Despite already having clinched a berth in next year’s World Cup finals in South Africa, the U.S. men’s national team doesn’t plan on letting up. The Americans are going into Wednesday’s final game of CONCACAF qualifying against Costa Rica at RFK Stadium with the goal of finishing at the top of the group.
“[It’s the] second game in a row we’re playing a team that knows a win will get them into the World Cup,” coach Bob Bradley said. “We have a lot of pride. We want to win the group. And we know that we need to be ready because Costa Rica will throw everything they have at us.”
Bradley’s team advanced to South Africa with a come-from-behind road victory over Honduras on Saturday, denying the Hondurans a chance to clinch their first berth in 28 years. With a victory Wednesday, the U.S. team would hold off Mexico for the top spot in the group, and with it the team hopes it will gain a higher seed when the World Cup draw is announced in December.
And though the bid is wrapped up, opportunities remain for players to impress Bradley and earn selection to the final 23-man World Cup roster that will be set in June.
Stuart Holden, a 24-year-old midfielder for the Houston Dynamo of MLS, earned his first start in qualifying against Honduras. He stepped in on the right flank in place of Clint Dempsey, who is out with a shoulder injury.
Holden played well against Honduras after turning in standout performances during this summer’s Gold Cup.
“I think anytime you’re with the national team you have a chance to impress,” he said. “Although we’ve already qualified, [Wednesday’s match is] another good chance to show what you can do on this level and to show the coaches I can play here and try to put myself in a position over the next eight months to try and be a part of that World Cup next year in South Africa. It’s a big goal of mine.”
Along with Holden, forward Conor Casey recently received a vote of confidence from the coaching staff. Casey’s strong performance in MLS play (16 goals in 22 games with Colorado) earned him a surprise start against Honduras.
Casey’s size and physicality made him a nightmare matchup for Honduras. He scored the Americans’ first two goals and then drew the foul that set up Landon Donovan’s winning free kick.
Casey and Holden have benefited from earning consistent playing time from their MLS clubs. Casey earned his starting spot against Honduras over Jozy Altidore, the prodigious 19-year-old striker who was integral in the Americans’ runner-up finish in June’s Confederations Cup.
Altidore made a quick rise through the world soccer ranks, moving from MLS to the top leagues in Spain and England in the past year. The teenager was loaned to Hull City of the English Premier League in August and has found it difficult to earn playing time. His lack of first-team experience and game fitness may have played a part in Bradley’s decision to go with Casey.
“Whenever a player moves to a different club or changes in a club in terms of management or different players that come in or out, there are challenges,” Bradley said. “That initial challenge of earning respect, getting on the field — there’s no timetable there. … I think Jozy understands that he has to work hard and nothing will be given to him.”
“I feel like I’ve done everything except get on the field on a consistent basis,” Altidore said. “The thing I have to remember is I’ve got to be patient.”
Bradley often says each player chooses his own route to the national team. Altidore has taken on the challenge of playing in what is considered the best league in the world but has sacrificed consistent playing time in the process. Holden and Casey are playing every week in MLS — which, for now, appears to be earning them larger roles with the U.S. team.
“For any player’s development, it is important to play big games and to play week in and week out because you get more experience, you keep your [game] fitness — just little things like that always help in your development as a player,” Holden said. “Hopefully those games and experience will give me an added boost come next summer.”