U.S. with opportunity to create some breathing room in upcoming qualifiers
In what has become a time-honored tradition, right when you are settling back into the rhythm of a new European campaign and/or enjoying the fast-paced final quarter of the MLS season, FIFA slams the brakes on everything with an international break.
But there's no reason to fret; it's not a lame slate of friendlies but rather a pivotal week of World Cup qualifiers on the docket, especially for the United States men's national team.
The old saying is "familiarity breeds contempt," so by that logic, the level of acrimony between the U.S. and Costa Rica should be at an all-time high when they meet this Friday at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey.
The stakes will be very high for the U.S. on Friday. Currently third with eight points, a victory could potentially move the U.S. into second place in the CONCACAF Hexagonal (Costa Rica is currently +5 on goal difference, U.S. is +3). More importantly, it would likely pad the Americans' slim one-point advantage over fourth-place Panama. The Canaleros have to travel down to the Estadio Azteca to face Mexico and knowing El Tri's history of defending home turf, a Panama win would be a stunning upset.
It all goes back to the meat and potatoes of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying: Defend your home turf and then find a couple results away from home. In the Bruce Arena 2.0 era thus far, it has been a successful formula.
However, Costa Rica is a better caliber opponent than Honduras and Trinidad and Tobago, who the U.S. defeated in March and June, respectively. It's also important to remember that Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas was not on the field when the U.S. trounced the Ticos 4-0 in last summer's Copa America Centenario, nor was he in goal for this summer's Gold Cup semifinal, which was won by the U.S. 2-0.
A failure to collect all three points would put the U.S. in the very uncomfortable spot of heading down to San Pedro Sula on Tuesday, Sept. 5 to face Honduras. Panama will likely still be lurking in the rear view mirror while Honduras will be desperate to get back into the mix for at least a playoff spot.
The last qualifying clashes between the U.S. and Honduras in the Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano have been memorable. In Oct. 2009 the U.S. clinched qualification for South Africa 2010 after emerging with a wild 3-2 win at night in which the Catrachos missed a late penalty.
Three-and-a-half years later in the midday heat, the U.S. wilted late, losing 2-1, which turned out to be the first crisis of the Jurgen Klinsmann era.
While the U.S. could still withstand winless outings against Costa Rica and Honduras, it would make for a white-knuckling final two match days in October at home against an equally desperate Panama, who you know would just love to return the heartbreak of 2013, before the finale in Trinidad.
Setting aside doomsday scenarios and World Cup qualification probabilities, within the U.S. roster there is also a lot at stake. Some of the players who stood out during the Gold Cup, and even some who did not, form part of Arena's 26-man roster, and there is no question that a strong performance at Red Bull Arena or in San Pedro Sula could be the difference between a trip to Russia or not next summer.
Defender Eric Lichaj, midfielders Kellyn Acosta and Cristian Roldan and forward Jordan Morris all come to mind. In limited action at the Gold Cup, Lichaj was susceptible to errors, but the injury to right-back DeAndre Yedlin could provide the Nottingham Forest man another shot, of which he'd need to make the most. Acosta was more of a regular during the Gold Cup, but his performance was average, and since returning to club side FC Dallas, he has not had the same impact as he did in the first half of the MLS season.
Roldan's improvement with the Seattle Sounders led to a Gold Cup call-up and he would be an intriguing inclusion in midfield. There could certainly be a nice battle brewing between Roldan and Acosta, while Morris' Gold Cup final heroics have for the moment pushed him to the top of the list of fringe forwards.
In the end though it all comes down to team, and the qualification fears that have haunted the U.S. since last November could be driven away with another home win/road draw week. If not, it'll be a tense October.
Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .