SAN JOSE, Costa Rica – As far as bad omens go, there are few worse than losing your general before the battle’s even begun.
So when Michael Bradley was spotted limping gingerly off the field after pregame warm-ups, leaving Kyle Beckerman and Geoff Cameron behind to hurriedly prepare for an unexpected starting role in his place, it came as no surprise that United States national teams fans immediately went into panic mode.
It seems that sense of shock – temporarily, at least – may have permeated the American locker room as well. The US’ World Cup qualifying loss, 3-1, against Costa Rica on Tuesday night quickly went from bad to worse after Bradley was replaced by Cameron before kickoff, with two goals arriving in the first nine minutes and virtually shattering any hopes for a first-ever win as visitors to the Central American nation.
“We had to make a last-second switch and that kind of maybe shocked the team a little bit for a couple moments,” US boss Jurgen Klinmann told the media following Tuesday’s defeat. “And then when you get in the game and are 1-0 down after a minute, it makes it even more difficult.”
“We couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start, I thought,” forward Clint Dempsey, who earned his 100th US cap on Friday evening, added with typical succinctness.
Bradley, who was diagnosed with a left ankle sprain after landing awkwardly on a shot attempt, spent the rest of the night on crutches heavily favoring his other ankle and will get an MRI and well as a battery of other applicable tests on Saturday in Columbus, Ohio, where the US play Mexico on Tuesday.
Without Bradley’s ever-present influence in the lineup, the US struggled to find a rhythm until the end of the first half. And by then, it may have already been too late as Johnny Acosta and Celso Borges landed early blows the Americans couldn’t afford to absorb.
“This team has been in large part built around Michael. In my opinion, he and Clint have been the two most influential players over the last few years,” Landon Donovan, the US all-time goals and assists leader, told reporters. “That hurts. You lose a leader, you lose a good player, you lose a lot of stability. But that doesn’t account for how we started and how we played. We still had to do a better job.”
Not that Bradley’s absence is solely to blame for those on-field shortcomings.
Truthfully, the loss lays at the collective feet of a group that’s had so many ups lately – 12 straight wins before Tuesday night’s setback – that their lackadaisical start seemed supremely out of character, especially since Bradley’s replacement has shown he’s no slouch as a holding midfielder.
“Geoff Cameron in that role played great against Panama in Seattle, so we had all the confidence in the world [in him],” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “Obviously, Michael brings a world of experience and a comfort level, but that wasn’t the reason [we started slowly]. There were a lot of reasons tonight.”
They’ll get a chance to rectify those misgivings on Tuesday against reeling Mexico in Columbus. They just may have to do it without Bradley once again.
Should he miss out via injury, Klinsmann will also have to field a lineup without Cameron, who saw his Mexico prospects dashed by yellow-card accumulation. And whether it’s Beckerman, Sacha Kljestan or anyone else that takes Bradley’s place in that case, there’s only one thing that’s certain.
The overall performance has to be better from everyone on the field if the US hope to give themselves a shot at sealing qualification for Brazil with two games to spare.
“We’ve been on a lot of ups and now this is a down,” Donovan said. “We’re going to see how we recover. We’re going to see what we’re made of. We’re playing Mexico now in a must-win game for them, and we have to see how we respond.”