Starting XI: Who survives CONCACAF's qualifying gauntlet?
The countdown of the 11 most intriguing questions facing MLS clubs, players and coaches heading into the weekend.
11) You’re leaving work early today, right?
With a full day of World Cup qualifiers around the world and both the US and Canadian national teams kicking off crucial matches in a few hours, there’s never been a better time to make yourself scarce on a Friday afternoon and find some TVs – or a stadium, if you’re in Toronto, Houston or one of CONCACAF’s four other venues tonight.
10) Can the USMNT hold their nerve in Antigua?
Injuries. Illness. Selection controversies. It’s probably not been the ideal run-up to tonight’s match for Jurgen Klinsmann and his men. Still, even without some influential performers, the Yanks offer more than enough talent to sweep away their West Indian underdog hosts. Tactically, the pressure is on Klinsmann to set his troops up for success.
9) Is the field at Sir Vivian Richards Stadium really that bad?
“The field is not in really good shape. The middle of the patch was really rough. ... Underneath your feet, it was like literally concrete.”
That was Toronto FC and Jamaica striker Ryan Johnson’s description of the cricket ground which will host tonight’s clash in Antigua. He suggests that the Benna Boys’ home pitch is thus more suited to wing play, which may be bad news for a US side which is quite short on wide players at the moment.
8) Who will fill the jinxed left back position this time?
Johnson, Castillo, Torres, Chandler, Pearce, Bornstein: The US depth chart on the left side of defense appears to be a black hole of some sort. Whether Klinsmann plays Carlos Bocanegra, Michael Parkhurst or an even wilder card at that spot, it remains a potential weak point for opponents to target.
7) And how will events at Estadio Nacional Mateo Flores affect US prospects?
Three hours after Antigua & Barbuda and the US kick off, Group A rivals Guatemala and Jamaica will battle in Guatemala City. The hosts need all three points ahead of Tuesday’s tough-looking visit to Kansas City, yet have never defeated the Reggae Boyz in 12 competitive meetings and are badly shorthanded in the heart of defense.
6) How many points – and goals – will it take to get Canada into the Hex?
Like Guatemala, Les Rouges must take care of business at home before wrapping up this round with a tough road trip, in their case a potentially winner-take-all duel with Honduras. Cuba should be put to the sword at BMO Field on Friday night, and in reality, a blowout is needed to tip the goal differential in their favor given the likelihood that Canada and Honduras will end up neck and neck for the final qualifying spot in Group C.
5) And where will those goals come from?
Canada have only scored two goals in this round – the same number as Antigua & Barbuda, good for second-worst in CONCACAF. With Dwayne De Rosario out, the striking onus falls to Oliver Occean, Simeon Jackson and perhaps some timely runs from midfield by the likes of Will Johnson.
4) Can Honduras get through without Roger Espinoza? What about SKC?
Another team with MLS ties, this weekend Los Catrachos are negotiating an away test in Panama, who as Canada found out last month, have gone out of their way to make the Canal Zone as hostile as anywhere in CONCACAF during this qualifying round. Espinoza’s ankle injury robs both club and country of a massive midfield presence for at least another week or so.
3) Will the Dynamo’s BBVA Compass Stadium be the site of a massacre on Friday?
Mexico qualified for the Hex with two games to spare so tonight’s “road” game against already-out-of-it Guyana, who took a big payout to move the match to Houston, won’t affect the Group B race much. Yet the Golden Jaguars – whose head coach has not even made the trip and will apparently lead the team via Skype – may need a sterling performance just to avoid getting embarrassed by El Tri’s hungry reserves.
2) Meanwhile, who will survive Group B along with El Tri?
It’s a drastically different picture in the group’s other game, a huge showdown between El Salvador and Costa Rica. Portland’s Steve Purdy and his fellow Cuscatlecos need to win at home tonight – otherwise, their hopes of advancing to the Hex will require an unlikely situation to play out on Tuesday in which both they and Guyana take points on the road against Mexico and Costa Rica, respectively.
1) How will all this affect the final stretch of MLS?
Espinoza, Landon Donovan and Brek Shea are just three examples of the many league standouts who’ve been sidelined as they attempt to juggle league and international commitments at a decisive time of year. No one wants injuries to affect the MLS Cup hunt but club coaches across the continent are bracing for bad news come Wednesday.