Frequent contributor Jon Marthaler has written about virtually every sport in the Twin Cities, and fills in on Saturdays for the RandBall blog on StarTribune.com. He'll cover the professional soccer scene in the Twin Cities, whether at the Metrodome or at the National Sports Center.
Email Jon to talk about soccer.
Dana Wessel produces the Cane & Company morning show on 96.3 K-TWIN Monday-Friday 5:30am-10:00am. The show is hosted by Cane Peterson and Eric Perkins/Rena Sarigianopoulos of KARE 11.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: With no English Premier League this weekend because of the international break, I am using this space to preview the US/Costa Rica World Cup Qualifier Friday night. As you’ll read below, it is a huge match for our beloved USMNT, and you should cancel whatever your wife/girlfriend/husband/boyfriend is making you do and come to the Sweetwater Bar and Grill in St Paul (located inside the Kelly Inn near the Capitol) and watch the match with the rest of us certifiable diehards. Kickoff is at 9 PM locally, and I assure you it will be a lot of fun. The match is on TV on beIN Sports, which I'm pretty sure is only available at the Sweetwater. (Regular EPL coverage will restart next week.)
The United States Men’s National Team can qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil on Friday night.
Didn’t that feel good to read? Seriously. Read it again. This time out loud. I'll wait.
The United States Men’s National Team can qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil on Friday night.
It was 1,168 days ago the USMNT lost to Ghana 2-1 in extra time to end their run in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. A World Cup that ended too soon, that ended just three days after Landon Donovan scored the greatest goal in US history and had an entire country believing this team’s magical run would just keep going.
Watching your national team get knocked out of the World Cup hurts like nothing else in sports. You are riding this non-stop wave of adrenaline for days and believe that anything is possible. But then, just like that, it is over, and the harsh reality sets in. You feel a sense of dread that you haven’t experienced since the last World Cup exit four years ago. It then suddenly sinks in just how long ago that was and just how long it will be until your country has another shot at winning the greatest sporting event in the world.
I equate it to being a kid playing Mario 3, and you work your way all the way to Bowser’s Castle in World 8 feeling confident. You then lose a few lives, are staring at a game over screen and can’t possibly fathom the long road back. (Without Warp Whistles, of course, because in life, there are no Warp Whistles. I want go back to college and make that my senior thesis. “There Are No Warp Whistles in the Game of Life", by Dana Wessel, Ph. D.).
But that long road back to the World Cup is almost complete. I wish I could say these 1,168 days went by in a breeze, but that’d be an utter lie. We saw the highs and lows associated with every World Cup cycle in every country. I called for a complete overhaul of the United States Soccer Federation after the 4-2 Gold Cup final loss to Mexico in 2011, and wanted head coach Jurgen Klinsmann fired after the qualifier loss in Honduras earlier this year. In the heat of the moment, I clearly have the same level-headed, rational, calm perspective of a seven PBR-deep Packer fan when they trail the Vikings at halftime.
We said goodbye to a soft-spoken, confident manager in Bob Bradley that never got the credit or respect he deserved. We said goodbye to a fearless captain in Carlos Bocanegra that didn’t get the send off that he deserved.
We welcomed in Klinsmann, who is coming up on his two-year anniversary with the team, and has this thing running like the well-oiled machine he had promised for so long. We’ve seen a huge influx of talent injected into the team, a lot of them dual-nationals that had never been on the radar before.
(Quick tangent. Yes, I say ‘we’ and ‘us’ when I refer to the USMNT. Guess what? I do it for every other sporting entity I root for. I can’t stand the joyless sports fans that berate others for this practice. They like to believe they are better and more sophisticated than the fans that wear jerseys and refer to their favorite team as ‘us.’ This is sports, folks. At the end of the day we are all rooting for grown adults wearing matching costumes to beat another group of adults wearing different colored matching costumes. Get off your high horse.)
Now, after all of that, we have a chance to qualify. It will take a win and some help Friday, but it is certainly plausible. We must beat Costa Rica in their own backyard (more on that shortly), have Mexico and Honduras tie (very likely) and have Jamaica beat or tie Panama (ehhhh, ya never know!). Did you get all that? US win, Mexico/Honduras tie and a Jamaica win or tie. Easy!
