The finish line is in sight. After nine months of slogging through an immensely difficult final round of qualifying, the U.S. plays its final match of the CONCACAF Hexagonal Wednesday night at Washington's RFK Stadium against Costa Rica (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2, Galavisión).
Ultimately, this game isn't important for the U.S. -- it clinched its berth at the 2010 World Cup with last Saturday's 3-2 win at Honduras. But expect the Americans to come out to play for a number of reasons: 1) to try to clinch a seed in South Africa (a fool's errand, as SI.com's Grant Wahl writes); 2) to avenge the disaster on Costa Rica's home turf in June; 3) to get their minds off the horrible accident that will keep Charlie Davies out of the World Cup.
This game isn't as straightforward as it seems. Here are three things the U.S. needs to watch for against Costa Rica:
1. One team needs this more. Put it this way: The already World Cup-bound U.S. wants to win this game for bragging rights in, as coach Bob Bradley says, "the ongoing competition to be the best team in CONCACAF." Costa Rica needs to win this game, period, or it may not get in at all. Los Ticos have been the best team in CONCACAF besides the U.S. and Mexico over the past 10 years, and they want a spot at the show badly.
It's amazing how quickly fortune changed for the Costa Ricans: Six games through the Hexagonal, they were in first place with a 4-0-2 record (including that 3-1 hammering of the U.S. in San José). They then dropped their next three straight to Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador by a combined score of 8-0 to fall into fourth place, outside of automatic qualification. That led to the ouster of coach Rodigo Kenton, who was replaced by veteran Renê Simões (who famously led Jamaica's Reggae Boyz at the 1998 World Cup).
Costa Rica responded to the shakeup and its new tough-love coach, hammering Trinidad and Tobago 4-0 last weekend in Port of Spain and leap-frogging Honduras into third place. The Ticos know they need a result at RFK or they could be out (Honduras hosts fifth-place El Salvador). It's essentially a win-or-go-home scenario for them; for the U.S., it's, "Hey, maybe we have an infinitesimally small chance at a seed next summer if we win." You do the math.
2. The old guard. Simões knew that when he took the job, he'd need to do something drastic to jump-start Costa Rica's campaign. So he dropped defender Gilberto Martínez for running afoul of team rules and brought in two other World Cup veterans: former captain Luis Marín and all-time leading scorer Rolando Fonseca. Both are long in the tooth at 35, but they have 233 caps between them and were happy to log minutes in Saturday's win at Trinidad.
Simões plans to use them as an example of professionalism, and the rest of the team should follow their lead. "I want winners," the Brazilian told FIFA.com, channeling his inner Mike Singletary, "thinking players who understand we must win now." This team is refocused, a threat to pick up the pieces and become the team it was just four months ago.
3. Heavy hearts. The Americans are playing this game for Davies, and the crowd will be behind them. There's a plan by fans to stand and cheer for the entirety of the ninth minute in tribute to the U.S.' No. 9. Maybe the team will be able to focus its despair into the game and just play. Then again, let's be honest: It's not that important a game and Davies' accident is a pretty depressing distraction (I'd be particularly worried about the state of Jozy Altidore, Davies' best friend on the team). Bradley likely won't let his troops be overcome by emotion. But they're human. If they don't win this game, no one will be on their backs for it.
What do you think? Do you want this game badly for all the reasons above? Should Bradley rest his regulars and give guys like José Francisco Torres, Kenny Cooper and Robbie Rogers major minutes? Give us your thoughts (and don't forget to check back tonight for postgame takes from Wahl, and check his Twitter feed for in-game commentary).