On Wednesday, the US Soccer Federation announced that the men's national team will play a friendly against Belgium on May 29 in Cleveland. Friendlies are usually opportunities for coaches to try out new players and tactics. But by the time the Belgium game rolls around, the US will hopefully be done experimenting with lineups and strategies.
That's because between now and May 29, the US has two World Cup qualifying matches. The first is on March 22 against Costa Rica in Denver, and the other four days later versus Mexico in Mexico City. After dropping their first qualifying match of the hexagonal stage 1-0 to Honduras in early February, their isn't much room for error for the US in March, and it will likely need points in both games if it hopes to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
The US has talented players who are succeeding across the world, but the team has stalled well past Jurgen Klinsmann's first year as head coach.
For one, Klinsmann still hasn't found a goal scorer. His defenders have shown flashes of brilliance but have made costly errors in matches because they are still young and inexperienced at the international level. And Klinsmann has preached an attacking, possession-based style of play that still hasn't translated to competitive matches on a consistent basis.
A victory against Costa Rica would be a major boost for the US, which sits last in the six-team final group stage of CONCACAF World Cup qualification. The US is expected to beat Costa Rica, with a much tougher challenge to come against Mexico.
The game in Mexico will be played at Estadio Azteca, where the US has a miserable 1-22-1 record. The US collected its first win there Aug. 15 by a 1-0 score, playing effectively on both ends of the field.
But Mexico is a strong team that is difficult to play either home or away. And it doesn't plan on losing to the US twice in a row.
In its first victory at Estadio Azteca, the US played lapse-free, attacking soccer. Klinsmann wants from his players all the time, but they've been unable to do that consistently.
Klinsmann is expected to announce his roster for the Costa Rica and Mexico qualifiers in the coming days. From there, the players will need to get on the same page in training camp. The few days spent in camp will be Klinsmann's only shot to communicate his message and establish chemistry on all parts of the field before the second and third rounds of qualifiers.
Without positive results in their upcoming qualifiers, the Belgium friendly may turn into a soul-searching match for the US rather than an opportunity to test its abilities against a top team. And with the US dropping to 33d in the latest FIFA World Rankings, they need to send a message to the soccer world that they are a team to be reckoned with -- even as they struggle to find their identity.
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