t able to hold the antibiotics down and he was still struggling.”
Costa Rica’s motivation in Wednesday’s game will be pride and risk aversion, with the latter likely winning out in terms of tactics and approach. As always, their main danger-man is Joel Campbell, who has scored in two of their last three games. However, with the 144-times capped attacker sitting on a yellow card, there is no guarantee that he will set foot on the field to test the American back line.
The game begins at 9pm Eastern time in the Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica.