It began in stunningly disastrous fashion. First came the disintegration of the mystique that was “Dos A Cero” when Mexico finally exorcised their Columbus demons. Four days later, the US went down to Costa Rica and suffered an epic meltdown in a 4-0 shellacking.
That decisive loss, the worst margin of defeat for the US in World Cup Qualifying since losing by five goals to Mexico on April 28, 1957, put the team dead last in the Hex after two matches. It also spelled the beginning of the end for Jurgen Klinsmann, whom U.S. Soccer fired on November 21st.
Michael Bradley: USMNT Must “Finish the Job” in World Cup Qualifying
With the USMNT program at its most uncertain period in a generation, a familiar face swooped in and attempted to right the ship. And suffice it to say that Bruce Arena, in his second stint as manager, has done just that. A national team that looked completely off-course ahead of his first January camp now appears set on a sound path towards Russia.
In 14 games played since Arena took over, the US boast a 9-0-5 record. Not only did it include a Gold Cup triumph over the summer, but it also brought a renewed sense of confidence in the team’s World Cup qualification prospects. Heading into Friday’s tussle with Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ, the US are currently third in the Hex behind those same Ticos as well as Mexico.
At the bare minimum, if they hold onto that place at the conclusion of CONCACAF qualifying on October 10th, they qualify for Russia 2018. It’s certainly easy to assume such a scenario or even further ascension in the standings given the current trajectory the team appears headed on. But Bradley knows they have plenty of work ahead of them to seal the deal.
“You get to this point in qualifying and it’s all there,” Bradley said in a Tuesday press conference. “Bruce joked with me yesterday, ‘we’ve gotten this far, we’ve turned it around in the right ways,’ and we’ve got to make sure we finish the job.”
“All the work that we’ve put in this year was for these next four games,” he continued. “(It’s) to make sure that we can find the right ways, in the biggest moments, (and) when the lights come on brightest to make sure that we can get the job done.”
A key element to that end moving forward is Bradley carrying his ball-winning work rate from Toronto FC to the national team. The 30-year-old defensive midfielder currently leads MLS with 248 recoveries. In fact, the only other player with more than 200 at this point in the season is New York City FC‘s Alexander Ring.
Bradley and his teammates are well-aware of the challenges posed by Costa Rica. The Ticos feasted on defensive mistakes from the US back in November with their quality in the final third. Though the Yanks got a small modicum of revenge with their 2-0 win in the semifinals of the Gold Cup, a win on Friday will feel even sweeter.
The trend with regard to the USMNT’s performance at home in this series is undoubtedly favorable. Their only loss to Costa Rica on U.S. soil in World Cup qualifying came on May 31, 1985. Since then, they’re 6-0-2 with the previous result a 1-0 win in the famous “Snow Clasico” played in Denver on March 22, 2013.
Nevertheless, this qualifying cycle is evidence that CONCACAF is as deep as it’s ever been. Road ties against perceived underdogs aren’t gimmes by any stretch. With the US facing a hungry Honduras team in San Pedro Sula this coming Tuesday, holding serve in Harrison is absolutely necessary. It will require this group to dig deep and prove they well and truly want it.
“Nothing is ever going to get handed to you,” Bradley emphasized. “But, again, when you have a group of guys who understand that, who embrace that, who come in every day ready to leave everything else on the outside and give everything they have of themselves to make the group better, then that’s when it starts to get fun.”