But even if it doesn’t happen Friday, it will almost certainly happen the following Tuesday against Mexico. All we need is four points in our next four matches (at Costa Rica Friday, home vs Mexico Tuesday, home vs Jamaica on October 11 and at Panama October 15). It isn’t a matter of if, but when, which is a great feeling, because there have been World Cup cycles in the past when it was most definitely if and not when.
Now, back to the match at hand. People keep pointing out that the US has never won in Costa Rica and the only time they even managed a tie was in 1985. So? They also had never won in Italy or at the Azteca in Mexico until the last two years, either. These Yanks have shown countless times that they laugh in the face of the streaks, statistics, and failures of those who came before them. This isn’t your daddy’s national team - well, actually, none of our dads really watched soccer... so I guess this isn’t the younger version of ourselves’ national team.
The former US players that now wear the suits and ties on TV love to go on and on about the difficulties of playing on the road in CONCACAF. They certainly aren’t embellishing, or playing the "back in my day!" card, but the bottom line is, this version of the national team is simply more skilled, better managed, and just generally more confident.
They’ll need every bit of that confidence Friday, in a match where they are playing against a Ticos team that has made their hatred of US Soccer no secret over the past four years.
It started with Jonathan Bornstein’s stoppage time equalizer in the final World Cup Qualifier in 2009. The goal was ultimately meaningless, as the USA had secured safe transport to South Africa four days earlier with a 3-2 win at Honduras (although it certainly was an emotional result, given teammate Charlie Davies was in the hospital). But the goal knocked Costa Rica out of automatic qualification, and into a playoff with Uruguay - which they ultimately lost, thus making them watch the World Cup from home and see Honduras take the spot that they were 10 seconds away from getting.
(One of my favorite things ever about that goal is that Bornstein is now a national hero in Honduras. He is disliked and the butt of more jokes than any other player in US history, but he is beloved in Honduras. You can’t make it up.)
Things only got worse last March when we hosted Costa Rica in Denver. You remember what happened; 60-degree weather quickly turned into a blizzard (I wrote about this match for SoccerCentric), and the playing conditions weren’t exactly ideal. Costa Rica waited until after losing 1-0 to file a protest, when rules state the captain must do so during the match. It was too little too late. Kind of like that friend that complains about the terms of a bet he agreed to only after he lost. Also, how much advantage did the US really have? I don’t have his U-13 schedule in front of me, but I don’t think Clint Dempsey played many snow matches growing up in Texas, nor did his team travel to the Arctic Circle Youth Soccer Tournament.
Now, the Ticos haven’t exactly given the US a warm welcome (not that one would have been expected had the last two paragraphs not happened). The team had to wait in line at customs with every other traveler rather than get the express treatment. Fans greeted them at the airport with middle fingers and thrown eggs. Officials gave them three potential training ground options but the US were denied at all three, forcing them to find a practice field that is what reports say is essentially a farm. They refused to give the Americans official match balls to train with, forcing the US to use balls they brought. Cab drivers have all vowed to intentionally slow traffic to a crawl in an attempt to delay our arrival at the stadium.
Whatever. This is was all to be expected. I honestly thought it would be worse. The match is being held at the National Stadium, and not the house of horrors known as the Saprissa. The Saprissa is basically a mud pit surrounded by chain link fences where the fans are basically on top of the field. The atmosphere at the National Stadium is much more subdued, with the fans further back from the field, making it harder to throw batteries and coins at our players. So, ya know, small victories.
Jozy Alitdore is carrying a hamstring injury and appears, at best, to be a late sub, which definitely hurts the US and forces the maestro Klinsmann to work some magic -- one option includes putting Landon Donovan up top. But Jozy or no, the US are capable of winning this match, but must be smart. They have eight players carrying yellow cards (a yellow Friday would lead to a suspension Tuesday against Mexico) and can’t lose their cool against a Ticos squad that will no doubt be out for blood. Not literally. I think.
Regardless of whether we qualify or not Friday, the end of the 1,160+ day journey back is almost here. It is in sight. I have been a USMNT fan my entire life and I have never had this much fun cheering for them. This is the best US team we have ever seen and the final push to Brazil is going to be one hell of a ride -- and it will have been well worth the wait.
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