(KMOV.com) -- Surrounded in a whirlwind of negative headlines and speculation, the United States Men’s National Soccer Team took the field on home soil Friday night as they continued on their journey to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. In World Cup qualifying, no game can be taken lightly, but even then, there was something different about the feel at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colorado. Besides the fact that it was snowing and the pitch had turned into a European-size ice hockey rink, there was a sense of nervousness and anticipation as the U.S. was about to kick off what was arguably the most crucial week in recent memory for the national team.
The road to World Cup qualification is as difficult a task as any, even for the “so-called” favorites in North America, the United States and Mexico. The North American qualifying pool, or the CONCACAF “Hexagonal,” consists of six teams, each playing ten games by the end of 2013. The top three finishers get an automatic bid to the World Cup while the fourth place team goes into a playoff for a spot in next summer’s tournament (the playoff will be held against New Zealand this year). Don’t be fooled by the teams in the “hexagonal” this time around, as the parity is as strong as ever. All six teams, the United States and tradition-rich Mexico, Jamaica, Panama, Honduras and Costa Rica have the talent to move on. Anywhere a team can get a point is crucial, especially on the road. Teams receive three points for a win, one for a tie and zero for a loss. The United States got a tough draw when the fixtures came out last year as they were set to play three of their first four on the road. Their first game was at Honduras in February, and a subpar performance by a makeshift lineup cost them dearly in a 2-1 loss.
Player selections by Coach Jurgen Klinsmann were critiqued after the Honduras game, and some headlines talked of a rift between the German coach and his team. Critics questioned the mentality of players on the squad and wondered about their level of passion. Others talked about the playing style the coaches are trying to “force” on the players, and how that style doesn’t fit the type of players the United States breeds. Everyone marked down the next dates in the qualifying schedule, home to Costa Rica on March 22 and away to Mexico on March 26. Sitting with no points at the bottom of the table, the U.S. needed to get positive results from these games against two highly talented teams. Dropping points in both games would have been a near disaster for a U.S. team that is still trying to figure out their identity under Klinsmann. With so much on the line, the Yanks took to the pitch for not just one, but two games in five days.
Soccer is often referred to as the “beautiful game” because of the rhythm of the ball movement, the touch of the passes and shots, and the detail and creativity that goes into every decision. But, this past week, both U.S. qualifying games saw soccer bring out a different meaning to the “beautiful game.”
Friday night’s game against Costa Rica was not an everyday sight for soccer fans. It could be classified more as a backyard kickball game in a driving snowstorm than anything else. All tactics went out the window because of the brutal playing conditions. The U.S opened the scoring and closed it from the foot of captain Clint Dempsey with the only goal of the match under 20 minutes in. Costa Rica and the U.S. struggled to keep possession of the ball without proper playing conditions, but each team still had their chances. Players adapted to the snowy environment, even the Costa Ricans, and turned in a game that will be remembered by many for a long time because of the irreplaceable images it brought. It’s not too often you get to see payers in shorts and short sleeved jerseys battling each other as well as the snow and stadium staff members running onto the field every time the ball went out of play to shovel the lines so the referee and players could see them. It was a complete surprise that the game finished without the referee suspending it, and it was by no means a good game of soccer. But it was a beautiful game for the U.S. for a number of reasons. Emergency left back Demarcus Beasley, who has not appeared for the team since the 2010 World Cup, came up with a strong game and kept his side tight all night long. Center back Omar Gonzalez, capped only 4 times prior to the Costa Rica game, held his own and kept the opposition away from the American goal for most of the game. It was an absolutely crucial game for the United States, who somehow managed to hold on and gain a precious three points. Costa Rican officials protested the game the next day, but under FIFA rules, they needed to lodge an initial protest during the game, which they did not.
The game Tuesday night at Mexico presented a whole new challenge for the United States. It would be an understatement to say that American teams have struggled in Mexico City, in particular, the Azteca Stadium, where no U.S. player wants to go. The Yanks have a horrific record in the Azteca, with one win all time (friendly match in 2012) and one draw in over 25 matches at the stadium. The Mexicans have dominated the Americans in their capital city, and nothing about that changed on Tuesday night. Again with a makeshift lineup due to injuries, the U.S. was outshot by a hefty margin of 19-1, and conceded a whopping 15 corner kicks. Looking at the stats, it would be hard to see any other results than a win for “El Tri,” especially with two inexperienced center backs playing for the United States in Gonzalez and Matt Besler trying to contain world class forwards Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Andres Guardado who play in Europe. But again, somehow, someway, the U.S. made history stole a point in the mystique of Azteca. It wasn’t pretty at all for the United States who gave up chance after chance, but based on the result, the “beautiful game” again was at play in Mexico City Tuesday night. For the United States, coming out of Mexico with a 0-0 draw was “beautiful” in its own way.
American forward Herculez Gomez, who wins the title for best first name, said after the Mexico game “many people said it couldn’t be done.” Although referring to the game against the Mexicans on Tuesday, Gomez might have come up with the phrase to describe what many were saying about America’s chances in the two games with an inexperienced roster. It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t a great display of soccer, but the U.S. got it done when they needed to.
The Americans don’t play another qualifier until the summer, but it is going to be much easier for the players to return to their clubs overseas or domestically after these two results. Sure, there are still seven games left in qualifying, but the U.S. has put themselves in a position early on to get a bid to their seventh straight World Cup next summer in Brazil.