U.S. soccer seeks World Cup spot tonight vs. Mexico
COLUMBUS, Ohio - The United States enters tonight's critical World Cup qualifying match against Mexico missing its starting center back, its starting central midfielder and its starting center forward, and yet it is Mexico that is the team in chaos.
Mexico currently sits in fourth place in CONCACAF (the North and Central American region), with only the top three finishers guaranteed a spot in next summer's World Cup.
On Friday, they fired their coach, Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre, after a disastrous home loss to Honduras - only the second time Mexico has ever lost a World Cup qualifier at the famed Estadio Azteca.
Tonight's match, set for 8, will be televised live on ESPN.
The United States, despite a loss in Costa Rica on Friday, is still in second place in CONCACAF and in good position to qualify with three games remaining. It could qualify today, and make the last two qualifiers moot, with a win and a Panama loss or tie to Honduras.
The U.S. coach and captain want to finish the job and not let any doubt seep in.
"We gave up an opportunity in Costa Rica. That hangs a little bit in your stomach," U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said Monday. "You want to do it in the next possible occasion, and this is now."
"You don't want to be waiting to the last game, wanting other teams to do you a favor because you didn't get the job done," said Clint Dempsey, the U.S. captain.
Dempsey, arguably the U.S.'s best player, may be called on to play an even bigger role Tuesday than normal.
Jozy Altidore, normally the U.S. starting center forward, had scored in five straight going into last week's game against Costa Rica, an American record. But Altidore didn't start the Costa Rica game because of a hamstring injury suffered with his English club team.
When he did come on as a substitute, he made little impact but managed to pick up a yellow card in the 92nd minute, leaving him suspended for today's match and placing the goal scoring onus even more heavily on Dempsey.
Two other starters from the Costa Rica match, Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron, are also suspended because of yellow cards.
Cameron, who played for West Virginia University in 2004-05, was an emergency starter last week after central midfielder Michael Bradley sprained his ankle in pregame warmups.
Bradley, often considered the team's most indispensable player because of his composure and distribution skills in the midfield, will also miss the Mexico match.
"Losing Michael is not easy because he developed into a real leader," Klinsmann said. "We'll find ways to balance it out. We'll find ways to make sure the guys stepping on the field and also the guys sitting on the bench are giving everything they have."
Before the Costa Rica loss, the U.S. had won 12 consecutive matches, by far the longest streak in American history, and the longest active streak in the world until it was snapped.
The team will try to start a new streak in Columbus Crew Stadium, probably the closest thing the Americans have to a home stadium.
Crew Stadium, with a capacity of just over 20,000, is also the smallest stadium that the Americans regularly play in, but they keep coming back there for good reason.
"The atmosphere's been great, we have a pro-American crowd here," U.S. defender DaMarcus Beasley said Monday. "We don't always have that at home."
The U.S. keeps coming back to Columbus - where the team has never lost, 6-0-3 all time - because it is one of the few stadiums in the country where American fans are guaranteed to be dominant.
The U.S. sold out 71,000-seat M&T Bank Stadium for a match against El Salvador in Baltimore in July, but the crowd was probably 75 percent Salvadoran.
The same phenomenon happens all over the country, from New York, to Miami, to Los Angeles, the U.S. ends up playing home games in front of road crowds.
"It was discouraging 10 years ago, it's discouraging today," goalkeeper Tim Howard said of the hostile crowds. "But we've found places that work for us."
Columbus is the place. It worked for the U.S. in 2005, when a 2-0 victory over Mexico clinched the U.S. a spot in the World Cup.
The team is hoping for a little bit of history repeated tonight.
"Mexico is there with their backs against the wall," Klinnsman said. "But we badly want the points."
Reach David Gutman at email@example.com or 304-348-5119.